The university is a reminder of William Faulkner’s famous line from Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Faulkner, who believed in integration, grew up on the Ole Miss campus where his father was employed, and attended the university. He died in July, 1962, just three months before the storied grounds of magnolias and towering oaks literally became a bloody battleground.
Perhaps no person embodies the transformation more than Dr. Donald R. Cole, the university’s assistant provost and associate professor of mathematics.
Cole, 62 , along with most of the black student body, was arrested and jailed in 1970. The basis of their arrest: protesting unfair treatment of blacks, demanding the Confederate flag’s removal and advocating integrated sports teams.
Cole was expelled from the university in 1970, a painful event he says he suppressed for many years. The university finally allowed him to return to complete his doctorate without incident. He opted to stay.
As a new student, Cole remembers visiting the office of chairman of the math department to inquire about credits for becoming a math major. The secretary asked him to wait while she spoke to the chair. When she returned, she informed him that he could not become a math major. Cole said he explained to her that he had excellent grades, and she excused herself again to speak to the chairman. She returned one final time to deliver the news again.
“When I first came back in an administrative faculty position,” he said, “the first person who came to meet me was that department secretary from the math department.” By then, she was older, he said. “She could hardly walk, but she was there.”
Chancellor Dan Jones, former dean of the medical school, has been at the helm of the university since 2009. Earlier this year, at the university’s Black Alumni reunion, Jones spoke.
“For many white Mississippians my age the regrets we live with is not that we participated in active resistance to justice and equality, because most of us did not. Our regrets are over how long we remained in silent acquiescence to injustice and hate forwarded by others.”
Born in a rural community outside Vicksburg, Miss., the son of a Baptist minister and a public school teacher, Jones was 13 in 1962. He attributes his approach to his faith — and his father.
“He was an honest man, my biggest influence,” he says. Asked to choose between teaching black ministers at night and his leadership of a church, “He made the choice that needed to be made,” Jones said. “He left the church.”
Jones believes the change over 50 years at Ole Miss is largely due to its students.
“I think if you track the evolution of positive change, it begins with Mr. Meredith, his decision to stay here under extraordinarily difficult circumstances,” he states.
Today, there is an understanding that the Ole Miss story is not complete without the past. Without it there is no context, no understanding of who we are as Southerners.
At a time when we shake our heads at the shrill discourse and intransigence of the present, it would appear the University of Mississippi may finally have something to teach the rest of the country.