Fifty Years After Meredith Integrated Ole MissBy Sandra Knispel | Published 30 Sep 2012 09:31pm |
Today marks the day – exactly 50 years ago – that James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, after a night of deadly riots. As MPB’s Sandra Knispel reports, the effects on the state still reverberate today.
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News footage in a documentary from the night of Sept. 30th shows a campus under siege, federal troops firing off volleys of teargas, trying to stop the rioting that has turned violent.
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“Very quickly the trouble was taken over by outsiders, people who were not students, [who] probably had never been seen outside the eighth grade.”
Curtis Wilkie, a retired veteran reporter for the Boston Globe and now a Journalism professor on campus, was then a 22-year-old undergraduate, an eyewitness to what some historians have called the “last battle of the Civil War.”
“Literally hundreds of rednecks, if you will, pouring into campus with their shotguns, and pistols, and baseball bats and for all I know – pitchforks – to do damage. And the riot really became very violent, very, very ugly, with a lot of gunfire," Wilkie recalls.
Several factors contributed to the frenzy of that night: a volatile mix of racist newspapers in Jackson, and an obstinate governor who was telling Mississippians on hand one that he would not allow a black man at this university whilst on the other already secretly negotiating Meredith’s enrollment with the Kennedys. Add to that a student body that was largely non-intellectual and set on protecting the status quo. According to UM history professor Charles Eagles, campus leadership in the 1950 and 60 was severely lacking:
“Not just Chancellor Williams, but others. They didn’t have courage. I think J.D. William knew better, I’m certain he knew better but he couldn’t or wouldn’t act for whatever reason," Eagles says. "Look at Robert Ellis, the registrar: Robert Ellis basically went to federal court and lied!”
Hundreds were injured and two people died that night, a local jukebox repairman and a French reporter. Meredith stayed on campus, largely isolated and always under protection, until he graduated a year later. Fifty years hence, Meredith says, it was about much more than just opening the doors to the state’s flagship university:
“I had always believed that America was the greatest country that has ever been and that all citizens should enjoy all rights. Mississippi was generally considered last -- a well-earned position -- and, of course, my goal has always been to move Mississippi from the bottom to the top.”
Over the next few years, black students began to trickle onto campus. Don Cole was one of them, enrolling in the fall of 1968. He believed, naively, that six years after the riot the university was now fully integrated. But when a professor told his class that not enough books had arrived and asked the students to share instead, he realized his mistake quickly.
“As I looked to my right there was nobody on that side of that row. To my left there was nobody, and even the row behind me and in front of me. So, I was a little isolated there and that was a little uncomfortable and maybe a sign that I did not like.”
Life as a black student here in the late 60s was full of slights and at times confusing, Cole recalls.
“We would go to games and we wanted to cheer for our own team, we wanted to cheer for the University of Mississippi. But when the university would, say, make a touchdown we would get all types of things thrown at us. And I did not understand that. ‘Am I not supposed to cheer for the team?’ ”
Fast forward 50 years: blacks now make up 15.5 percent of the student body on the Oxford campus. To date, three African Americans have been Associated Student Body President. The current Chancellor, Dan Jones, and his predecessor Robert Khayat have apologized on many occasions, while acknowledging that more remains to be done.
“As we look back we acknowledge the years of injustice endured by Mr Meredith and countless others, express regret and offer our apology for the injustice,” Jones recently told a crowd at the Ford Center.
And as if following an imaginary Hollywood script for the 50th anniversary, just over a week ago, the Ole Miss students elected their very first black homecoming queen. Eventually, there won’t be any racial firsts to report on this campus any more. And that’s ultimately the way it ought be.
Sandra Knispel, MPB News, Oxford.
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