“I believe in segregation like I believe in Jesus.”
The previous statement is entirely fictitious. Admittedly embellished, as well, yet it embodies the ideology of some of those who were strongly opposed to James Meredith enrolling in classes at The University of Mississippi.
Meredith had to overcome more than Ross Barnett’s personal rejection to the university. He had to overcome more than the then-chancellor’s comment that his denial of admittance was not contingent on him “being a Negro.”
What James Meredith had to overcome is unfathomable. He had to transcend deeply rooted, seemingly innate mindsets that amalgamated racism and religion. If we are to truly appreciate Meredith’s contribution to this university, we must fully understand the environment in which he had to live.
To elucidate the minds of some Mississippians, I will provide a quote from a response to a Citizens’ Council essay competition.
In her essay titled, “Why I Believe in Social Separation of the Races of Mankind,” Mary Healy of Madison wrote, “Thus I must believe in the social separation of the races of mankind because I am a Christian and must abide by the laws of God.”
Although Healy’s sentiments do not represent those of all white Mississippians, they can surely serve as a measuring stick of how extremely people felt about race relations 50 years ago. At times I struggle coming to grips with how people actually thought segregation was acceptable and that another human being was inferior to them based on skin color.
By understanding how ingrained racism was in people’s minds, in conjunction with its intertwinement with religious thought, we can truly acknowledge how amazing James Meredith’s accomplishment was 50 years ago.
Where does all of that leave Ole Miss?
I attended “A Walk of Reconciliation and Redemption.” It commemorated each significant location (University Avenue, the Confederate monument and the Lyceum) during the riots of 50 years ago. The night was filled with prayer and historical perspectives about each location, then ended with everyone singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
In that moment, I felt especially proud to be a part of The University of Mississippi. Before I closed my eyes, I saw white and black people, but once I closed my eyes, my ears heard the voices of one unified group of people.
I know our school’s history is riddled with the bullets of racism and hate, but I also know our school is properly looking itself in the mirror and confronting its past, while aiming for a brighter future.
The event ended as it had begun, with rain. I was not thinking about the significance of the rain until the program was over. But as soon as I walked out the Ford Center, I knew exactly why it was raining. Fifty years ago to the night, fire and destruction filled the campus; 50 years later, however, it was filled with rain. Rain to wash away the vestiges of hatred and separatism that once occupied the campus.
I would like to leave you with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Well, when it comes to racial reconciliation, I hear The University of Mississippi’s voice loud and clear.
Tim Abram is a public policy junior from Horn Lake. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Abram.