A half century ago, James Meredith drew the world’s attention to The University of Mississippi when he became the first black man to walk onto campus as a member of the student body. After battling the administration, state legislature and even Governor Ross Barnett himself, Meredith was finally allowed to transfer from Jackson State College – after the intervention of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the U.S. Marshals and thousands of members of the Mississippi National Guard.
But on the last day of September in 1962, for the first time since the 1860s, our little town of Oxford found itself at war.
Surrounded by 24 U.S. Marshals, Meredith safely made his way to his dormitory in Baxter Hall when a riot broke out on the Lyceum steps.
In an instant, the university was engulfed in tear gas and dotted with flames as the outnumbered U.S. Marshals struggled to maintain control of the growing mob.
Unaware of chaos, President John F. Kennedy went on national television at that very hour, intending to announce the integration of Ole Miss and beg for a peaceful transition.
“The eyes of the nation and all the world are upon you and upon all of us,” he said. “And the honor of you, and your state, are in the balance.”
Needless to say, few men and women retained their honor that night. Cars were burned, windows were shattered and hundreds of people were injured as rioters swept across campus. The violence would leave two men dead – both killed execution-style by the crowd – before National Guard troops were able to reach the overwhelmed U.S. Marshals and regain order.
The next morning, as Oxford reeled from the events of the day before, Meredith made his way up the Lyceum steps and registered for classes.
But as monumental as this moment was, Meredith was anything but joyful. “This,” he said, “is not a happy occasion.”
The day was Oct. 1, 1962 – 97 years after slavery ended, eight years after Brown v. Board of Education declared the segregation of public schools unconstitutional and 16 months after Meredith sent in his application – and The University of Mississippi had finally integrated.
The first time that I ever heard about Ole Miss, it was staring up at me from the pages of a children’s picture book on racism, integration and the Civil Rights Movement.
Growing up in the suburbs of St. Louis, Mo., and Philadelphia, Pa., the Civil Rights Movement received far less attention from my grade school history classes than it was justly due. It was insinuated at my schools – however incorrectly – that the racial tensions that had come to such a violent climax in the Deep South in the 1960s were virtually nonexistent in other parts of the country.
It was as if some of my teachers were implying that racism itself was a purely southern phenomenon, quarantined safely below the Mason-Dixon Line.
But with racism still alive and well in our midwestern city, my mother took matters into her own hands.
She picked up where our school district left off, teaching us the details, triumphs and tragedies of the Civil Rights Movement.
Most importantly, she taught us that racism was not only ignorant, but also fundamentally wrong.
Until I found the Croft Institute for International Studies in a Google search my junior year of high school, all I knew about Ole Miss had to do with three things: football, James Meredith and the riots in September of 1962.
My first time in the state of Mississippi was for my college visit. I was apprehensive and had absolutely no idea what to expect, but I fell in love with the university that I found.
Ole Miss has undergone a miraculous transformation. The university is a thriving, vibrant center of learning and acceptance compared to the source of hatred and discrimination it was 50 years ago.
Black enrollment has swelled from just one brave man to over 14 percent of the student body – a respectable rate when compared to other universities across the country – and organizations like the Black Student Union that would have been unfathomable in 1962 are not only popular, but integral parts of Ole Miss campus life today.
In 2000, Ole Miss made headlines when students elected Nic Lott as the first black president of the Associated Student Body. This past spring, we elected Kimbrely Dandridge as the first black woman to hold the office, and we elected Courtney Pearson as the first black homecoming queen just a few weeks ago.
Having said that, we still have a long way to go.
There are many unspoken divides along racial lines at Ole Miss. A simple walk through the student union during lunch makes that point clear enough: White students tend to sit with other white students, and black students tend to sit with other black students.
Many fraternities and sororities – often believed to be a student’s key to climbing the social ladder – remain segregated.
And as much as I hate to admit it, in my three years at Ole Miss, I have heard racial slurs from people of every color.
Ole Miss is a beautiful university with a dark past. In order to continue making progress in the next 50 years, we must address the problems that we have today and continue to look toward the future.
Some argue that racism will only disappear if we stop talking about it, but I believe ignorance will only reverse the progress we have made.
Acting as if racism is a thing of the past will effectively erase the great contributions and sacrifices that brave men and women like James Meredith have given both the state of Mississippi and the U.S.
The greatest danger for Ole Miss in the next half century is forgetting what we learned in the past.
The eradication of racism at our university was not accomplished by Meredith, and it has not yet been achieved. Nevertheless, every time I walk across our campus and see the diversity we have, I am filled with hope for the next chapter in our university’s life.
Lexi Thoman is senior international studies and Spanish double-major from St. Louis, Mo.