FROM TRAGEDY TO TRIUMPH On Oct. 1, 1962 James Meredith enrolled as the first African American student at the segregated University of Mississippi. The Air Force veteran has said that he was inspired by the speeches of President John F. Kennedy and chose Ole Miss because it was “the holiest temple of white supremacy in America.”
Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett vowed that no school would be integrated on his watch. White students and racists protested against Meredith’s enrollment by rioting on the Oxford campus, which forced Kennedy to deploy more than 3,000 soldiers and more than 500 law enforcement officers to Oxford.
Bricks were thrown. Shots were fired. Two men were killed. One was a French journalist, Paul Guihard, who was found dead behind the Lyceum, the iconic administration building at the university, with a gunshot wound to the back. More than 200 people were injured, including 160 U.S. marshals.
Thirteen years later, I enrolled at Ole Miss. The student body president was Jamie Barnett, Gov. Barnett’s grandson. Bullet holes were still visible in the columns of the Lyceum, where I registered for my classes. Many of the white classmates were products of segregated private schools that sprung overnight when federal judges ordered desegregation of public schools.
But times were changing. During my four years, Ben Williams, who went on to play for the Buffalo Bills, was elected the school’s first African-American Colonel Reb, the school’s version of Mr. Ole Miss. Rose Jackson, a African-American classmate from Clarksdale, Miss., was elected to the Hall of Fame.
The changes were small, almost undetectable, but each step was significant. By the time the 2008 Presidential Debates were held on the Ole Miss campus, African-Americans held every student office and position on campus. Rose Jackson Flenorl was sworn as the first black president of the school’s alumni association.
Today, the black enrollment at the University of Mississippi is nearly 17 percent, more than triple what it was when I graduated. The current student body president, Kim Dandridge, is black—the fourth black person elected to the post. Dandridge’s opponent of the office was also African-American.
The story of James Meredith and Ole Miss could have been a tragedy, if it stopped with his enrollment. Fortunately, it did not. Brave men and women, both black and white, refused to let the tale stop on that first day of October.
Historic moments still happen. What we learn from them is what gives them their significance. Ole Miss has learned to embrace the moment and that has made the difference.