This week, the University of Mississippi has been celebrating James Meredith on the 60th anniversary of his integration of the school in Oxford.
Just as those who fought his arrival in 1962 went over the top in their resistance, resorting to violence that required the dispatch of tens of thousands of federal troops to restore the peace and protect Meredith, the university has gone overboard in honoring him.
Sixteen years after dedicating on campus a life-size bronze statue of the racial trailblazer, Ole Miss held dozens of events to mark the role Meredith played in beginning the process that transformed the university.
According to a press release from the school, among the awards given to Meredith this week or made in his honor were scholarships, student awards, the Mississippi Humanitarian Award, commemorative photos and posters, the publication of a book and an honorary deputization in the U.S. Marshals Service.
What Meredith did in 1962 was both noble and brave. That’s undeniable. A core group of Black people, some of them just children, had to stick their necks out to challenge Mississippi’s resistance to federal court orders requiring an end to segregation from grade school through college. Meredith has earned the accolades for being that person at Ole Miss.
For most of his life, however, since graduating from the university in 1963, he has been an enigma and seems to relish in it, often defying the norm in ways not always fathomable and occasionally distasteful. Like when he went to work for mossback North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, a foe of the civil rights movement. Like when he endorsed David Duke for governor of Louisiana, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
In an interview with the Clarion Ledger leading up to this week’s commemoration, Meredith made a baffling observation. When it comes to the state of race relations in the country since the 1960s, he said, “Nothing basically has changed. Nothing.”
If Meredith truly believes that, we wonder how much he paid attention to his surroundings at Ole Miss when he was a student there.
He was the only Black face in a sea of white ones, most of whom resented him being there. Today, that same university, while not perfect, has a significant racial mix among the student body, faculty and staff.
According to data for the latest academic year available, 13% of the school’s student body is Black, the Clarion Ledger reported. Although that falls short of the 38% overall Black population in the state, one reason for the disparity is the affinity that many Black students and their families have for the state’s three historically Black public universities.
And while Ole Miss is not as integrated as in-state rival Mississippi State (17% Black), the school in Oxford performs comparably on racial diversity with most of the Southeastern Conference schools in neighboring states.
“Louisiana State University,” the Clarion Ledger reported, “is about 15% Black, while Louisiana is 33% Black. The University of Alabama is about 11% Black and Auburn is about 5% Black, while Alabama is about 27% Black. The University of Tennessee is about 5% Black in a state that is 17% Black.”
Sixty years ago, hundreds turned out in Oxford to angrily protest Meredith’s arrival on campus. This week, hundreds turned out to warmly welcome his return.
If that’s not a testament to how much change has occurred not only at Ole Miss but throughout this state, then what is?