Fifty years ago yesterday, James Meredith became the first African American to enroll at the University of Mississippi—a historical fact that could easily have gone unremarked upon in this column. As a general rule, I don’t enjoy looking into history’s rearview mirror.
But I’m pausing for a moment of reflection, thanks largely to my friend and CAP colleague Sally Steenland, who bounded into my office yesterday to announce what a big deal it was on October 1, 1962, when Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss.
Sally is of my generation and remembers, as I do, the dying days of a segregated America. She reminded me that to fully appreciate where we’re going, you have to remember where you’ve been. What’s more, she accurately noted, so many Americans have been born or made during the last half century who surely don’t know or appreciate what Meredith’s courage represents to our nation today.
“Sometimes, it’s good to look back and remind people,” Sally said.
True, there’s a generation or two that takes the rainbow of humanity on their campuses for granted. Even in the once-segregated Confederacy, black students are integrated into the fabric of campus life. At Ole Miss, for example, this year’s homecoming queen is an African American woman and the student body president is an earnest, bubbly, pearl-wearing black woman, who belongs to a predominately white sorority.
That’s 50 years of progress. It is well within Sally’s and my memories when just the idea of a black student trying to set foot on a southern college campus would have sparked a riot.
Indeed, that’s what happened. On the eve of Meredith’s fateful day, President John F. Kennedy sent in the National Guard and federal troops to guarantee that Meredith attended his first day of classes. Roving bands of angry townspeople and students set fires and littered the campus. After a night of disruptions, two people died and hundreds, mostly federal agents assigned to prevent rioting, were injured.
Even as a student, Meredith’s fight continued as many students and faculty didn’t want him there and made no secret of it. His entire college life included 24-hour protection by federal marshals. But he persevered, graduating in 1963 with a degree in political science. He later earned a law degree from Columbia University.
Meredith was the first, but other black students followed his trailblazing path. One of them, writer and communications consultant Kitty Dumas, recalled for The New York Times her time as a student at Ole Miss and her recent return to the campus for a homecoming reunion. “It all seemed so … normal,” she wrote.
Today, Meredith, 79, lives quietly in Jackson, Mississippi. On occasion, he’s been seen wearing an Ole Miss baseball cap in public and was cheered recently by a football crowd while seated in the chancellor’s box for a football game against the University of Texas in Oxford.
But Meredith prefers not to make a big deal about his role in integrating the university and has declined to join in the half-century commemorations in Oxford.
During an interview last week on NPR’s “Tell Me More,” Meredith said he’d rather people pay less attention to what happened to him in the past and more on what’s happening today to students in Mississippi schools.
“Did you find anything 50 years ago that I should be celebrating?” he asks interviewers who ask about his role in desegregating Ole Miss.
With all due respect, Mr. Meredith, 50 years may seem like a long time, but it really isn’t. Every American alive today should recognize and celebrate your role in making this a better and fairer nation.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.