The University of Mississippi has issued an apology to dozens of Black students arrested 50 years ago as they protested racism on campus, demanded equitable changes and even burned a Confederate flag.
“I am sorry it took us 50 years to do this,” Provost Noel Wilkin said Tuesday at a conference that was part of a series of events called, “Black Power at Ole Miss: Remembrance, Reckoning, and Repair at Fifty Years.”
On February 24, 1970, almost eight years after James Meredith first integrated the school, which had been staunchly white for its entire existence since opening in 1844, 40 members of the Black Student Union at Ole Miss presented a list of 27 items to then-university provost Porter L. Fortune Jr., demanding more Black faculty, a Black studies program and removal of Confederate symbols on campus, even though such imagery was well entrenched into the school’s culture.
The students also purchased a Confederate flag, brought it into the school’s cafeteria and torched it, while dancing on tables to B.B. King's music. The next day, a multicultural music group called "Up With People" gave a concert on campus, which resulted in the arrests of 89 people. Eight of those students were suspended and five of them were on campus this week to discuss what happened.
"I'm still grappling with the fact that I'm actually back here on campus," Linnie Liggins Willis, one of the students who was suspended and denied her diploma, told Memphis station WREG. "I never intended to come back here, never planned to be back here."
"A number of things that we were asking for that did not exist," Liggins Willis said, recalling the group known as the Ole Miss 8. "There were approximately 200 blacks on the campus at that time, and so we felt isolated. We did not have the opportunity to really become a part of the campus and have that campus experience."
The campus has since changed, but is a work in progress. Although the Mississippi state flag, which contains the Confederate battle emblem, no longer flies there, students are still working to move a Confederate monument on campus to an old Civil War cemetery.
Donald Cole, one of the other suspended students, had a different experience after surviving the ordeal. Eventually, Cole received his diploma and graduate degree from the school and became a mathematics professor there, eventually retiring in 2018. He said Ole Miss is a better place than it was.
“Yes, we have a long ways to go,” Cole told University of Mississippi News in an interview upon his retirement. “Sometimes when we ‘fix something,’ we need to be reminded that it doesn’t stay fixed, that as new groups of students, faculty and staff come in (every year), that we have to be vigilant, we have to be conscious and not rest on any laurels. We have to cover some of the same ground, remembering that we’re covering the same ground with different people.”