Photos from left: A student holds up a shirt honoring James Meredith, and Meredith. (Photos from left: Lance Caleb Lee, Courtesy of Wikicommons)
It was 50 years ago when James Meredith was escorted by federal marshals to enroll as the first Black student to attend the University of Mississippi, ending a standoff between the state’s governor and President John F. Kennedy.
And while that piece of history is now five decades old, it seems to carry huge significance for the students who attend the Oxford, Mississippi, campus. The students, both Black and white, marked the 50th anniversary with a number of special events.
“I think many African-American students here understand that we are the beneficiaries of what James Meredith went through,” said Larry Smith, a senior at the University of Mississippi majoring in pre-nursing. “We realize the sacrifice he made. And without that sacrifice, we wouldn’t be here.”
Indeed, the integration of Ole Miss was commemorated by members of Black fraternities and sororities spearheading a walk through the campus, stopping at the places of significance in the James Meredith story.
They walked along University Avenue, where Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett sought to deny Meredith access to the school. They also stopped at Baxter Hall, the dormitory where Meredith lived and the University Lyceum, where Meredith enrolled as the first African-American student at the school. They also made a stop by the statue of Meredith on the campus.
“At each stop, a student would read a passage about the significance of that particular place,” Smith said,
In 1961, Barnett sought to block Meredith by having the Legislature pass a law that “prohibited any person who was convicted of a state crime from admission to a state school.” The law was directed at Meredith, who had been convicted of “false voter registration.” Since passage of its 1890 constitution, the state had voter registration rules that effectively disfranchised black voters.
Initially, Meredith was barred from entering the campus. But Robert F. Kennedy, the United States Attorney General, held talks with Barnett, who ultimately agreed to allow Meredith to be enrolled. His enrollment was protested by a number of white students and segregationists.
Although Meredith enrolled, it took the attorney general calling in 500 United States marshals who were supported by the 70th Army Engineer Combat Battalion as well as troops from the Mississippi Army National Guard.
In the violent clash, two people died, including French journalist Paul Guihard, who was on assignment for the London Daily Sketch.
“Knowing what he had to go through just to register for classes gives me a sense of appreciation,” said Smith, who is president of the university’s chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity.
“It shows how important education should be for all of us,” he added. “It instills in me the need to strive for achievement in every aspect of life. James Meredith opened the doors for everyone.”
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