OXFORD — Nearly 60 years to the day after James Meredith walked onto the University of Mississippi campus to enroll and was met with resistance and violence, he returned for one of a series of commemorative events honoring him as the first Black student to attend the school.
“Sixty years ago, our university was in turmoil,” said Donald Cole, emeritus professor and assistant provost. “So much did (Meredith) change our thinking that we will never go back.”
The two-hour presentation Wednesday night included remarks from Meredith and Black campus leaders reflecting on his legacy and the continuation of his work, as well as a series of awards in Meredith’s honor.
Meredith applied to attend the University of Mississippi in 1961 and was denied based on race, a decision he successfully appealed with the assistance of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Meredith made multiple attempts to enroll but was repeatedly denied by Gov. Ross Barnett. On the night of Sep. 30, 1962, Meredith entered the campus to enroll, accompanied by U.S. Marshals. The marshals surrounded the Lyceum, an administration building in the center of campus, and a violent riot of white students and segregationists broke out, leaving two dead and hundreds injured. Thousands of federal reinforcements arrived in the night to quell the riot, and Meredith enrolled the next day. He graduated a year later in August of 1963.
Wearing his characteristic Ole Miss baseball cap, Meredith was joined on stage by his wife, Judy Meredith, and several of their children and grandchildren. He expressed his gratitude to the university for assembling the event, but also addressed his ongoing concerns regarding racial discrimination.
The university remains a predominantly white institution. In the 2020-21 school year, the most recent data available, 12.9% of the student body was Black.
“Celebration is good, but I don’t think there’s anybody in this house or in the state of Mississippi that thinks the problem has been solved,” he said.
Meredith expounded on his work continuing to challenge white supremacy after graduating, saying that while he was not in politics, he has always considered his actions political.
“I didn’t just go to Ole Miss football games, I was doing politics and getting into the minds of people who thought they hated me,” he said.
Ethel Scurlock, dean of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, delivered the keynote address, calling on students and staff to continue the work Meredith began 60 years ago.
“James Meredith put his life in danger because he believed that he was on a mission from God,” Scurlock said. “He understood the assignment. His valiant efforts remind us that simply understanding the assignment is not enough. We must take on the assignment and take risks to complete the assignment. We must know that somebody is counting on us to finish our assignment.”
At the end of the event, Meredith received nearly 15 awards and gifts. These included being deputized as an honorary U.S. Marshall, an annual James Meredith day on Oct. 1 in the city of Oxford, awards and scholarships for undergraduate students in his honor, and the Mississippi Humanitarian Award.
“I am honored and humbled to present Mr. James Meredith a gift that represents the seed he planted in 1962 and the fruit that was produced 60 years later,” said Dee Harris, president of the Black Student Union. “I feel like I am standing on your shoulders to continue building your impeccable legacy.”