The University of Mississippi commemorates the 50th anniversary of its integration this fall. Attorney General Eric Holder will provide the keynote address at the University’s Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College Fall Convocation.
James H. Meredith, on October 1st, 1962, finally registered and attended his first classes after a 20-month struggle to enter the University of Mississippi. Just the night before, an on-campus riot claimed the lives of two and with scores injured, including many U.S. Marshall’s sent by President Kennedy to protect Meredith.
In particular, rioters singled out journalists, destroying their cameras, so pictures could not reach the outside world. Their efforts at silencing the media failed, but it still cost Paul Guihard of Agence France-Press his life. The University now has a marker on campus commemorating Guihard adjacent to Farley Hall, which houses the University’s Journalism Department.
The very act of how society chooses to remember controversial moments in our history creates controversy. The University of Mississippi is no different. In 2006, the University dedicated a statue to Meredith. Well-intentioned as it was, this still created controversy because the statue featured just Meredith, whereas he preferred a memorial addressing the larger civil rights struggle.
The University of Mississippi has experienced several other racialized incidents over the years, as have many other schools. To me, this is what makes institutions of Higher Education so important to the larger fabric of society. One thing to remember and cherish about America’s colleges and universities is that they serve, thanks to the efforts of James Meredith, Vivian Malone and others, as places where many cultures collide for the first time. At the University of Mississippi, students from the black Delta, the white Delta, Jackson and the Gulf Coast mix in with a large influx of out-of-state students from Texas, Georgia, Missouri and an-ever growing cadre of international students.
At almost every campus, students arrive, typically in sheltered boxes familiar in the localized mores of their high school and community. College changes that – or, it should at least. It is the university’s responsibility to help break down the walls of localism and encourage, prepare and even insist that students reach beyond their comfort zones. As an aside, this is just one reason why an online-only curriculum can never match the university experience.
Speaking only for myself, when students leave the University of Mississippi, the hope is that, in addition to academic insight, student knowledge of outside cultures is deep, broad and respectful. We can thank James H. Meredith for that.