Ole Miss Marks 40th Anniversary of Its Violent Integration OXFORD, Miss.
James Meredith, whose admission to the University of Mississippi led to a deadly campus uprising 40 years ago, said he wishes he played a larger role in the fight against segregation.
“I’m not really too proud because I know that I could have provided stronger leadership than I did,” Meredith said. “And I could have brought things to people’s attention, but in the hope of harmony I didn’t.”
Meredith, 69, participated in ceremonies early this month honoring those who helped end the Sept. 30, 1962, rioting that occurred when he was enrolled as the first Black student at Ole Miss.
Meredith reflected on his role in the school’s integration during a full day of celebration marked by the public recognition of the acts of soldiers and marshals who risked their lives four decades ago.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers and former head of the NAACP, said Meredith is an activist worthy of praise.
“James Meredith opened the doors of this university so that everyone who was qualified could have access to the best education possible,” Evers-Williams told a crowd of 2,000 gathered to kickoff a yearlong commemoration of the university’s integration. Evers-Williams urged listeners to remember the sacrifices made by Meredith and her husband in their fight for equality. Medgar Evers, field secretary for the NAACP, was gunned down outside his home in 1963 by a white supremacist.
“Once we forget about the freedoms there’s a tendency for them to erode,” Evers-Williams said.
Retired marshals joined more than 100 spectators for a downtown key presentation in Oxford.
Ted Cowsert said when he stood on the campus of the University of Mississippi 40 years ago to quash the bloody uprising, he feared he would have to take up arms against fellow soldiers and state troopers.
“We thought we were going to have to fight the National Guard, the highway patrol and the rioters,” Cowsert said. Two people died and more than 200 others were injured in the riot.
The soldiers and marshals who risked their lives that night never received a medal. But that lack of public recognition was reversed when Oxford Mayor Richard Howarth gave nearly 100 of the former soldiers a key to the city they saved from being put to the torch.
Ole Miss has planned a yearlong observance of what many of the veterans called a “mini-war.”
The yearlong commemoration, dubbed “Open Doors: Building on 40 Years of Opportunity in Higher Education,” includes an oral history of Ole Miss, various symposiums, and the April unveiling of a $130,000 memorial. It culminates in September 2003 with an international conference on race.
Meredith’s ties to the university continue through his son, Joseph, who graduated earlier this year as the top doctoral student in the business school (see Black Issues, June 6). Today, nearly 13 percent of the university’s students are Black.
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