50 Years After Integration, Ole Miss Grapples With History
By Campbell Robertson
OXFORD, Miss. — There still may be a few bullet holes in the stately white columns of the Lyceum, the Greek Revival building here that symbolizes the University of Mississippi, but most were unintentionally plastered over during a renovation years ago.
So a new historical marker now serves as the physical reminder of the night of Sept. 30, 1962, when hundreds of federal marshals and thousands of Army and National Guard troops met a violent mob of segregationists from all over the South and the campus became a battleground. Two people were killed, hundreds were wounded and the vicious realities of a racist society were broadcast around the world.
The following morning, James Meredith enrolled in classes, and Ole Miss was racially integrated.
In recent weeks, the university has been commemorating that tumultuous period with a program called “Opening the Closed Society.” The schedule has included lectures by prominent figures like Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and the singer and activist Harry Belafonte, movie screenings, panel discussions and a “walk of reconciliation and redemption.”
Mr. Meredith said he would not attend, but he has shown up unexpectedly at similar events in the past.
The program’s name is a reference to “Mississippi: The Closed Society,” a 1964 book by James W. Silver, an Ole Miss history professor, about the strict orthodoxy of white Mississippi. (Professor Silver, who died in 1988, was hounded by white supremacists and left the university a year after the book was published.)
Though Ole Miss officials are quick to say there is more work to be done, much of the program’s emphasis has been on the university’s undeniable progress in matters of race: the president of the student body is a black woman and, even more notably for a school that has long prided itself on beauty queens, so is the homecoming queen.
But in an address last week, Charles W. Eagles, an Ole Miss history professor and the author of “The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss,” created a minor stir when he questioned the tenor of the celebration. Professor Eagles asked whether an institution of higher learning should be acclaiming an event that was imposed on it after a century of institutionalized racism, rather than focusing more intently on the history that preceded it.
“The doors were open for 50 years yes, but they’d been closed for a century,” he said. “We don’t want to talk about that do we?”
Professor Eagles’s comments reflect the South’s continuing struggle over memory and its racial legacy a half-century after the most heated period of the civil rights movement and 150 years after the Civil War. Several Southern states support attempts to overturn portions of the Voting Rights Act on the grounds that they are relics of an unfortunate past, while debates over voter identification and immigration enforcement laws have led some to insist that the South has never truly reckoned with that past.
Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., argues that unlike South Africa and apartheid or Germany and the Holocaust, the United States has never fully confronted the legal oppression and widespread violence that occurred between Reconstruction and the civil rights era.
“If you only talk about the moment when someone achieved something, you look at this history as infrequent periodical achievements, as if that was just the only thing going on,” said Mr. Stevenson, whose group is working on a campaign to mark lynching sites and publicize the legal features of the South in the Jim Crow era.
Ole Miss officials say they are confronting the university’s history head-on. Daniel W. Jones, the chancellor, said he recognized that Ole Miss would be criticized for not going far enough in its commemoration, just as he has heard complaints that the university is paying any attention at all. He said he was satisfied that the program struck a balance between acknowledging the disgraceful past while honoring the progress since.
“There have been many occasions during the celebration of the success of integration to also commemorate the difficult and sad events of the time,” he said, adding that “our university is still an imperfect place, our state is imperfect, our country is imperfect.”
This semester, Marvin P. King Jr., a professor of political science, and Curtis Wilkie, a journalist who teaches at Ole Miss, have led a special honors course on the university’s history on matters of race.
Professor King, who is 39 — and like more than half of all Americans was born after Mr. Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss — said he was troubled by how little his students knew about Mississippi’s history. There is nothing wrong with celebrating accomplishments, Professor King said, but he added that Ole Miss has an obligation to do much more.
“You have your memorials and you have your markers,” he said, “but you need to ask the harder questions. And that’s what a university’s for.”