It was on October 1, 1962, that the University of Mississippi was in the national news for days, weeks, and months to come as the academic year on campus was disrupted over and over again when a black man, James Meredith, was admitted to the university to start his college education. A simple act. The man was a tax paying citizen of Mississippi, intelligent enough to pass all of the entrance requirements, and ready to pursue his education. Yet, thousands, if not millions of people were dead-set against him forty-six years ago today.
Two people died that day, seventy-five more were injured, the governor of Mississippi sent the state national guard to prevent his admission, the Kennedy administration quickly nationalized the guard in order to protect Mr. Meredith and to escort him to his classes. Troops were stationed on the campus to separate the previously all-white student body from the one black man enrolled in school. Huge groups of segregationists tried to physically remove Mr. Meredith from the campus. Mr. Meredith had few friends to support him in an almost entirely hostile situation from students, faculty, staff, all the way to the governor’s office. White segregationists were arrested carrying pipe bombs, billy clubs, and shotguns. Other southern states were also experiencing race riots over black student admissions to premier state universities from Tennessee to Alabama to Georgia.
Fast forward to September 26, 2008. Another black man came to the University of Mississippi not to enroll as a student but to debate for the office of president of the United States. There was no talk of insurrection, no talk of boycotting, no riots, no federal troops, no governor standing in the doorway to prevent Barack Obama from entering the campus in his quest for the highest office in the nation. The seats in the auditorium were filled with people of all races and blacks were not relegated to sit in the balcony but could sit were ever there was an empty seat.
Little was made of this transformation in the media last Friday or in the days before or after the debate between Barack Obama and John McCain. I mostly found laudatory articles in the local newspapers in Oxford and from the campus press. There were more than a few references to the new, positive image of the university having had to live with highly negative images of the events of 1962 for more than four decades.
Are race relations perfect in Mississippi today? No! Are race relations in the United States perfect today? Not hardly! Race relations are, however, a whole lot better today, with a long road ahead to make them even better.
Yet, it is undeniable that much progress has been made between the races since 1962 when a black man arrived on the campus of the University of Mississippi to take classes and in 2008 when a black man arrived on campus to stake his claim for the presidency of the United States!