History in the Civil Rights Movement is no stranger to the Hospitality State, and today’s #HistoryMonday is about less than hospitable conditions provided by the state’s flagship institution of higher learning. Let’s delve into the event and the results following.
On this day in 1962, James H. Meredith attempts to enroll at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) along with U.S. Marshals. Federal reinforcements in the form of the U.S. Marshalls had become necessary after resistance from university officials and the state’s governor blocked Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss.
A former serviceman in the U.S. Air Force, Meredith applied and was accepted to the University of Mississippi in 1962, but when the registrar discovered his race the admission was rescinded. Meredith was still determined to gain admission.
Meredith had previously tried without success in to enroll at the university. After the second refusal by the university, Meredith filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, alleging that the university had rejected him only because of his race. Eventually, after a series of appeals that ruled the state had no right to refuse Meredith’s enrollment, the state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court uphold the lower courts’ rulings and ordered Ole Miss to admit James Meredith. The District Court ordered the Board of Trustees for Ole Miss to admit Meredith on September 13, 1962.
Facing a potential election loss in November of that year, Gov. Ross Barnett boasted, “no school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your governor.” Barnett along with the state legislature had already been planning to prevent Meredith’s enrollment by falsifying claims of voter fraud against Meredith. The criminal charges of these voter fraud would prevent Meredith from enrolling based on this alleged criminal activity.
Barnett, and his Lieutenant Governor both faced federal criminal charges of contempt on September 28 for their actions to prevent Meredith from enrolling. If they refused to comply by October 2, they could be arrested and pay $10,000 and $5,000 a day, respectively.
In hopes to expedite Meredith’s admission and avoid the fines, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Pres. Kennedy conducted calls with Barnett to secretly admit Meredith but allow Barnett to appear unflappable in the public.
Attorney Gen. Kennedy ordered 500 U.S. Marshalls to Oxford, MS to assist Meredith with his enrollment. The Marshalls’ presence would help perpetuate an appearance of Federal overreach which the Governor would have to necessarily comply with.
Unfortunately, this appearance of the Marshalls in Oxford was not dissimilar to Civil War troops marching through the South. Residents unhappy that Ole Miss was being desegregated and Federal troops were invading the South and its way of life began to riot. Two men were killed in the midst of this violence. In addition to Marshalls, another 3,000 federal soldiers were dispatched by Pres. Kennedy to end the rioting. The next day on October 1, 1962, after troops took control, Meredith became the first African-American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi.
The admission of James Meredith is regarded as a pivotal moment in the history of Civil Rights in the United States. Compared to other Civil Rights pioneers like Rosa Parks, Meredith helped other African-Americans take courage to desegregate other universities in the South. The Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka had inspired Meredith to pursue desegregation as the Supreme Court had overruled the Plessy v. Ferguson case that promoted separate but equal facilities.
Meredith graduated from Ole Miss in 1963 with a degree in political science. As part of his activism at Ole Miss, Meredith would go on to help protests through the Sixties partnering with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael.
Anniversaries of this date have been held in 2002 and 2012. During the 40th anniversary, officials erected a statue of Meredith in the Lyceum-The Circle Historic District at the center of the campus. The district was designated as a National Historic Landmark for these events in October of 2008.
Ole Miss continues to rehabilitate its image and its conduct towards African-Americans. The school’s mascot while named the Rebels commemorates the Confederate forces during the Civil War. Attempts have been made to remove the mascot, Col. Reb and replace it with Rebel Black Bear and Tony Landshark, but fans are reluctant to embrace the new mascots. Additionally, the school band’s playing of Dixie has also elicited negative responses from critics as well. Due to the historical significance of the song in minstrel shows, these critics argued it should be removed from the band’s repertoire. Use of the “Battle Flag” by fans and students at ball games has also been banned for similar reasons.
Hopefully, Mississippi will eventually move forward and live up to its Hospitality State nickname and overcome much of its historic resistance to African-American equality. Ole Miss has even elected its first African-American Student Body President a few years ago which bodes well for the University to make such steps. Heritage Tourism efforts in the state to commemorate Civil Rights challenges along with the popularity of HGTV’s Home Town in Laurel are also drawing renewed travel to Mississippi.
Will Mississippi ever shed its negative reputation towards African-Americans?