JACKSON, Miss. – The University of Mississippi is paying tribute to 89-year-old James Meredith 60 years after white protesters erupted into violence as he became the first Black student to enroll in what was then a bastion of Deep South segregation.
As it has done on other 10-year anniversaries of integration, the university is hosting celebrations and academic events. Meredith was honored Saturday during the Ole Miss-Kentucky football game, receiving a framed Ole Miss jersey with the number 62 — the year he integrated the university. The ceremony happened two days after he attended attended the Rebels' practice to speak to players.
“He came and revolutionized our thinking. He came to open our closed society," Donald Cole, who retired in 2018 as the university's assistant provost and head of multicultural affairs, said during a celebration Wednesday night.
The enigmatic Meredith, who lives in Jackson, has long resisted the label of civil rights leader, as if civil rights are separate from other human rights. He says his effort to enter Ole Miss was his own battle to conquer white supremacy.
Meredith's being honored at the Ole Miss-Kentucky game was an ironic echo of history.
Two days before Meredith enrolled on the Oxford campus in 1962, race-baiting Gov. Ross Barnett worked a white crowd into a frenzy at a football stadium in Jackson. Ole Miss fans waved Confederate flags to support their Rebels over the Kentucky Wildcats — and to defy any move toward racial integration.
“I love Mississippi," Barnett declared. "I love her people! Our customs! I love and I respect our heritage!”
The next evening, Barnett quietly reached an agreement with U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to let Meredith enter Mississippi's oldest public university. Meredith already had a federal court order.
White mobs of students and outsiders erupted when he arrived on the leafy campus with the protection of more than 500 federal law enforcement officers. The attorney general's brother, President John F. Kennedy, deployed National Guard troops to quell the violence, and Meredith enrolled on Oct. 1.
During the event Wednesday at the university, Meredith told an audience: “In my opinion, this is the best day I ever lived. But there’s some more truth. Celebration is good. I don’t think there’s anybody in this house or in the state of Mississippi that think the problem has been solved."
Meredith has said for the past several years that he's on a mission from God, to persuade people to abide by the Ten Commandments. He said Wednesday that he sees a special role for Black women to lead the way in restoring moral order to American society.
“There’s nothing in Mississippi that God, Jesus Christ and the Black woman cannot fix," Meredith said.
Meredith grew up in segregated Mississippi before finishing high school in Florida. He served in the Air Force and attended Jackson State College, a historically Black school in the state capital, before suing to gain admission to Ole Miss.
A local resident and a French journalist were killed in the violence as Meredith enrolled. More than 200 officers and soldiers were wounded and 200 people were arrested.
Federal marshals provided Meredith with round-the-clock protection until he graduated with a political science degree in 1963. Meredith said Wednesday that most of his knowledge about what was happening on campus came from the marshals.
“Most of them were scared to death of the Mississippi people with rifles and shotguns,” he said.
U.S. Marshals Service Director Ronald L. Davis named Meredith an honorary deputy marshal during the ceremony Wednesday. Davis, who is Black, said Meredith brought widespread change to American society.
“You chose a path that was not traveled — one with much resistance, one with fear and threats and violence, and you went there anyway,” Davis said.
The University of Mississippi had about 21,850 students on all of its campuses in the 2021 fall semester, with about 12.7% Black enrollment. About 38% of Mississippi residents are Black.
Ethel Scurlock, the first Black dean of the university's honors college, said during the keynote speech Wednesday that she had not yet been born when Meredith integrated Ole Miss in 1962 or when he was shot soon after setting out on his March Against Fear in 1966.
“But Mr. Meredith, I am here today," Scurlock said. “I am the unborn baby that you were willing to go to war for.”