The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) was not known for its racial tolerance in the 1960s and 1970s, as was the case for many colleges and universities in the deep South.
In fact, it had a notorious reputation for treating minorities, especially African Americans, with legendary disdain.
Over the years, however, the university (my alma mater) has done some praiseworthy things to make amends for what occurred on its campus decades ago.
Just last month, the Ole Miss campus was a place of celebration for African Americans, and I got a chance to experience some of those praiseworthy activities and events in real-time.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion on Brown v. Board of Education, declaring that racially segregated schools were “inherently unequal” and mandating the immediate integration of schools across America, including colleges and universities.
Of course, some schools and universities accepted this mandate, while others, i.e., the University of Mississippi, put up significant resistance.
But eight years after the court’s ruling (1962), James Meredith walked onto the campus of the University of Mississippi and put into motion a chain of events that, to this very day, continues to open doors for African Americans.
On Oct.1, 1962, Mr. Meredith registered for courses at the University of Mississippi and was met by a riotous mob of more than 2,000 angry white people, who were not happy about his presence on campus.
Mr. Meredith, however, persevered and has become one of the true heroes of the American civil rights movement.
His actions continue to this day to be a symbol of courage and hope for African Americans throughout our nation.
Last month, James Meredith returned to Ole Miss to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his enrollment. The celebrations included a cascade of events and reunions that demonstrated not only the University’s continued effort to reconcile the past but also to celebrate the present and look forward to the future.
While Mr. James Meredith was breaking down walls for all, the late Ben Williams came along, and broke down racial barriers in the university’s football program.
The university’s Athletic Department recently announced the retirement of Ben Williams’ #74 jersey.
“Gentle” Ben Williams (as he was called) was one of the first African-American football players signed by the university in 1972. He is a university Hall of Famer and was an all-star in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills.
I was a teammate of Ben Williams, and his contribution to Ole Miss athletics and the University is legendary.
That same weekend included the celebration and recognition of Mr. James Reed, who was also among the first African-American football players at Ole Miss.
James, already a football hall of famer, added another distinguished honor to his resume. He is now a member of the University of Mississippi Alumni Hall of Fame.
Congratulations, James Reed!
Finally, to cap off an incredible weekend, the University of Mississippi Libraries Department of Archives & Special Collections unveiled the Dottie Quaye Chapman Reed exhibit.
Mrs. Reed, a dear friend and mentor, was the first African-American admissions counselor hired by the university in the early 1970s. She is now a distinguished author and businessperson in Atlanta.
At the induction, Mrs. Reed spoke about her life as a student and her career as an admissions counselor during the early years of Ole Miss desegregation.
Her lecture, “Coming Full Circle: My Journey through the University of Mississippi, to Many Points Beyond and Back,” brought back so many great and cherished memories.
Mrs. Rose Jackson Flenorl, the first Black female student named to the University of Mississippi Student Hall of Fame, the first Black female Alumni Hall of Fame inductee, and the first Black Ole Miss Alumni Association president, put a ribbon on the entire celebration with these words:
“We are all standing upon the shoulders of others who came before us. While it is great that we were the first, we must make sure that we are not also the last.”
So last month was a celebration of Black accomplishments all over the campus and throughout Oxford, Mississippi community.
The university has come a long way since those early years of desegregation. The diversity that currently exists on campus is notable.
The Ole Miss undergraduate student population is just over 13 percent African American, and about 31 percent of the university’s faculty are African American.
Ironically, today, more than 80 percent of the football team and 100 percent of their basketball team consist of African-American players.
People often say the college experience is not for everyone. Well, it should be! The college experience is about so much more than books and degrees!
(Follow me, TSD’s education columnist, on Twitter @curtisweathers. Email me at [email protected].)