By Errol Castens/Daily Journal Oxford Bureau
OXFORD – People who helped break the color barrier and those who benefited reflected on change and civil rights Monday, the 50th anniversary of James Meredith’s becoming the University of Mississippi’s first official black student.
John Meredith thanked U.S. Marshals “for keeping my father alive … so his grandchildren could know him and love him as more than just words in a history book.”
He urged Americans of all backgrounds to embrace what his father and others struggled for.
“What we do with that opportunity is up to us,” he said. “With fewer barriers to success than ever before – if not now, when?”
Marshals recalled facing hazards from brickbats and buckshot at the Lyceum to copperheads in their tents – and noted their pride of mission.
Retired Marshal Denzil “Bud” Staple read a letter from President John Kennedy that said had the marshals failed at Ole Miss, “our country would have suffered irreparable damage.”
Kirk Bowden, one of several black marshals assigned to James Meredith’s security detail, told how humiliation turned to humor. When Meredith made a purchase in Jackson, the cashier looked at the name on the credit card and demanded identification.
Bowden exposed the utter lack of logic in her request: “Ma’am, do you really think any Negro in the state of Mississippi would be trying to portray himself as James Meredith?”
Former Miss. Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson told a Law School audience he was rejected for admission to be the first black Ole Miss law student in 1964, but in 1965 Dean Josh Morse III dramatically reversed that decision.
“It was absolutely astonishing, to be rejected one year and to get a scholarship the next,” Anderson said.
His career is proof of change in Mississippi. Before being named to the high court, he became a circuit judge – in a once-segregated courthouse.
“In 14 years you go from colored and white water fountains to everybody standing up when you enter the courtroom,” Anderson said.
Henry Gallagher, author of “James Meredith and the Ole Miss Riot: A Soldier’s Story” described both a comedy of begging maps and wrong turns to get his battalion of MPs from Memphis to Ole Miss and the deadly somberness of being attacked by rock-throwing mobs.
Gallagher added his lauds for Ole Miss and its region.
“I don’t think the North appreciates how much has changed,” he said. “It was one huge leap to get here from where this campus was in 1962.”
At the Ford Center, entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte related his own near-death experience with the Klan. He said James Meredith’s nonviolent example influenced revolutions in the Soviet Union, South Africa and beyond.
“In the end, although we lost Dr. King, we didn’t lose the movement,” he said. “That which we struggled for lives and breathes.”