By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Fifty years to the night after riots seized the University of Mississippi campus, several hundred people gathered in the university’s Ford Center to pray for redemption of the places, events and people involved.
The convocation reflected on the political posturing and deadly violence that surrounded the admission of James Meredith as the first African-American at Ole Miss.
“We believe God will take even – and maybe especially – our worst and make it instruments and vehicles for grace and hope,” said the Right Rev. Duncan Gray III, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi.
The Rev. LeRoy Wadlington, longtime pastor of Second Baptist Church in Oxford and now pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Indianapolis, recalled his African-American family being joyful that night in the news that the color barrier was to be broken. When the rioters and the military passed their house, he said, “That joy turned to fear.”
“Fifty years ago … violence not only erupted on the campus; violence was heaped upon the people of color throughout this county and perhaps throughout the state,” he said. “There were shots fired into the houses of Wadlingtons and others.”
Wadlington urged continuing application of Christianity.
“We understand through scripture … that we are made in the image of God. We look different; we have different characteristics, but we are all made in his image,” he said. Referring to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, he added, “We need to ask ourselves, Who is our neighbor?”
In deference to a steady rain, those in attendance were invited to take a virtual rather than the planned actual walk from University Avenue to the Lyceum. At each of several stations – University Avenue, the Confederate monument and the Lyceum – participants described the sites’ roles in the violence of Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, 1962, then prayed for their transformation.
On that fateful night, the Rev. Duncan Gray Jr., then rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Oxford, was on the Confederate monument in the Circle, pleading fruitlessly for one of the mob’s leaders to stop the shooting, burning and other violence.
“Things have improved a lot since then, although we all know we have a long way to go,” the now-retired former bishop said Sunday night. “May God redeem our worst and consecrate our best.”
Raymond Martin, an African-American businessman, attended the convocation. He was a 9-year-old child when Meredith was admitted to Ole Miss and later earned a degree in chemistry from the university.
“At one time I was ashamed to say I was from Mississippi,” he said. “Now I’m proud to say it. It’s a whole different atmosphere. The future’s going to be great.”
Martin brought his family from Atlanta for the Meredith remembrance.
“I came for this,” he said. “I had to.”