By Juanita Floyd
On Monday night, I experienced a myriad of feelings as I listened to the inspiring message of guest speaker Harry Belafonte in commemoration of the 50-year anniversary of James Meredith entering Ole Miss.
I felt pain, agony, regret, exhilaration, triumph, failure, fear, defeat, shock and success. My sister and I were invited to attend this event by a couple.
As Belafonte began to speak, I quickly realized that not only was I seeing an entertainment icon, but also a hero of the civil rights movement.
He shared a story about coming to Mississippi in the early ’60s. He received a call from the Mississippi leader of the civil rights group stating that assistance was needed in the form of money to help continue the cause. Belafonte did not hesitate to gather the $100,000 needed for the group – but wondered how he would get the money to Mississippi. Because of the times and the issues, he could not send it by Western Union nor deposit the money in a bank.
His last resort was to physically bring the money to our state. Wisely, he enlisted the aid of the U.S. Marshals and his friend, another entertainment icon – Sidney Poitier – to accompany him on this mission. He told how they secretly flew into the Jackson airport at night, and from there flying by a small private plane to a field in Greenwood and getting into a car that had been sanded so it would not be easily detected at night.
As they left the field – without any lights on; suddenly, a bevy of car lights surrounded them. He learned it was the Klan! Thankfully, they made it to their destination and delivered the money.
I then realized his connection to our great state. He, and so many others, risked their lives to help people in Mississippi.
Mr. Belafonte contrasted his greetings in the ’60s with his welcome Monday, as he arrived at the university. He was greeted by Chancellor Dan Jones and a host of welcoming students and professors. He said he learned to always trust his intuition, and while in the presence of Chancellor Jones, he felt that the chancellor has a heart for all of the students.
In 1982, 20 years after James Meredith entered Ole Miss, I enrolled as a student on that same campus. I knew the story – but it was years later before I understood the magnitude of the sacrifices of all the people involved. I remember the day I graduated and walked across the stage; my mother was teary-eyed. She said, “This is the college where James Meredith went and you had the opportunity to go here. I didn’t have that opportunity. Child, make something out of your life and remember to try to make a difference.”
As we sat in the Ford Center with the loving couple who invited us to the event, I thought what a difference 50 years has made! Afterwards, we had dinner; laughed; and had great conversation together at a restaurant in Oxford. Incidentally, the couple was white.
Mr. Belafonte talked about the changes he experienced in this visit to Mississippi and the difference James Meredith made at Ole Miss.
Are you willing to make a difference as well? You be the judge.
Juanita Gambrell Floyd is vice president for Finance and Administration at CREATE Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.