By Lloyd Gray
It’s Ole Miss that has been holding a series of commemorative events surrounding the 50th anniversary of James Meredith’s forced admission, a seminal event that has shaped the university ever since.
But the entire state, the South and the nation were also changed markedly by what happened 50 years ago today in Oxford. All Mississippians, whether or not they have any ties to Ole Miss, were and are affected by the legacy of those days.
This “American Insurrection,” as the title of William Doyle’s book described it, was a pivotal point in the civil rights movement, signaling clearly the destructive futility of Mississippi’s and the South’s defiant resistance to integration and answering questions our state and region were still refusing to acknowledge had been settled a century before.
Meredith not only was the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi, he was the first to break the color barrier at any school of any kind in the state. The fact that it happened at a university steeped in the traditions of the Old South made for an even more compelling drama, but Oxford was just the crucible for a confrontation that had long been inevitable.
The riot on that Sunday night was the culmination of years of demagoguery by manipulative and self-serving elected officials and their sponsors, and it involved a much broader swath of Mississippians, both directly and indirectly, than just Ole Miss and Oxford.
It would be another two years before the first black children would cross the threshold of a previously whites-only public school in Mississippi, and nearly three years before any other public university in the state would integrate. There would be more anti-integration violence in Mississippi for several years to come.
But after the Battle of Oxford, the war against integration was essentially over. The system of legal segregation was breathing its last, both because the federal government had committed fully to its elimination and because sane people in Mississippi had begun to understand the implications of further defiance.
I was an elementary school student in Oxford at the time and hold vivid memories of federal troops camped on our school grounds and checkpoints in which my mother’s car was searched for guns. It was an atmosphere in which Confederate flags were everywhere and display of the American flag on a car antenna was considered a risky and almost disloyal act.
It’s not hyperbole to say we were refighting the Civil War, with the essential question being the ultimate authority of the federal government over the states when it came to the constitutional rights of citizens. The outcome this time was the same as the last.
We need to recall and reflect on those days, not to beat ourselves up or to deny the extraordinary changes that have followed, but to understand the history and context in which the present occurs. That goes for Mississippians everywhere – all Americans, really – not just the people at Ole Miss.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.