By NEMS Daily Journal
No university in America has been more defined by a single event than the University of Mississippi by the admission 50 years ago today of its first black student, James Meredith.
The horrible riot the night before, and all the rabble-rousing resistance that preceded it, cemented an image of Ole Miss in the nation’s mind that would take decades to overcome. But thanks to leaders who care deeply about the university and state, Ole Miss has owned up to the burden of its history – which is, after all, the state’s history in microcosm – and consciously sought to be a national witness for racial progress.
On the 40th anniversary 10 years ago, the university held a series of commemorative events, the boldest attempt up to that time to both acknowledge past injustice and celebrate change. This year’s 50th anniversary events have set a similar tone. At the center has been the single-minded courage of James Meredith and the debt he is owed by all Mississippians.
Ole Miss in its self-examination is serving as a stand-in for the rest of Mississippi. As a university, it is uniquely equipped for the role. But as it assesses how far we have come and where we yet have to go, all Mississippi institutions – educational, governmental, business – would do well to ask themselves the same questions.
The changes in Mississippi in the last 50 years have been extraordinary, nothing less than a social revolution. And yet questions of racial equity still nag at us.
We have the largest number of black elected officials of any state, yet in some ways our politics are more racially polarized than they’ve been in years.
Our public schools are among the most thoroughly integrated in the nation, yet patterns of gradual resegregation are clear in many communities where whites seek either public or private school enclaves away from large numbers of minority students.
Black children no longer attend so-called “separate but equal” schools, but huge gaps exist between their academic achievement and that of whites and in the percentage who graduate from high school.
Racial barriers in business have crumbled, but there is a pressing need for more black role models and leaders in Mississippi’s business community.
As a state, we must be conscious of all the good that has come in the last half century, but we can’t afford to avoid the hard question these circumstances demand: What are we going to do, as a state and as individuals, to make them better?
The events at Ole Miss can serve as a catalyst as Mississippi seeks to continue its own redefinition as a place of greater opportunity and equity.