By Sid Salter
STARKVILLE – In the 1950s and 1960s, most of the national headlines being made by Mississippi’s “Big Three” universities were negative and focused in great measure on either institutional racism, mob violence, or both.
In 1962, James Meredith’s integration of Ole Miss led to riots that left two dead and more than 180 injured. The riots and the killings of a Paul Guihard – a journalist for a French news agency – and local jukebox repairman Walter Ray Gunter occurred as President John F. Kennedy intervened and federalized the Mississippi National Guard.
At Mississippi Southern College, Clyde Kennard was falsely convicted and imprisoned in 1960 on trumped up charges that he stole chicken feed. That atrocity came after Kennard tried unsuccessfully to integrate Southern in 1956, 1957, and 1959. USM was integrated without incident in 1965 when the school admitted black students Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong and Raylawni Branch.
The integration of Mississippi State University in 1965 when Richard Holmes was admitted was by comparison to the fate of Kennard and the experiences of Meredith a surprisingly peaceful affair that took place without violence.
But other than for the raw courage it took for Holmes to break the color barrier at MSU, his admittance was in truth almost anti-climactic because of a basketball game played more than two years prior. The game was a historic NCAA basketball tournament game between Mississippi State and Loyola University of Chicago on March 23, 1963.
That game was only six months removed from the Meredith riots at Ole Miss. Kennard was still languishing in Parchman for daring to try to integrate what is today the University of Southern Mississippi. In 1963, MSU’s players and coaches had to sneak out of the state against a court order prohibiting them from playing against a school with black players.
As I noted in the book “Jack Cristil: Voice of the MSU Bulldogs” in 2011: “For many, the courage that (former MSU President Dean W.) Colvard and (legendary MSU head basketball coach Babe) McCarthy showed in defying the Mississippi Legislature and fiery segregationist Gov. Ross Barnett to enable the all-white MSU men’s basketball team to compete against a Loyola team with four African-American starters represented the university’s finest hours. For many, Mississippi State’s 1962-63 basketball team, coach, and the university administration came together to create a defining moment not only for MSU athletics but for American civil rights and universal sportsmanship as well.”
A half-century later, Mississippi’s political, social, and racial landscapes are vastly different. While race remains problematic in some corners, the “closed society” that James Silver wrote about at Ole Miss in 1964 has been dramatically expanded and changed.
USM’s enrollment is 29 percent African American, while MSU has 21 percent African American enrollment (highest among U.S. historically white land grant institutions) and Ole Miss has 16 percent African-American enrollment.
Ole Miss hosted a 2008 U.S. presidential debate that featured the Democratic nominee who would become America’s first African-American president. USM hosts one of the nation’s most dynamic civil rights oral history repositories. And MSU is now one of five universities to host a presidential library – the U.S. Grant Presidential Library at that.
MSU is working on a rematch basketball game with Loyola University 50 years after that historic 1963 game that clearly has implications far deeper than mere basketball. Loyola won the 1963 game 61-51 and would go on to win the 1963 NCAA national championship.
Loyola team captain Jerry Harkness, one of the four black starters for the Ramblers, best summed up the true motivation for MSU before the game was played: “The (MSU) players are all right. I think that Mississippi State wants to play us. If they don’t, they’ll never know how good they are.”
Harkness, the Loyola All-American, and State’s All-SEC team captain Joe Dan Gold met at center court in Michigan State’s old Jenison Field House for the opening tip in 1963. Gold extended his hand and Harkness shook it – and Mississippi would never be the same again.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.