By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – With its history in the center of the fight to keep racial segregation intact 50 years ago, race is a subtheme to much of what happens at the University of Mississippi.
“On Sept. 30, 1962, a courageous American, Mr. James Meredith, was admitted to Ole Miss,” Chancellor Dan Jones reminded thousands at the 2012 Freshman Convocation on Thursday. “During this academic year, opportunities will be available for all of us to reflect on the injustices of the past and become more committed to growth and progress.”
Members of the class received a Convocation coin that depicts the James Meredith statue in its setting topped by the word “courage.”
Tom Franklin, assistant professor of fiction writing, wrote “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” Ole Miss’ Common Reading Experience selection for 2012-13. He told some of his real-life events that inspired “a remarkable story of loyalty and redemption” set in 1970s small-town Mississippi.
He and Wayne Coats, a black kid his age, were among the students who went unnoticed at school. Franklin said he and Wayne sat in adjacent desks and played ball together, but the prejudices against interracial friendships saw each alone on weekends – even at lunchtime.
Franklin went to their class’ 30-year reunion hoping to see Coats, only to learn he had died years ago. The realization solidified Franklin’s regrets of never having acknowledged the friendship.
“Class of 2016, it’s inevitable that by the time you graduate, you will look back and have regrets, but you’ll never regret sticking up for what’s right,” Franklin said. “You’ll never regret speaking out against moral injustice. You’ll never regret putting yourself at risk by being a friend to someone who needs a friend.”
“I never invited Wayne to go to the movie with me. I could have done that,” he said. “Another of my regrets is back in the segregated cafeteria when I was alone and he was alone. I regret that I didn’t pick up my tray and walk the few feet between our tables and put my tray beside him and sit down.”
“I imagine this a lot,” Franklin said. “I imagine looking at him and saying, ‘Hey.’”
Micaela Woods of Abbeville was impressed.
“I didn’t know the book was based on Tom Franklin’s life. As an African-American, I really enjoyed that surprise,” she said.
Aaron Wilson of Aberdeen said “dedication and time, hitting those books hard and making good decisions” would guarantee him a place at Commencement 2016.