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Looking Back While Stepping Forward: 50 Years of Integration at Ole Miss

This fall will mark the 50th anniversary of integration at The University of Mississippi, and plans are in the works for remembering the past and looking to the future.
File Photo / The Daily Mississippian

In the first volume of the book, The Life of Reason, author George Santayana wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The University of Mississippi will remember its own past and work to grow from it with “Opening the Closed Society: 50 Years of Integration,” a year-long celebration of diversity at Ole Miss organized by the university’s civil rights subcommittee.
Andy Mullins, chief of staff to the chancellor and co-chair of the UM civil rights subcommittee, said this celebration allows the Ole Miss family to acknowledge its past and move forward.
“We have to address our history, both good and bad, and put it out there for everyone to discuss — from that comes learning,” Mullins said. “This celebration is a way to say, ‘Look, here’s what we did, but this is where we’re going.’ If you grow complacent, you start moving backwards.”
The celebration kicked off this past September with the Silver Pond Dedication and will continue this fall with various panels, lectures and activities — all leading up to Oct. 1, the 50th anniversary of the day James Meredith became the first African American to enroll at the University of Mississippi.
James Meredith has been invited, but his attendance to the event has not been confirmed as of now.
“We are trying to get James Meredith to come for the celebration, but that has proven difficult,” said Dr. Charles Ross, chair of the civil rights subcommittee and director of the African American studies program.
The day of the anniversary will feature three on-campus events: a 1:30 p.m. speech at the Robert C. Khayat Law Center by John Doar, the man who escorted Meredith on his first day of class and recipient of the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom; a 3 p.m. speech at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics by Henry Gallagher, the author of the soon to released book, James Meredith and the Ole Miss Riot; and finally an address at the Gertrude C. Ford Center from keynote speaker Harry Belafonte, American singer, actor and civil rights activist.
Each of these events is aimed at recognizing history while also procuring change.
“Ole Miss has the unique potential to use its racial legacy as a tool,” said Dr. Charles Ross, chair of the civil rights subcommittee and director of the African American studies program. “It gives us the opportunity to show progress like no other school in America. We can really illustrate change.”
Ross said he has witnessed considerable progress since he arrived at Ole Miss in 1995 but believes there are still many changes left to be made.
One witness to that progress is journalism professor Curtis Wilkie, who is the inaugural fellow of the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics. He was a student at Ole Miss when the riots occurred in front of the Lyceum on Sept. 30, 1962.
“Everyone was shocked and depressed,” Wilkie said. “It stigmatized the campus around the world and left us looking like a bunch of maniacs and racists. We still have to deal with that and we rightly should.” 
Wilkie said he is impressed by the university’s ability to transform a liability into an asset.
“My position is that we need to continue to eradicate any symbols, images or caricatures that represent the university as a non-inclusive institution,” Ross said. “I understand change is difficult, but I would still like to see us move quicker.”
Kimbrely Dandridge, the first female African American ASB President at Ole Miss, said she holds a similar viewpoint.
“I hope we one day reach the point where we don’t even have to celebrate integration, that it is just a common fact,” she said. “But we have miles to go before that day. Discrimination still occurs on this campus. I’ve been the recipient of it. After I was elected ASB President, a guy said to me, ‘Now we have our first n—— president.’”
In response to such incidents, Dandridge said Ole Miss should create a place where all students can visit without fear of discrimination.
“When that happened to me, I felt like I didn’t know where to turn or what to do,” she said. “We need to create a centralized location, like a multicultural center, where people can feel comfortable.
“LGBT students, Latino students, international students — all of these people should be able to escape judgement and feel comfortable being themselves. Ole Miss is the flagship university of Mississippi. If we start moving in this direction, the state will follow.”
Lauren Wright, president of the Black Student Union at Ole Miss, said James Meredith opened the door to diversity, and the students of today's generation should follow in his steps.
"The courage demonstrated by Mr. Meredith was perhaps one of the most important and influential actions that transformed higher education not only in Mississippi but the nation as well,” Wright said. “Because of his sacrifice, today we have a university that is not only black and white, but international, and is committed to the development of all students regardless of ethnicity. The progress the university has made is tremendous.”
The university may still have some road to travel before discrimination is just a word of the past, but many are proud of the progress thus far.
“Ole Miss is a good example of what can be built out of a disastrous situation,” Wilkie said. “If I look at it from the perspective of 50 years ago, I would have never thought I’d live to see the enormous changes that have occurred. I can’t help but be pleased with how far we’ve come. We’re far from perfect, but I’ve lived elsewhere and learned that those places aren’t perfect either. There is always work left to be done, but I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
For more information about the program, "Opening the Closed Society: 50 Years of Integration," visi thttp://news.olemiss.edu/category/special-sections/50-years.