Ole Miss civil rights monument features statue of Meredith

Published 12:27 am Sunday, October 1, 2006

The University of Mississippi on Sunday dedicates a monument to mark the 44th anniversary of its integration, a pivotal civil-rights struggle that sparked riots in 1962 as a stubborn southern governor tried to defy the federal government’s power to issue and enforce court orders.

The monument, between the library and the main administrative building, the Lyceum, on the main Ole Miss campus in Oxford, features a life-sized bronze statue of the first black student, James Meredith. It also has 7-foot-tall limestone portal, brick benches and historical markers.

Meredith, now 73 and living in Jackson, will speak at the 2:30 p.m. dedication ceremony, as will U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was a national civil rights leader as a young man when he chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

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Meredith’s son, Joseph, who graduated in 2002 as the top doctoral student in the Ole Miss business school, also will speak.

David Sansing, professor emeritus of history at the university, said he finds it fitting that the monument features a likeness of Meredith, the 29-year-old military veteran who went to court and single-handedly challenged Mississippi’s staunchly segregated system of higher education.

“The changes that he sparked were not the result of a confluence of events and circumstances,” Sansing said Friday. “I don’t know any other event in the civil rights movement that can be identified with one particular individual.”

Ole Miss held a series of events in 2002 to mark the 40th anniversary of the university’s integration, including a reunion of U.S. marshals who helped guard Meredith and the soldiers who helped provide security. The soldiers in 1962 were bombarded with brickbats and Molotov cocktails by a mob of hundreds of whites, both students and others, who had been chanting, “Two, four, six, eight, we will never integrate.”

The University of Mississippi’s enrollment this fall is 17,326 on all of its campuses in Oxford, Tupelo, Southaven and Jackson. That includes 2,394 black students, or 13.8 percent. The total minority enrollment — including black, Asian and other groups — is 3,319 students, or 19.2 percent, the school said.

The leafy Oxford campus, in the gently rolling hills of north Mississippi, already has other historical markers, including a Confederate soldier statue that stands on the other side of the Lyceum as a tribute to its students who fought in the Civil War. The university was founded in 1848.

The statue of Meredith and the Confederate soldier are about 100 yards apart, separated by the Lyceum building that still bears bullet marks from the 1962 integration fight. Two people were killed in the riots.

A group of Ole Miss students started promoting the idea of building a civil-rights monument in 1995. The original design would’ve featured glass doors at both ends of the monument to signify the open doors of the university.

In October 2005, Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat rejected the design, citing possible safety concerns with the doors. Within a week, the new design was adopted.

The monument was built with $160,000 in grants and private donations.

“This monument is an appropriate way to memorialize the role of the University of Mississippi and James Meredith in opening the doors of higher education to all people across the South,” Khayat said in a news release from the school. “We hope it will serve as a reminder of the courage of Mr. Meredith and others who led the way in important cultural changes.”

After then-Gov. Ross Barnett tried to block Meredith’s admission, President John F. Kennedy put National Guard troops under federal command to try to restore order.

“This event at the University of Mississippi, I think, was a major turning point in the civil rights movement because here it was decided how far a state would go in defiance of a federal court order and it was decided how far the federal government would go in enforcing that court order,” said Sansing, who started teaching at the university in 1970.

“I think the ultimate conclusion of the civil rights movement was drawn right here,” Sansing said from Oxford. “And I think James Howard Meredith was the individual who shaped these circumstances, and he achieved exactly what he wanted to achieve.”

Meredith could not be reached this past week, but at the Ole Miss commemoration events in 2002 he said he wished he had played a larger role in fighting segregation.

“I’m not really too proud because I know that I could have provided stronger leadership than I did,” Meredith said at the time. “And I could have brought things to people’s attention, but in the hope of harmony I didn’t.”