A little more than 20 years ago, the national limelight was focused on the University of Mississippi as the turf for one of the greatest battles in American civil rights history, and on James Meredith as the leading soldier of the integration confrontation. Recently, in one of those neat historical coincidences, the incident, the institution, and the individual have all separately edged their way back into the news, and the combination has added an important perspective to the bold victory that was claimed in the fall of 1962 and how things have changed since.
The images of the bitter clashes involved in integrating "Ole Miss" were revived late last month when the recordings of key discussions on the topic, held by then President John F. Kennedy '40, were released. From the transcripts emerge the drama surrounding the conflict--lengthy discussions of troop maneuverings and crowd control. At one point, Kennedy even inquired about arresting a Southern military figure who championed the segregationists. The main image conveyed by the more than 100 pages of dialogue over two days was the straightforward nature of the conflict--JFK unflinchingly insisted on integration proceedings, because of his duty to uphold the constitution. When Meredith, albeit with the aid of several hundred state troopers, was able to go to class, it seemed real strides had been made in breaking down racial barriers.
In the years following the divisive incident, the university continued more peacefully toward integration. Blacks new make up 10 percent of the student body and are accepted at all social gatherings. Recently, a Black football played was selected Mr. Ole Miss, and another Black student was elected a cheerleader. But this past spring, a fight over the school's use of Confederate emblems triggered tensions approaching those of two decades before.
The controversy erupted this school year when Black students insisted that the university symbols--the Confederates flag as the seal, "Dixie" as the fight song, and Col. Rbel (a Southern colonel in white goatee and gray tails) as the mascot--were racist and should be scrapped. The chancellor responded by stopping the distribution of flags before sporting events, but white alumni and students started producing them privately and passing them out before games. The debate over the meaning of the symbols is a reasonable one: just as the Confederacy represented a society degrading and oppressive to Blacks, it was unique culture--not necessarily racist--for many established white Southern families. But the reaction to the Black protests by the white students has been blatantly reprehensible. Crank phone calls and death threats to Black student leaders, as well as a "Save the Flag" rally attended by robed Ku Klux Klansmen (seven pictures of which the yearbook printed) indicate the underlying prejudicial hatred still at oxford, Miss.
It is also interesting to note the path James Meredith, the student who single handedly stood up to such hatred 20 years ago, has taken. He was a hero for the way he held up under the tremendous pressure of the riots that he had caused. In 1966, Meredith bravely continued his crusade conducting a one-man march against racism across the state. Today, he has apparently fallen victim to all that pressure, forming a new "unification" religion and peddling it around the country. "I really believe I am a prophet," he said in an April interview with the Daily Californian, the student newspaper at the University of California-Berkeley.
It would be overblown to call Meredith or the University of Mississippi symptoms, but because they were representative of the civil rights battles of the early 60s, they can be considered some sort of symbols of the fallout 20 years later. They make it clear that the progress made in the preliminary years of the movement was incomplete and not without some cost to those involved. Jacob M. Schlesinger