Celebrating Integration but Weighted by History ; University of Mississippi Grapples with How to Remember Painful Past

By Robertson, Campbell | International Herald Tribune, October 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

Celebrating Integration but Weighted by History ; University of Mississippi Grapples with How to Remember Painful Past


Robertson, Campbell, International Herald Tribune


The University of Mississippi is commemorating the 50th anniversary of its integration, but many are asking whether the focus instead should be on the history that preceded the event.

There still may be a few bullet holes in the stately white columns of the Lyceum, the Greek Revival building here that symbolizes the University of Mississippi, but most were unintentionally plastered over during a renovation years ago.

So a new historical marker now serves as the physical reminder of the night of Sept. 30, 1962, when hundreds of federal marshals and thousands of U.S. Army and National Guard troops met a violent mob of segregationists from all over the South and the campus became a battleground. Two people were killed, hundreds were wounded, and the vicious realities of a racist society were broadcast around the world.

The next morning, James H. Meredith enrolled in classes, and Ole Miss was racially integrated.

In recent weeks, the university has been commemorating that tumultuous period with a program called "Opening the Closed Society." The schedule has included lectures by prominent figures like Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and the singer and activist Harry Belafonte, movie screenings, panel discussions and a "walk of reconciliation and redemption."

Mr. Meredith said he would not attend, but he has shown up unexpectedly at similar events in the past.

The program's name is a reference to "Mississippi: The Closed Society," a 1964 book by James W. Silver, an Ole Miss history professor, about the strict orthodoxy of white Mississippi. Dr. Silver, who died in 1988, was hounded by white supremacists and left the university a year after the book was published.

Though Ole Miss officials are quick to say there is more work to be done, much of the program's emphasis has been on the university's undeniable progress in matters of race: The president of the student body is a black woman, and, even more notably for a school that has long prided itself on beauty queens, so is the homecoming queen.

But in an address last week, Charles W. Eagles, an Ole Miss history professor and the author of "The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss," created a minor stir when he questioned the tenor of the celebration. Dr. Eagles asked whether an institution of higher learning should be acclaiming an event that was imposed on it after a century of institutionalized racism, rather than focusing more intently on the history that preceded it. …

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