It was a great, great day for Mississippi last Saturday.
Yes, Mississippi is still one of the poorest states in the union. Yes, many Mississippians still don’t have adequate health care. Yes, there are still places where it might be difficult to register to vote.
Yet in my lifetime Mississippi has given us all hope. Hope that there can be progress. Hope that things can get better. Hope that we can learn to live together. Hope that the better angels of our nature are on the right side of history.
Last Saturday I watched as Ole Miss and Mississippi State both whipped top ten teams, playing within a hundred miles of each other. Both moved into the top ten ranks of college football in the SEC West; the strongest teams in the strongest division in the strongest conference in America.
The last time both these teams started 5 – 0 was in 1962 when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was President. The last time both were in the top ten at the same time was well, maybe right after Lincoln.
I was 17 years old on New Year’s Day 1960. I saw the sixties, close up and personal. And I saw Mississippi.
Ole Miss was lily white. The football “Rebels” mascot was “Colonel Reb” and the song was Dixie. Both Ole Miss and Mississippi State were fully segregated and each was determined to stay that way.
At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, the entire student body of Ole Miss enlisted in the Confederate Army. Their company, Company A, 11th Mississippi Infantry, was nicknamed the University Greys. It suffered a 100% casualty rate during the Civil War. A great number of those casualties occurred during Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, when the University Greys made the deepest encroachment into Union territory. Some of the soldiers crossed the Union defensive fortification wall, only to be killed, wounded or captured. On the next day, July 4, Confederate forces surrendered Vicksburg, Mississippi; the two battles together are commonly viewed as the turning point in the war leading to victory by the Union. When Ole Miss re-opened, only one member of the University Greys was there to address the student body.
Ole Miss was integrated in 1962 when James Meredith, escorted by Federal Marshals took his first classes. He had been previously blocked at the doors by Governor Ross Barnett.
“Many Mississippi citizens joined in on “their battle against ‘Catholic, Communist, Northern'” intervention in Mississippi white people’s business. The protesters swarmed the campus in a violent effort to prevent Meredith’s enrollment and enforce the segregation laws of Mississippi at the time.”
Two people were killed; one third of the 165 U.S. Marshals were injured. Today fully half of all students are from outside of Mississippi, 25% are minorities and international students come from over 70 countries. James Meredith’s son would receive his Doctorate from Ole Miss.
Mississippi State didn’t accept it’s first black student, Richard E. Holmes, until September 1965 – the year after the murder of three civil rights workers in rural Mississippi. Richard Holmes went on to become a medical doctor and as he prepared to retire, was recruited back to the university in 2003 to serve as Staff Physician at the student health center. In 1965 MSU wanted to integrate with the least amount of turmoil. It didn’t want a replay of Ole Miss.
In 2003 Dr. Holmes gave the spring commencement speech, noting that the “most impressive and vivid memory of my time here as a student is the fact that the MSU student body, and the MSU family as a whole, treated me with dignity and respect.”
Sometimes I don’t think we can make any progress. Sometimes I don’t think we can change. Sometimes I don’t think a better world is possible. Then I remember the segregated schools. The all-white football teams. The lily white crowds in the stands.
Then comes along a day like last Saturday. I’m 72 years old. Sometimes change takes awhile. Sometimes it seems like a long time coming.
Is there more to be done? Absolutely.
But I could not have envisioned such a day in Mississippi in 1960.
Sam Cooke – 1963