University of Mississippi faculty and staff were shocked by a heinous hate crime committed on Sunday, reminiscent of the ugly scenes from the 60s, when the state was largely considered to be America’s hotbed of racism. The statue of James Howard Meredith was found with a noose tied around its neck. The significance of the act rested in the fact that Meredith was the university’s first black student.
In 1962, he made history when he became Ole Miss’s first black student in an all-white institution. Shockingly, Meredith is still alive and will turn 81 in June. He has lived an esteemed life as a one of the country’s greatest political thinkers, writers and advisers.
University police have asked the FBI for assistance. A reward of $25,000 is being offered to anyone who has information, which will help investigators make an arrest.
The noose is a symbol closely associated with lynch mobs, vigilante citizens who take the law into their own hands to hang a man presumed guilty. Jana Evans Braziel of the University of Cincinnati notes that mob violence against African-Americans was a form of terrorism, sanctioned by the state to control the black population and reinforce white supremacy. Lynchings occurred in America’s Black Belt, the area made up of four states: Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Meredith was an instrumental figure behind the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s. His battle to be admitted to the University of Mississippi quickly captured headlines around the country. In 1961 he applied to Ole Miss and was admitted. However, the college withdrew its offer, when his race was discovered. The landmark case, Brown vs. Board of Education ruled that all public educational institutions must accept black students. This ruling helped end the widespread practice of segregation past the Mason Dixon Line, which divided the North from the South.
It was this divide that Meredith vowed to rectify. One of nine children, Meredith was exposed to racism from a young age, when he rode a train to Chicago. He was shocked when he was asked to give up his seat in Tennessee and move to the crowded black section of the train. From this moment, Meredith resolved to fight for equal treatment of his fellow African-Americans.
On September 20, 1962 Meredith decided to test desegregation by registering for classes. When he arrived, he found the entrance blocked. The University of Mississippi’s staunch refusal to admit Meredith caused a full-blown riot to erupt in the hotbed of racism. Robert Kennedy, who acted as Attorney General, was forced to send 500 U.S. Marshals to the scene. This was reinforced by further 3,000 federal troops as well as police squads, the Mississippi National Guard and officials from the U.S. Border Patrol.
Just less than two weeks later, James Meredith became the first back student to enroll on October 1, 1962.He quickly graduated with a degree in political science a year later. He documented his experiences in the ground breaking work, Three Years in Mississippi, which was published in 1966. Meredith went on to receive his law degree from Columbia University in 1968.
NAACP president Derrick Johnson spoke of reversing course on the state’s long held image as a hotbed of racism, which is linked to the University of Mississippi. The college is intent on upholding the values that are engraved on the Meredith’s statue: Courage, Knowledge, Opportunity, and Perseverance. A man as courageous and as principled as James H. Meredith deserves no less for his extraordinary contribution to the Civil Rights Movement and American history. The case continues.
By Simone Innamorati