On the first of October, 51 years ago, landmark progress was made in the civil rights movement in the United States – specifically in the state of Mississippi – by a man who hates the term "civil rights."
James Meredith was born in Kosciusko, Miss., in 1933. Raised on a farm, in a mostly black environment, he was, in a way, largely unexposed to the racism of the times. He recounts that his first encounter with discrimination was while riding a train with his brother from Chicago. When the train arrived in Memphis, Tenn., he was ordered to give up his seat to stand for the rest of his ride in the crowded black section in the back of the train.
This experience was one that led Meredith to dedicate his days to fighting for the equal treatment of black citizens in the United States. In 1962, he became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, in Oxford. He applied and was accepted to the university the previous year, but once his ethnicity was discovered, his admission was withdrawn. Not one to be defeated so easily, Meredith filed a discrimination suit that eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor.
When he attempted to register for classes in September, he found that the entrance had been blocked. There was rioting, and a mob of students and onlookers tossed bricks and yelled in defiance of forced desegregation. Meredith attempted to enter two more times before federal authorities sent more than 3,000 soldiers and 500 law enforcement officials to Oxford in order to escort him to class in October.
Meredith's enrollment was an important step in the desegregation of public education. Although all public institutions had been ordered to desegregate nearly eight years prior via the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, there had not been very much integration in the education systems of southern states.
Fifty years later, Ole Miss observed the 50th anniversary of its integration. Certainly much progress has been made since the days under the reign of segregationist Gov. Ross Barnett, who "denounced the federal government as 'evil and illegal forces of tyranny' for ordering Ole Miss to enroll Meredith," the Associated Press reported.
According to a Jackson Free Press story on Dec. 12, 2012, about 17 percent of Ole Miss' student body is black. For a university in the state of Mississippi, that is a great deal of progress. Despite this, Meredith did not wish to participate in the university's commemoration of his enrollment last year; he did not see the point.
"I ain't never heard of the French celebrating Waterloo," Meredith told the Associated Press on Oct. 1, 2012.
Meredith's reasoning is slightly problematic – one should not see the integration of a university in one of the country's most racially polarized areas as a defeat, but rather as a victory for all involved.
However, it is important to acknowledge that for Meredith, this was a war. He came very close to losing his life fighting for equality, and it is difficult to forget that military involvement was necessary for the safe passage of one black student. Even now, Meredith is unsatisfied with the way things have turned out since the end of the civil rights movement, and understandably so.
Currently, schools are more segregated now than they were in Meredith's heyday. Perhaps Meredith's war-like attitude is problematic, but it seems appropriate. His victory was but one in what seems to be a very long struggle for equality.
Andrea Richardson is a sophomore in anthropology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.