Sep. 29—OXFORD — The University of Mississippi honored James Meredith, the first Black student to enroll there, with a night of praise and accolades Wednesday at the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts as part of its celebration of the 60th anniversary of integration.
The month's signature event, titled "The Mission Continues: Building Upon the Legacy," commemorated Meredith's enrollment on Oct. 1, 1962. In the years since his graduation in 1963, the Air Force veteran and native of Kosciusko, became an iconic figure in the U.S. Civil Rights movement.
Meredith, 89, received a standing ovation from the crowd as he walked onto the stage wearing a white suit and an Ole Miss baseball cap.
"In my opinion, this is the best day I ever lived," Meredith said. "But there's some more truth. Celebration is good. I don't think there's anybody in this house or in the state of Mississippi that thinks the problem has been solved. Actually, there's more wrong today than there was 60 years ago."
Meredith spoke about uplifting the moral character of the nation during his speech, which was peppered with jokes about saying things he shouldn't. He also talked of raising money to construct a James Meredith museum in the state capital.
"When most people hear the truth, they don't like it," Meredith told the crowd.
Meredith is a living testament to that. Three years after graduating from UM, he led the 1966 March Against Fear, which began as a solo journey from Memphis to Jackson. Thousands joined him after he was shot in an assassination attempt on the second day of his march.
In introducing Meredith, retired UM educator and administrator Dr. Donald Cole cited a quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: "If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door."
Cole described how Meredith did each of those things, but the sermon metaphor is perhaps most fitting for Meredith, a Christian on a self-described lifelong "mission from God."
"He preached a better sermon by showing love to those who showed hate and disdain for him," Cole said. "He preached a better sermon when he had to be escorted by armed guards to class in the midst of crowds that were heckling him, crowds that were saying all sorts of detestable things against him. And yet, he did not retaliate with the same words. He preached a better sermon. James Meredith preached a better sermon when in the midst of a riot on our campus that claimed the dear lives of two individuals, a riot designed to claim his own life, he came to the University of Mississippi, anyway."
Dr. Ethel Scurlock, dean of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College and the first Black woman to become a dean at UM, delivered the keynote address. She vowed to continue the work Meredith started six decades earlier.
Throughout months of research, Scurlock tried to understand Meredith's walk and what it felt like to sit where he sat. She realized she could never understand the multi-layered battle he fought both publicly and privately to open the institution's doors.
"Mr. Meredith, we know that you could not walk a glorious red carpet into historical fame; you were forced to walk on carpets indelibly stained with the blood and tears of our ancestors," she said. "You traveled through Mississippi minefields that were littered with explosive practices and policies that threatened the lives of her Black citizens. I could never fully understand, we could never fully understand, how daunting, how difficult the sociopolitical landscape was for Black people in Mississippi in 1962."
Wednesday night was by far the largest celebration of Meredith's extraordinary life to date by the Ole Miss community.
Among the many honors given to him, the most significant was being named an honorary deputy U.S. Marshal by Ronald L. Davis, director of the U.S. Marshals Service.
"The Marshal Service has a very unique and historic relationship with Mr. Meredith," Davis said. "We were first-hand witnesses to history, and many of the deputies, over 170 deputies, served side-by-side with Mr. Meredith as he took the courageous path of integration of Ole Miss."
Kesha Howell-Atkinson, member of the Oxford Board of Aldermen, announced that the board declared Oct. 1 "James Meredith Day" in the City of Oxford.
UM Chancellor Dr. Glenn Boyce named Meredith the latest recipient of the Mississippi Humanitarian Award, one of the university's most distinguished honors. It is awarded to individuals who show a personal commitment to the betterment of society and who have had a transformative impact on the state.
"While his bold and courageous actions and contributions took place at an institution of higher learning, please make no mistake about this," Boyce said. "Mr. Meredith's impact extends far beyond our university. It stretches all the way across this country. He single-handedly opened a door to countless educational opportunities for all who followed in his footsteps. He literally changed the trajectory of tens of thousands of lives, and that's just today. Think about the decades ahead."