"It Was Too Real": A Civil Rights Monument Reveals the University of Mississippi's Relationship to Its Racial History

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 4:30 PM
Salon 6 (Palmer House Hilton)
Anna Kaplan, American University
On the evening of September 30, 1962, James Meredith began his third and final attempt to desegregate the University of Mississippi (UM) armed with court and federal government orders to register him. It took years of applications, court appeals, and enrollment attempts to reach this point. Even though Meredith faced a riot upon his arrival, he was not the first African American to attempt this. In 1958, Clennon King tried to enter UM as a student and “the then Mississippi governor, James P. Coleman, ordered that he should be locked up in a mental institution for 12 days. Any black crazy enough to apply to Ole Miss, went the joke, must be insane.”1

Forty years later, UM erected a monument commemorating civil rights efforts: a statue of Meredith walking leisurely toward an open concrete doorway. Four words ringed the outside of the top of the doorway: courage, opportunity, knowledge, persistence. These same words adorn the frame of former Chancellor Robert Khayat’s—the white man who held that position during the monument’s creation and installation—official portrait. Many have applauded UM for confronting its history with this monument, but it ignores crucial aspects of the African American fight for equality.

This paper takes a critical reading of the monument, evaluating the narratives it perpetuates and stifles. It fails to embody the struggles to obtain and exercise rights and the mass resistance backlash. It also silences the desegregation attempts before Meredith; the efforts of African American students after Meredith to gain ground toward integration; and its own embroiled history as students pushed—and partially failed—UM to allow and accept a Civil Rights Monument on campus.

1. Nick Bryant, “The Black Man Who Was Crazy Enough to Apply to Ole Miss,” in Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 53 (Autumn 2006): 60.

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