Progress slow 50 years after desegregation anniversary - WBRC FOX6 News - Birmingham, AL

Progress slow 50 years after desegregation anniversary

James Meredith walking to class with U.S. Marshals on Oct. 1, 1962. (Source: The Library of Congress) James Meredith walking to class with U.S. Marshals on Oct. 1, 1962. (Source: The Library of Congress)

(RNN) - Monday is the 50th anniversary of the integration of the University of Mississippi, otherwise known as Ole Miss, settled deep in the heart of what was once the segregated South.

The anniversary is a striking reminder of just how far the nation has come in two generations.

In 1962, James Meredith was the first black person enrolled and accepted to the university after two previous rejections and a lawsuit by the NAACP. Today, 24.3 percent of the school's more than 20,000 students are minorities.

Meredith's enrollment was an event that sparked an uprising in the surrounding town of Oxford that ended with two dead and more than 200 injured.

President John F. Kennedy dispatched U.S. Marshals to act as protection for Meredith and as riot police.

In an interview with NPR, history professor Chuck Ross, director of the African-American studies program at Ole Miss, said hundreds of white students throwing rocks and bottles clashed with Marshals, who used tear gas to dispel the crowd.

"Things just go totally chaotic when it becomes dark, and that's when people begin to shoot," Ross told NPR.

Former Mississippi Gov. William Winter told USA Today that in the fall of 1962, Mississippians got swept up in a "hysterical wave of fear," and blamed "dishonest" media accounts that portrayed both President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy "as villains."

"We allowed ourselves to suffer along with everybody else," he said. "We were victims of the system as much as black folks. We were all in bondage. [Meredith] helped free us all."

The ordeal lasted from Saturday, Sept. 29 to Tuesday, Oct. 1, when Meredith was escorted to his first class. Ironically, the course was American history.

But many say the problem of segregation is far from over in Ole Miss and Mississippi, where income and education inequality continue to plague a state that was named the "poorest in the nation" by 24/7 Wall St.

According to the Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions on Higher Learning, 9 percent of black males in the state graduate from college, compared with 23 percent of white males.

That number carries over to the money people bring home. The median income for black households in Mississippi is half that of white households - and about twice as many black households live in poverty.

In a state where 42.3 percent of the population is minorities, the minority enrollment of Ole Miss, the largest public university in the state, seems low.

"You still don't have the interracial society one would have expected," said Leslie McLemore, a Jackson State University political professor, to USA Today. "There are still a lot of challenges, but there are conversations about the challenges."

This year marked the fourth time in the school's history that a black person, Kimberly Dandridge, was elected as the Associated Student Body president. She is also the first black woman to hold the position.

Meanwhile, 79-year-old Meredith, who has a statue in his honor on the campus of Ole Miss, told The Associated Press he didn't see the point of the anniversary ceremony.

"I ain't never heard of the French celebrating Waterloo," he told The Associated Press. "I ain't never heard of the Germany celebrating the invasion of Normandy, or… the bombing and destruction of Berlin. I ain't never heard of the Spanish celebrating the destruction of the Armada."

Meredith had much the same to say about the 40th anniversary in 2002, the year his son Joseph graduated as a doctoral student from university's business school. He told The Associated Press then that he was ready to move on.

"It was an embarrassment for me to be there, and for somebody to celebrate it, oh my God," he said.

True to his word, he was not present for the 50th anniversary commemoration. 

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