50 years ago this week, James Meredith became the first African American to enroll at the University of Mississippi, also known as “Ole Miss.” The moment was a flashpoint in the civil rights revolution of the mid-20th Century. Two people died in the violent riot that preceded his enrollment on September 30, 1962, and the images of Army and National Guard troops escorting this new student onto campus burned deeply into the American consciousness.
Half a century later, we may wonder what all the fuss was about — until we look around and realize that virulent racism remains a deeply rooted American problem. Look no further than the “comments” appended to online news stories about President Obama, or D.C. politics, or any number of other articles about issues involving African Americans. Or how about the “empty chair” lynching metaphor in Texas and Virginia? Or consider what Clinton Yates has to say about the ongoing challenge black men face when trying to hail a cab in DC. Well, the list goes on and on.
We can look at this ongoing prevalence of racism in American society and wonder about whether we’ve made real progress since 1962 and the centuries of racism and slavery that preceded that date. Or, we can look at the changes that have occurred in higher education and society since 1962 and marvel at the impact of one courageous person on the entire course of history. Because of James Meredith’s steadfast courage — not only on the day he integrated Ole Miss, but through all of the bitterly ugly days thereafter when he had to endure harassment and even death threats through his student days — the face of higher education transformed throughout the nation, and millions of African Americans were able to achieve college degrees.
Some people criticize the University of Mississippi’s observance of this anniversary as too triumphant, too focused on the successful integration of the southern university and not thoughtful enough about the historic conditions of slavery and racism that made it possible for this nation to maintain legally segregated institutions long past the Civil War. Even in 2012, with legal segregation a relic of the past, segregation persists in fact in too many urban schools and neighborhoods where poverty disproportionately affects black families and leads to diminished academic attainment among African American children.
The best way to observe this and other civil rights anniversaries is to redouble our national resolve to expose the racism that still exists, to keep addressing the egregious conditions of poverty and inequality that are the legacy of racism, and to be even more effective advocates for real justice for all.