—Mississippi Freedom Trail —
On October 1, 1962, James Meredith broke the rigid segregation in Mississippi's higher education when he became the first African American student at the University of Mississippi. Though federal courts had ordered his admission, Governor Ross Barnett and other state leaders stood in defiant opposition. The evening before Meredith enrolled, President John F. Kennedy deployed to the campus the U.S. Army and federalized National Guard to quell rioting segregationists. The following day agents of the U.S. Department of Justice escorted Meredith to the Lyceum Building, where he registered. He graduated in August of 1963.
Other African Americans
blazed the trail for James Meredith. Medgar Evers applied to the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1954. The Board of Trustees of the State Institutions of Higher Learning declared that he had not complied with rules regarding letters of
recommendation. Evers abandoned that pursuit and assumed his position as NAACP field secretary.
In 1958 Clennon King, a former teacher at Alcorn A & M College, applied to Ole Miss but upon his
arrival to register was told his application lacked required materials. When he refused to leave, highway patrolmen forced him into a car and imprisoned him at Mississippi Highway Patrol headquarters in Jackson, under a warrant for lunacy. He was then committed to the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield. Twelve days later, King walked out, declared "not mentally ill."
Kosciusko native James Meredith, a student at Jackson State, applied for admission to Ole Miss in early 1962. Although his act to desegregate Ole Miss was a personal one and not a movement priority, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund countered efforts by Mississippi officials to deny him admission, and on September 13 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals demanded his immediate enrollment. Governor Ross Barnett responded with racist rhetoric on television, pledging that "No school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your governor." His stance met with almost unanimous approval from
elected officials. On Saturday, September 29, 1962, during halftime at an Ole Miss football game in Jackson, he inflamed the all-white crowd with more rhetoric. Barnett was meanwhile in secret negotiation with President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy about the handling of Meredith's admission.
On Sunday, September 30, with Meredith under heavy guard in a dormitory, riots ensued, with
crowds throwing bricks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails at a federal force assembled at the Lyceum
Ole Miss professors Jim Silver and Evans Harrington and the Reverend Duncan Gray tried to calm
students, while armed outsiders took over the campus. Army troops were ordered in from Memphis;
by dawn, 23,000 soldiers had restored order, but two men lay dead—a French reporter and an Oxford
bystander—and 160 marshals were injured, 28 by gunfire. The University suffered in the aftermath;
morale was down, and at least 37 professors resigned in protest.
James Meredith enrolled successfully on October 1, attended classes under great pressures, and graduated
in 1963. In 2002 Meredith's son Joseph received a doctorate from the University of Mississippi.