The Gift of Ole Miss
By Ronnie Agnew
On a small farm in rural north Mississippi, the calendar flipped to Oct. 10, 1962, my mother gave birth to a baby boy who would one day enter the University of Mississippi. The baby boy was me, born during a historic time for Mississippi and for Ole Miss.
For that reason, I’ve always felt a connection to James Meredith, although I would be well into my 40s before we would meet. The celebration of my 50th birthday comes during the same time as Ole Miss commemorates 50 years since Meredith successfully became the university’s first black student.
The irony has never been lost on me. On the day I was born, the seventh of nine children, just 50 miles to the west violence was taking place on a campus that I would later consider home. It was home then and Ole Miss is home now – only because of the courage of a man who still seems oblivious to the tumult that surrounded him.
Not much has changed about James Meredith in how he views his admission to Ole Miss. At least on the outside, he never appears to get too worked up about it, preferring to talk about other things he considers more important.
Conversely, I have heard him speak passionately to black alumni about the pride he feels in knowing he is part of their legacy. Black students on the Ole Miss campus today are as much a part of the university as the historic lyceum. I have seen the television footage of the violence that ensued from Meredith’s bravery. I have seen the defiant governor, the protective U.S. Marshals and the concerned president of the United States, each serving in distinctive roles as Mississippi in 1962 once again was the center of the nation’s civil rights struggles.
As a young boy in the 1960s, even into the early 1970s, my mother never believed I would have the opportunity to attend Ole Miss. When I told her Ole Miss was my college choice, she looked at me with concern for my safety.
That would quickly change, however. During my frequent trips home, she didn’t see a son living in fear because of his college choice. She saw a son living in pride because of it.
Ole Miss wasn’t perfect when I attended in 1980-1984. There were still things to iron out. Issues of race would occasionally arise and would become the lead story in our student newspaper. But I honestly believe I attended Ole Miss at a time when the university had reached a turning point in student race relations. Scores of good people worked tirelessly to ensure Ole Miss would never revisit its non-inclusive past. Still others who would come after me, courageous leaders taking courageous stands, would put even more distance between Ole Miss and 1962.
In March, I attended a reunion of the university’s black alumni. Nearly 500 people came back home to Ole Miss from every possible era. There were graduates from the 1960s, 1970s and beyond. They came from all over the country, from New York to California to see the faces of their friends and the faces that now make up their campus.
Those faces look similar to the rest of America. The black students on campus today don’t think they belong at Ole Miss; they know they do. In some ways they are just like James Meredith, oblivious to the battle that helped get them there.
I don’t mind that so much. It is time that we move on, and clearly today’s student, black and white, has taken that gigantic step.
A young black woman is the student body president, a first. Another young black woman was just crowned the school’s homecoming queen, a first. A few years ago, one of my classmates became the first black woman to lead the school’s large alumni association.
The “firsts” are only significant in that they create a future where the word “first” won’t be necessary. Ole Miss is rapidly moving toward the elimination of that word, at a speed more rapid than many of its peer institutions.
One of the ways I’ll celebrate my 50th birthday is by thanking James Meredith for giving me the gift of Ole Miss. On that hot May day in 1984 when I graduated from the university, there was no one prouder than my mother. I don’t know if she was prouder of me, or what she saw at Ole Miss, a place that was off limits to her, but not to her son, or the sons and daughters of the future.