Monday, November 28, 2022

Letter-writing Campaign Honors James Meredith

By Clara Turnage

University of Mississippi

James Meredith speaks Sept. 28 during ‘The Mission Continues: Building Upon the Legacy,’ a signature event honoring the 60th anniversary of his enrollment at the University of Mississippi. As part of the proceedings, officials presented Meredith with a book of nearly 100 letters from people whose lives he touched. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

 During the signature event of the University of Mississippi’s celebration of the 60th anniversary of integration, campus representatives presented the university’s first African American student with a book of nearly 100 letters from people whose lives he touched. 

The “Dear Mr. Meredith” compendium was the result of months of submissions from students, alumni, faculty and friends of the university that described how James Meredith’s 1962 integration of the university affected their lives. 

The 60 Years of Integration Planning Committee, including nearly two dozen representatives across campus, had the letters bound into a book and presented to Meredith and to each of his children on Sept. 28. 

“It was a meaningful way for members of the campus community to express their gratitude,” said Shawnboda Mead, vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement. “The letters were very heartfelt and a great testament to Mr. Meredith’s legacy.” 

In the spring, the committee hopes to present Meredith with a second book of letters from the initiative, which will be open for submissions through Dec. 14, Mead said. Letters can be submitted here

More than 100 letters have been submitted so far in the campaign, and that the number continues to grow after the anniversary celebration, Mead said. 

The book, which bears a photo of the statue of Meredith behind the Lyceum, is small and pale blue with the 60th anniversary logo at the top of every page. Inside are letters from in-state and out-of-state students and alumni, first-generation and legacy attendees, people who had never heard of Meredith before attending the university and people who had known his name since childhood. 

The letters vary – the shortest only five words; the longest more than 500 – but similar phrases appear repeatedly. “I hope to walk in your footsteps,” many letters read. Others say, “Thank you is not enough,” “You paved the way for the future” and “You paved the way for me.” 

Dee Harris, president of the Black Student Union and member of the 60 Years of Integration Planning Committee, said the decision to bind the letters into a book made the gift particularly significant to Meredith, who is an avid reader. 

“I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him on two different occasions, and both times he had a book on him,” Harris said. “He made a part of history at the University of Mississippi; it’s important for him to have his own story, a book for him to keep.” 

Harris said students like herself, who serve in high-level positions in the university, have always been able to reach out to Meredith but that this initiative opens the door for more students to do so. 

“We wanted to widen that pool of students who can say thank you,” Harris said. “We wanted to be able to express the gratitude that’s in the community for what he did on campus to allow us to be here together.” 

Associated Student Body President Lila Osman, who also served on the planning committee, said it was important to her to present Meredith with something tangible, as opposed to a digital collection. 

“It was meaningful to me that they may never have met Mr. Meredith and possibly never will, but that they can say thank you,” Osman said. “I wanted him to have something real he can take from the university that symbolizes how much he means to us.” 

Harris and Osman, alongside other members of the planning committee, pushed the submission platform out to multiple student, faculty and alumni groups to gather as many letters as possible. 

Osman observed that at the beginning of such projects, organizers never know how many people will participate. Soon, however, the letters were flooding in. 

“His legacy lives on with all of us, maybe not in the same way,” she said. “For a lot of people, it was memorable moments that were really uplifting. Other students said they wouldn’t be who they are without him. It was just really heartwarming to read.”


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