THE BULLET HOLES are tiny, almost minute. They are dwarfed by the Greek columns that stand in front of them. But if you are a black student at the University of Mississippi, those holes in the wall of the Lyceum building, the physical symbol of this university and its ties to the Old South, serve as a reminder of the violence that occurred there just 25 years ago when James Meredith became the first black to be admitted to Ole Miss. They are also a reminder of the cruelty that still lurks under the peacefulness of the Ole Miss campus.
On the evening of Sept. 30, 1962, the Ralph Eubanks is a managing editor of primary journals for the American Psychological Association. day before Meredith was to enroll at the university, a violent mob gathered in front of the Lyceum to protest his admission and the accompanying presence of U.S. marshals and national guardsmen on campus. While President Kennedy addressed the nation on Meredith's legal battle to enter Ole Miss and made a plea for the citizens of Mississippi to accept the law, rioters threw Molotov cocktails and bricks. By the time the violence ended that evening, two people had been killed.
Despite the mob's efforts, Meredith registered for classes the next day. Many other black students have followed in his footsteps during the past 25 years, and I am proud to say that I am one of them. Most of us who followed Meredith have not had to face the outward racism that greeted his arrival, but we have had to continue the struggle for social change that he began.
Several years ago, Meredith said in a lecture that integration is a "sham" and "the biggest con job ever pulled on any people." I do not agree with his assessment of the gains of the civil-rights movement. But I realize that his words are rooted in the pain he endured at Ole Miss: the 16-month court battle to gain admission, the taunts of classmates ("Boo, you nigger," one jeered on his second day on campus, "How do you feel, going to class with blood on your hands?"), the hate mail and death threats ("Roses are red, violets are blue; I've killed one nigger and might as well make it two," read one missive.) Icame to Ole Miss in 1974, 12 years after James Meredith. I never suffered as he did. Racial epithets were not hurled at me daily; I never received hate mail and no one had to stand guard at my dormitory room's door to protect me from people who wanted to kill me. My experiences at Ole Miss were only aftershocks of the 1962 upheaval; unfortunately, those aftershocks are still being felt today.
The cruelty and loneliness Meredith suffered were chronicled in the national news media. I remember my parents reading those articles in horror. They found it difficult to think of Ole Miss without remembering pictures of tear gas smoke in the air and the Lyceum surrounded by troops and sandbags. Twelve years later when it came time for me to go away to college, those memories had not faded. Ole Miss was certainly not my parents' college of choice, and neither was it the top choice of other black parents in Mississippi.
Like other black students entering Ole Miss, I had been chided by friends and family about the school's traditions and reputation. Someone would say, "I guess you're going to be one of those Rebels now." ("Rebel" -- the nickname of the school's sports teams -- was always spoken with a tone of betrayal.) We were made to feel as if we were denying our heritage.
Going to Ole Miss was my last act of adolescent rebellion. I did not want to follow in my sisters' footsteps at Mississippi State University. No, I wanted to make a decision independent of my family's influence, and going to Ole Miss was definitely a decision that no one in my family wanted any part of. Besides, in my naive, egocentric 17-year-old mind I thought that things would be different for me and that somehow I would make a difference. I resolved to endure the ridicule and prove to my family that I had made the right decision.
After facing the taunting of friends and family, I had to face the social barriers of Ole Miss. Many times I wondered if my family had been right. There were fewer than 500 black students at Ole Miss my freshman year, and almost no established social outlets for them. The social and political structure was geared to an elite minority on campus: the white fraternities and sororities. Ole Miss had the atmosphere of a country club, but black students could not aspire to first-class membership.
Ole Miss gave the appearance of racial calm in 1974. But it was still very much a bastion of the Old South. Before I came to the campus, I knew that the symbols and traditions of Ole Miss were those of the Confederate South, and I was prepared to face up to them. I naively believed that the rebel flag was just as harmless symbol of a bygone era, rather than the active source of racial division on campus that I soon found it to be. Rather than meeting the situation head-on, many black students succumbed to their fears of failure. Others eventually switched to predominantly black colleges in the state. Most of us who stayed were committed to creating some kind of change.
During my second year at Ole Miss, a few things did begin to change. Several black students, myself included, were elected to the campus senate (the year before there were no blacks in the senate). Other black students were appointed to cabinet positions in the student-body association. My involvement in campus politics did not give me much hope for substantial change at Ole Miss, but it did give me more personal confidence. During my freshmen year, I had spent most of my time involved with my studies and very little time with social activities. My newfound confidence let me become more outgoing socially.
Many of the people I made social ties with were white. Although I knew that I was crossing an invisible social line, I crossed it anyway. When I overheard black students criticizing me for going to "Dixie Week" dances or other social activities considered to be for whites only, I felt hurt and betrayed. It also hurt when white students looked at me as if I didn't belong at those activities. I often felt confused and alone; confused because I didn't understand what I was doing wrong, and alone because no one else seemed to think I was doing right.
In my sophomore year, I considered switching to another college. That spring, however, I discovered a quote by William Faulkner inscribed on the wall of the library: "I decline to accept the end of man. I believe that man will not merely endure, he will prevail." I pondered that quote a great deal that spring and before long I adapted Faulkner's words for my situation: "I decline to accept the Old South; I choose to prevail over it rather than endure it." The spirit of defiance I found in those words helped me make it through my undergraduate years at Ole Miss. Sometimes it seemed as if two universities existed at Ole Miss: One black and one white, each pursuing its own traditions. The white Ole Miss with its fraternities, sororities and control of campus politics, found its roots in the traditions of the Old South. During the Civil War, the entire student body and faculty left Ole Miss and enlisted for duty, and most banded together as the University Greys and served the Confederacy. Ole Miss was closed for most of the war, and those students who served the Confederacy did not return when it reopened in 1865. It was in honor of the University Greys that our sports teams' mascot was called "Colonel Rebel," the Confederate flag was usually displayed at all sporting events and the band played "Dixie" as the football team came on the field.
Then there was the black Ole Miss whose traditions began with the bullet holes in the Lyceum wall and a fight for social change. The traditions of white Ole Miss were obviously not ones to which black students might rally. For black students the symbols of Ole Miss represented Mississippi's racist past. The Confederate flag had been waved at us as we entered an integrated school for the first time and displayed prominently in establishments in which we were not welcome. We had heard "Dixie" sung at rallies we watched on television for segregationist candidates for governor. And, just as southern whites say they will never forget the Civil War, black Mississippians will never forget the battle James Meredith fought to study at Ole Miss.
In an important way, the memory of Meredith's battle has actually widened the gulf between the black and white traditions. Because of the national embarrassment the state suffered, most white Mississippians would like to forget the incidents surrounding the integration of Ole Miss, to forget the bullet holes in the Lyceum. Meredith's admission was like losing the Civil War a second time, another affront to the dignity of the South. Rather than admit defeat and move forward, the controlling powers at Ole Miss decided to act as if nothing had happened.
It is still rare that the black and the white Ole Miss meet on common ground. Instead of trying to carve out a new Ole Miss that both blacks and whites can call their own, the two groups pursue their separate amd unreconciled traditions. The prevailing attitude among whites has been that blacks can attend Ole Miss, but that is all they can do. Meredith may have broken a legal barrier by gaining admission to Ole Miss, but the barriers of culture and tradition are still stronger.
Since I graduated from Ole Miss nine years ago, a few things have changed. The Confederate flag is no longer an official symbol of the university and the band no longer plays "Dixie" at football games. These changes represent progress in that the university has finally recognized that rebel flags and "Dixie" are offensive to black students. But a change in the official symbols of the university is only a superficial change; Ole Miss needs more than that. It needs a change that will unite the black Ole Miss and the white Ole Miss.
Moreover, despite these attempts, there has been more resistance to change than acceptance. For example, when the Confederate flag was removed as an official symbol in 1983, there were protests on campus, and some of those protests were aimed at black students. Just last spring the campus was in an uproar because the Black Student Union endorsed a full slate of candidates for student body offices. On my last visit to Ole Miss, I was told that there is even a movement among some students to reinstitute the Confederate flag as an official symbol of the university.
When I hear about the current racial climate at Ole Miss, I wonder if the students are aware of the racial antagonism that existed at Ole Miss just 25 years ago. I wonder if they have noticed the bullet holes in the Lyceum when they are taking a shortcut through it on their way to classes. I wonder if, when they walk across the carpeted floors in the main corridor of the Lyceum, they know that the carpet covers a tile floor that was stained with blood and littered with broken glass. If Ole Miss students are widely ignorant of the circumstances that brought integration to Ole Miss, now is the time for them to learn. After 25 years of integration at Ole Miss, it is time that the university reconciled itself with an unpleasant part of its past. Reconciliation does not mean picking up past racial baggage and wearing it as an albatross for 25 more years; it means resolving some of the deep-rooted racial problems that exist on campus so that the problems are not with us for 25 more years. It means that university leaders must frankly examine the social polarization of blacks and whites at Ole Miss that has existed since integration and work actively to break down barriers on both sides.
I have begun my own personal reconciliation with Ole Miss. In fact, despite some tough times there, I have always felt a bond to the school. Just like every other southerner, I feel a link to the land, to a special place back home that you can never escape. On those days in Washington when it is neither winter nor spring and there is still a chill in the air, I have found that an early spring visit to Mississippi can cure my winter doldrums. My first stop is always Ole Miss. When the weather report in Washington calls for snow flurries in March, I know that I can always count on seeing the flowers bloom on University Circle.
As I walk across campus on my spring visits, some of the ghosts of my past anxieties come back to visit. But those anxieties and feelings of ambivalence seem to tug at me less and less as the years go by. Now my thoughts about Ole Miss are rooted in the progress I want for its future and not what I went through in the past.
My spring pilgrimages to Ole Miss are bound to continue. Every March I will start to get homesick and force myself to make the long drive to Oxford. One day those treks will probably include my family, who, like every family, will have to endure Dad's stories of glory days gone by. If after visiting the campus my son or daughter decides that Ole Miss is his or her college of choice, I want to be able to encourage that choice. But if Ole Miss doesn't make greater strides toward racial harmony and progress, I will find myself expressing the same reservations my parents had. I simply cannot imagine anything more painful.