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University of Mississippi Black students compare campus life of today and 1970

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Many a Black history lesson includes the story of James Meredith, the man who, in 1962, integrated the University of Mississippi - the college campus most associated with the Old South. But that was not the end of efforts to dismantle entrenched segregation there. By 1970, Black students protested what they saw as token integration and demanded racial equity. They paid a hefty price - getting jailed and expelled from school. Now, they're back on the Ole Miss campus in dialogue with today's students. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Even the moniker Ole Miss derives from the term for the mistress of the plantation. And back in 1970, school pride meant waving Confederate battle flags.

LINNIE LIGGINS WILLIS: The climate was like the desert.

ELLIOTT: Linnie Liggins Willis was among the fewer than 200 Black students on the Oxford, Miss., campus at the time. They felt isolated.

LIGGINS WILLIS: We would associate and cling to each other because we didn't have the opportunity to really interact with the other students on campus, and so we just kind of formed our own little community.

ELLIOTT: Her classmate, Kenneth Mayfield, says the message was clear - that Black students were considered second-class citizens. He remembers being taunted walking by the athletic dorm.

KENNETH MAYFIELD: We knew, after passing in front of that house, that you were going to get harassed, you know, with the N-word-type stuff like that. And so - boom - you go a different way.

ELLIOTT: The experience was disheartening for students who thought they had a shot at an education from the state's flagship university after James Meredith had broken the color barrier eight years before, so they formed a Black Student Union to fight for racial equity. Willis was secretary of the group.

LIGGINS WILLIS: We wanted our voices to be heard, and we wanted to feel that we were a part of the mainstream.

ELLIOTT: Another member, Donald Cole, says the group was emboldened by protests on other campuses across the country and delivered 27 demands to the chancellor on February 24, 1970.

DONALD COLE: We were just asking, very, very simply, to be treated normally. We were just trying to better the institution.

ELLIOTT: For instance, they wanted the school to hire Black professors, recruit Black athletes and do away with sanctioned racist imagery.

COLE: Disassociation of the university with Confederate symbols - the flag at the time - because that was just one way of individuals constantly telling me that they didn't want me here.

RALPH EUBANKS: This was really about telling these Black students, know your place. This is still a white man's university.

ELLIOTT: That's Ralph Eubanks with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. He's working to ensure current students learn about the decadeslong struggle to fully integrate the campus and what that means for the future.

EUBANKS: That has been the missing piece of the civil rights movement. We, as a nation, never learned to work together down the road. And this university, with its civil rights history, never had that form of reconciliation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMINATA BA: The University of Mississippi Black students demand the employment of Black instructors in all schools of the university.

ELLIOTT: This is freshman Aminata Ba reciting the Black Student Union's demands from 54 years ago during a recent commemoration on campus. Ba considers herself a legacy of those students and wants to build on what they achieved.

BA: That work comes from addressing the difficult history and not whitewashing it, but instead saying, this is what we did. And this is what we're going to do, and this is how we're moving forward.

ELLIOTT: A key event in the struggle of 1970 was when the Black Student Union disrupted a concert on campus. Kenneth Mayfield remembers marching onto the stage, fists raised with the Black power symbol.

MAYFIELD: A few minutes later, the word came up to those of us who were on the stage that the highway patrol had surrounded the building.

ELLIOTT: For the first time since that night 54 years ago, Mayfield and Cole are introduced to two members of the international group that was performing, called Up With People.

COLE: I am just so glad that we were able to be here tonight...

MAYFIELD: Yeah, yeah.

COLE: ...And laugh about it.

BRUCE PARKER: Yeah.

COLE: Yeah, that's right. That's right.

PARKER: And I'm really glad I came down, too.

COLE: And it could have easily been a very violent night.

RIC NEWMAN: Yeah, yeah.

COLE: Easily.

ELLIOTT: Bruce Parker and Ric Newman, both white men, were part of the cast.

PARKER: We stopped the song we were singing, and we immediately went into "What Color Is God's Skin?" I think it really spoke to the protesters.

NEWMAN: We wanted them to know that we were standing with them, not against them.

ELLIOTT: Eighty-nine protesters were arrested, along with other Black students who had earlier burned a Confederate flag in the cafeteria. Eight of them, including Willis, Mayfield and Cole, were also expelled.

COLE: We probably knew that something was due to us, but we really didn't think - you know, kicking us out.

PARKER: Yeah.

NEWMAN: Yeah.

MAYFIELD: Yeah.

COLE: I think - I mean, we've seen frat boys do stuff much...

PARKER: Yes.

NEWMAN: Of course.

COLE: ...Much more than we'd done.

PARKER: But those frat boys weren't trying to change the whole culture of the South either, so.

(LAUGHTER)

ELLIOTT: Cole and Mayfield went on to graduate from the historically Black Tougaloo College. Mayfield is a lawyer. Cole later got his doctorate from Mississippi and retired as an assistant provost. Linnie Liggins Willis says she was long bitter that Ole Miss denied her a degree back then. She left the state for good and ran a housing authority in Ohio. Willis only returned to campus 50 years later, when the university awarded her that degree and apologized to the expelled students. The school created scholarships in their honor and invites them for dialogue with modern-day students.

ROBERT MISTER: The impact of the 1970 protest was not in vain.

ELLIOTT: That's Robert Mister, a second-generation Black student at Ole Miss, who says much has changed since then and since his mother was a student here in the '90s.

MISTER: I really don't like how we hold Ole Miss to its old roots. A lot of people in my community tend to, you know, say, oh, Ole Miss is that racist school. Ole Miss is that white man's school. But, you know, I'm here to tell you, in 2024, that's most definitely not the case.

ELLIOTT: The institution has worked to distance itself from symbols of the old South - banning the Confederate battle flag from sporting events, for instance. There are even campus slavery tours now that delve deeply into the history here. But Ole Miss still struggles to attract and retain Black professors and students. Mississippi's population is nearly 40% African American - the highest in the country - yet Black students make up only about 11% of the student body. And the percentage of Black faculty is even smaller - 6%. Freshman Edward Wilson has noticed.

EDWARD WILSON: And I'm like, where are they? Where is this representation? And where are people who go here going to see any other representation besides the person who prepares my fries?

ELLIOTT: Wilson says learning about what happened on campus has him thinking about what protest means to people his age.

WILSON: You're just trying to find a place in the world. It doesn't have to be some big march for, you know, things - massive things like voting rights. You know, it can be small-scale stuff - just making your voice heard when - you know, feel like that you're being shut out of the conversation. That itself is protest to me.

ELLIOTT: For Kenneth Mayfield and Donald Cole, seeing these Black students asserting their place on campus today is proof they were on the right side of history back in 1970.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Oxford, Miss.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S, "TIMID, INTIMIDATING")

KELLY: And this story was produced by Walter Ray Watson.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S, "TIMID, INTIMIDATING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.