James Meredith, Charles Pickering discuss civil rights in Mississippi

ELLISVILLE – Learning civil rights is a lot easier than living, Jones College President Jesse Smith told students Monday during a panel discussion for the Charles Pickering Honors Institute in the Fine Arts Auditorium.

The discussion centered on racial discrimination in education in Mississippi in the early 1960s and how it affected students today.

“Those were some of the worst times,” said Smith. “None of you as students will ever know what it was like.”

He challenged students to put themselves in the shoes of others and try to see the world through their eyes and appreciate what their predecessors had achieved.

The panel consisted of the institute’s namesake, retired federal judge Charles Pickering, and civil rights icon James Meredith, the first black man to attend the University of Mississippi.

Meredith, a native of Kosciusko, served in the Air Force and attended All-Black Jackson State University for two years before applying to Ole Miss in 1962.

He filed a lawsuit against the university alleging racial discrimination in a state school and eventually won his case.

Although the US Supreme Court ruled in Meredith’s favor, state officials refused to allow Meredith to attend.

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Riots broke out on campus and two people were killed before Meredith could attend university. The US Marshals Service had to accompany Meredith during the first year of his visit to Ole Miss on campus to protect him.

Meredith said although these times were volatile, his professors and fellow students were warm in the classrooms.

“Mississippi was Mississippi,” he said. “Mississippi people are always nice when they’re supposed to be. The same people who scolded me when they saw me in the classroom were as nice as they could be.”

Laurel’s Pickering explained the dangers Meredith faced in the early 1960s from attending a previously all-white university.

Pickering: Meredith’s actions were “significant”, “dangerous”.

In the 1950s, Clyde Kennard, a man from Hattiesburg who tried to enroll at the University of Southern Mississippi, was not only denied school but also arrested on fraudulent charges of theft.

Kennard was sentenced to seven years in prison and placed in the toughest facility in the state, the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman. He was released in 1963 but died later that year and never realized his dream of college education.

“What (Meredith) did was so important and therefore so dangerous,” Pickering said.

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Pickering said at the time Meredith enrolled with Ole Miss, Mississippi blacks were banned from meaningful jobs or high-quality schools. They couldn’t eat in the same restaurants or shop in the same stores as white people.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan have intimidated, beaten and even killed black people who tried to exercise their rights under the US Constitution.

“Mr. Meredith was and is without question a civil rights hero,” Pickering said.

Pickering was a prosecutor before becoming a federal judge, but he also worked to hold Klansmen accountable for their crimes, which resulted in Pickering and his family in need of FBI protection.

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He even testified against Sam Bowers, the imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, whom he helped organize. Bowers was responsible for the murders of three civil rights activists in Neshoba County and the murder of Hattiesburg civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer in the 1960s.

“FBI reports and news articles revealed that Bowers was suspected of 300 bombings, assaults and arson and was responsible for 10 murders,” Pickering said. “He was the most violent man to ever put on a white hood, and he was America’s most violent living racist.”

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Despite the difficulties, Meredith remains optimistic. He believes Mississippi can point the way to better racial relations and justice in terms of politics and protection under the law.

“The best government is one that protects everyone and runs the judiciary without discrimination,” Meredith said. “I have faith in the future.”

Around 200 students and guests took part in the panel discussion.

Students from the Honors Institute helped guide guests to their seats. Two honored students, Lauren Pope of Pearl and Caleb Phillips of Enterprise, introduced Meredith and Pickering.

Ronald Bishop, Dean of the JC Honors Institute, moderated the discussion.

Contact Lici Beveridge at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @licibev or Facebook at facebook.com/licibeveridge.

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