OXFORD, Miss. – James Meredith has became the fifth individual in the University of Mississippi’s history to receive one of its most prestigious honors, the Mississippi Humanitarian Award.
Announced Wednesday (Sept. 28) during “The Mission Continues: Building Upon the Legacy,” the signature event commemorating the 60th anniversary of the university’s integration, the Mississippi Humanitarian Award is a rare honor given to those who have shown commitment to bettering society and who have created lasting change in the state.
The Mississippi Humanitarian Award has been given to only four other changemakers since it was established. The first award was given in 2001 to philanthropist and education champion Jim Barksdale and his late wife, Sally Barksdale.
In 2003, it was awarded to the late former Gov. William Winter and his late wife, Elise Winter. In 2013, the university honored Myrlie Evers-Williams, wife of slain civil rights icon Medgar Evers. The most recent award went to the late U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in 2018.
“With the addition of Mr. Meredith, you can see this award recognizes and celebrates remarkable individuals whose extraordinary leadership and advocacy have withstood the test of time,” Chancellor Glenn Boyce said during the signature event. “His example propels this university’s ongoing commitment for every person to thrive … to be where dreams and aspirations are built and made.”
Boyce said Meredith earned the award not only for his work at the university, but for his longtime advocacy efforts across the state. Meredith empowered the advancement of society, compelled others to acknowledge the equality of all individuals and inspired others to stand up to inequality, he said.
The award was not simply a recognition of what Meredith did in the past, but a mark of appreciation for the lasting impact he continues to make, Boyce said.
“We recognize him as a brave and bold humanitarian,” he said. “He is a living reminder that we all must be willing to demonstrate selflessness, courage and dedication through our words and, perhaps even more so, through our actions to forge a just society that holds steadfast to improving the lives of all.”
On Oct. 1, 1962, Meredith became the first African American to enroll at Ole Miss, an action that sparked a riot on campus resulting in two dead and more than 300 injured. Integrating the university was a marker for the state to bolster integration efforts across the state, said Donald Cole, retired UM assistant provost and assistant to the chancellor for multicultural affairs.
“Sixty years ago, our university was in turmoil,” Cole said Wednesday night. “We were a closed society, one that perpetuated among itself views that were flawed. Philosophies that were long outdated and myths that had no truth to it. We needed help.”
Meredith’s enrollment on campus was the starting point of opening that closed society, he said.
Following the events of late September and early October 1962, Meredith spent two semesters at UM before graduating in August 1963 with a degree in political science. Following graduation, Meredith continued to study political science at University of Ibadan in Nigeria before earning a law degree at Columbia University.
In 1966, Meredith began the “March Against Fear,” a walk from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson. The march, intended to highlight racial inequality in Mississippi, came to a quick and violent halt on the second day, when Meredith was shot and injured.
Leaders of major civil rights organizations took up the cause and vowed to complete the march in Meredith’s stead. When Meredith was released from the hospital, he rejoined the march, which had gained thousands of participants after the news of his attack.
By the time they reached Jackson in June 1966, what began as a solo march entered the state’s capital with an estimated 15,000 people in its train.
In the years following, Meredith would serve on staffs of U.S. senators, work in several different states in political offices, and self-publish several books on politics and society.
The university in 2006 dedicated a statue in his honor, which stands behind the Lyceum, and in 2012, Meredith accepted the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Medal for Education Impact. The city of Oxford announced last week that the board of aldermen had voted to recognize Oct. 1 as James Meredith Day, and during the signature event, the university bestowed Meredith with more than a half-dozen gifts, scholarships and honors.
Additionally, the Mississippi Humanitarian Award includes a monetary prize for the recipient to continue their work in a manner that they choose.
Earlier in the evening, Meredith shared remarks with the crowd where he expressed his gratitude to the university for the occasion.
“I can assure you, in my opinion, this is the best day I ever lived,” Meredith said.
When Boyce and Shawnboda Mead, UM vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement, presented Meredith with the Mississippi Humanitarian Award, he smiled and reached out to touch the glass surface of the large chalice.
“While his bold and courageous actions and contributions took place at an institution of higher learning, please make no mistake that Mr. Meredith’s impact extends beyond this university and stretches across this country,” Boyce said. “He single-handedly opened the door to countless educational opportunities for all who followed in his footsteps.
“He literally changed the trajectory of tens of thousands of lives.”