I became a trailblazer in my family upon graduation from college; I was the first to obtain a college degree. It was a very special time for my mother, who had wanted to attend college but saw her dreams derailed because of her inability to read well, a challenge that made her even more determined to see her children succeed. Now, her dream was coming true. And it was time for me to reflect on how I arrived at this place and what I learned from it.
I graduated from a small-town high school in north Mississippi, and as surprising as it was for some to learn of my plans, it wasn’t difficult for me to choose The University of Mississippi. It is the state’s flagship university, better known as Ole Miss. When I was growing up, I didn’t read about Ole Miss in my history books. Instead, I heard about it from the people in my community. There was a notion in the black community that Ole Miss was a school still struggling to overcome racial tension. When I told people I would be going there, an eyebrow was often raised and questions were asked.
“Are you seriously going down there?” they would say. “You know that school is known for racism, right?” And there was my favorite question: “Why don’t you go to Mississippi State? Isn’t it easier for black students there?”
My theory was that if I was going to a school in Mississippi, I was going to the best academic institution in the state. And Ole Miss was the best. It was the flagship, the first in the state. In my eyes it was an academic institution with accolades parallel to those of the Ivy League universities. So, despite the negative comments, I enrolled, and I look back four years later knowing it is a decision I would never undo. Ole Miss has challenged me, pushed me, tested me and supported me. Each challenge made me more equipped and ready for the real world.
When I was in high school, I always wanted to be on the homecoming court. I wanted to wear the big, beautiful dresses worn by the court. But I was always voted friendliest. Despite my unwavering desire to be on the homecoming court, I was never nominated, so it was no surprise to anyone who knew me that the first thing I did when I came to Ole Miss was run for homecoming court.
There are two maids for each class at Ole Miss — two freshman maids, two sophomore maids and so forth. One homecoming maid is elected by the student body and the other maid is elected by varsity athletes. There is a trend that most of the student-body-elected maids are white and the maid elected by the athletes is black. When I decided to run for freshman homecoming maid at Ole Miss, my friends all told me, “You need to run for the maid elected by the athletes. You will never get elected homecoming maid by the student body.”
That didn’t make sense to me, so I pushed ahead, neglecting my friends’ advice, and placed my name in the running for the homecoming maid position that would be chosen by the student body. I campaigned hard, and maybe all of that experience as “friendliest” in high school paid off. My campaign was a success. I became the only black maid elected by the student body on the homecoming court.
This turned out to be one of the highlights of my freshman year, but victory would not be the only thing highlighted that year. As was the case several times during my college years, there were ups and downs. A couple weeks after I was elected freshman homecoming maid, I witnessed the Ku Klux Klan come to campus and protest after the chancellor demanded students stop chanting “the South will rise again” when the band played “From Dixie with Love.” I never imagined that I would see the KKK standing on the steps of our beloved university, with white robes and Confederate flags. My eyes burned at the sight of them.
My sophomore year was a story all its own. I was invited to join a sorority, a traditionally white sorority. And I became the only black member of that sorority chapter. The next week there was a blog online called “Phi Mu Accepts Black Girl — Laughing Stock on campus.” At first, I thought the blog would not affect me. I kept telling myself that they were just words. But those words hurt; they cut me deep. Sometimes today, even late at night, I sit up and think about the words on that blog. The words we speak, type, and write linger, and they have power, however much we wish it wasn’t so. But I’ve learned that the amount of power we give words is solely up to us. I gave those words on that blog too much of my power and time. Never again.
My junior year I was elected the first black female student body president at Ole Miss. It was a bit of history and an incredible vote of confidence. Yet a couple of weeks after my inauguration, I was denounced with racial slurs by another student. I will never forget his words. But I also remember returning to my room in the Phi Mu house, where several of my sorority sisters came down to my room to check on me. One of my sisters, Ali, came in my room and gave me a hug. She said, “I’m so sorry that happened to you, but don’t worry; I’m your sister and I’ve got your back.” In that moment, even through the hurt, Ali reminded me that there was still good in the world. Her love and compassion toward me, especially that night, will never be forgotten.
The days following the incident were extremely difficult for me. I pressed harassment charges and we began to proceed with the case through the university judicial system. The trial day finally came, and I learned that the young man could face suspension or expulsion. It was not certain what his punishment would be if he was found guilty, but I knew I did not want this student expelled. To me, expelling him would not open his mind about race and diversity, so just before the trial began I told university officials to drop the charges. “I have a better idea,” I said. I hoped that he would open his mind if he knew me.
After the charges were dismissed, the young man and I began to meet regularly. He apologized to me. We went to dinner, and we even keep in touch today. It took me a while, but I forgave him. I know that I’m not perfect, and I decided I couldn’t expect others to be perfect. Although many of my friends and family members will never understand why I dropped the charges, I know within my heart I made the right decision. That day, I chose not to fight hate with hate. Instead I chose to reach out, to show someone the love that he did not show me.
During my senior year, the university commemorated 50 years of integration since James Meredith was admitted to the university as its first black student in 1962. I witnessed one of the most remarkable years in our university’s history. It was hard to imagine that just 50 years ago students like me were not allowed on this campus or on the campus of any other Mississippi college that was not historically black. They were not allowed to run, as I did, for homecoming court or student body president.
When discouraged, I reflected on James Meredith, the first black student at Ole Miss. I reminded myself of his tumultuous experiences at Ole Miss. And when I thought about the riot and the lives lost the night before he was admitted, it made the struggles that I faced at Ole Miss seem trivial. James Meredith forever changed Ole Miss. Anything I accomplished was because of him.
I never thought that I would meet a historic figure like James Meredith. But the opportunity presented itself during my junior year. Shortly after I was elected student body president, I received a call from him. He called to congratulate me, and we began to regularly correspond with one another. He even came to visit several times throughout my term. And his message was consistent: “We must keep fighting to move Mississippi forward. Our schools should be number one in the country. Our churches, our communities and our people need to step up.”
It was through those words from James Meredith that I came to understand why I am at Ole Miss. I came to Ole Miss because it is not perfect, but it deserves to be. It is a work in progress. I came to Ole Miss because I knew that there was more work to be done, more battles to fight, more obstacles to overcome, and that it is up to my generation to make a difference.
There have been many times when I’ve rejoiced and celebrated at Ole Miss, but I would be dishonest to suggest that all the moments were happy. There were some times of tears and pain. But even through pain there were always members of the Ole Miss family who wiped away my tears and encouraged me.
When I walked across the stage to receive my diploma on that Saturday afternoon in May, a proud graduate of The University of Mississippi, the hard work of school and becoming a more seasoned adult had paid off. Ole Miss had equipped me; it had given me a glimpse of real world challenges. I found myself. I learned the meaning of love, compassion, and hate. I learned how to forgive. I learned the power of words. I learned how to take risks. I learned that when others think change isn’t possible, there’s joy for you and for them in proving them wrong. In the end, I received an educational degree in journalism, but I earned a doctoral degree in LIFE.
As I walked off stage at my graduation, I looked out in the audience; James Meredith sat beside my parents. After graduation he hugged me and said, “I wouldn’t have missed this day for anything in the world; I am here for you.”