OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi marked the 44th anniversary of its integration Sunday by dedicating a civil rights monument at a ceremony attended by politicians, actor Morgan Freeman and the student, now 73, who started it all.
The monument features a life-size bronze likeness of James Meredith, the first black student admitted to the university. The statue is posed as if it is striding toward a 17-foot-tall limestone portal topped with the words "courage," "perseverance," "opportunity" and "knowledge."
"This is a day to rejoice," said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, who delivered the keynote address to about 1,500 people who attended. "With the unveiling of this monument, we free ourselves from the chains of a difficult past. Today we can celebrate a new day, a new beginning, the birth of a new South and a new America that is more free, more fair and more just than ever before."
Meredith, who lives in Jackson, attended the ceremony but was not a speaker.
After the ceremony, he posed beside the statue for photos with former Gov. William Winter and autographed printed programs. The monument was built with $160,000 in grants and private donations.
"Mississippi is a much better state today because of James Meredith, and this is a much better university," said Freeman, a Mississippi resident. "Thank you, Mr. Meredith."
Lewis brought the crowd to its feet by recounting his childhood and his time as a national organizer of civil rights activities, including the historic March on Washington in 1963.
Lewis, who was beaten by a mob in Alabama in 1961, praised Meredith and university leaders for fostering acceptance and equal access.
"This is a monument to the power of peace to overcome violence," he said. "And it is a monument to the power of love to overcome hate."
The soldiers were bombarded with brickbats and Molotov cocktails by a mob of hundreds of whites — students and others — who chanted, "Two, four, six, eight, we will never integrate."
Two people were killed in the riots.
The leafy Oxford campus, in the hills of north Mississippi, also contains a Confederate soldier statue as a tribute to students who fought in the Civil War. The statue of Meredith is about 100 yards away, separated from it by a building that still bears bullet scars from the integration fight.