Desegregation of Public Colleges and Universities

Before 1962, when James H. Meredith desegregated the University of Mississippi, white and black Mississippians attended racially segregated public colleges and universities. In the decade following Meredith’s enrollment, desegregation spread gradually through the state’s higher education system. By the mid-1970s, rigid segregation in Mississippi’s public colleges and universities had died, and no public institution maintained a strictly all-white or all-black faculty or student body.

State leaders doggedly resisted Meredith’s registration at the University of Mississippi. Even after a lengthy court battle resulted in an injunction forcing the state board of trustees to enroll Meredith, Gov. Ross Barnett promised to keep Meredith out of the university. A tense showdown between Barnett and the US Justice Department turned violent on 30 September 1962, when a mob of students and demonstrators rioted against US marshals and members of the US military outside the University of Mississippi administration building. Two people died during the incident, and the university campus suffered significant damage. Journalists from across the country covered the event, and by the time Meredith registered for classes on the morning of 1 October, media accounts of the riot had made Ole Miss synonymous with violence, lawlessness, and racism.

Desegregation at Mississippi State University went more smoothly. In 1965 Richard Holmes became the school’s first African American student. Gov. Paul B. Johnson, who had served as Barnett’s lieutenant governor during the desegregation crisis in Oxford, did not attempt to block the university from registering Holmes. Plainclothes law enforcement officials from Starkville, Oktibbeha County, and around the state stayed close to the Mississippi State campus on the day Holmes began summer classes, but to the relief of university president Dean Wallace Colvard, no mobs or demonstrators taunted Holmes or protested his registration.

After the peaceful desegregation of Mississippi State, the University of Southern Mississippi admitted its first two black students, Raylawni Young Branch and Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong, in September 1965, ten years after the first of two attempts to enroll there by Clyde Kennard, a decorated Korean War veteran who was denied admission because of his race. The university now recognizes Kennard with a scholarship and a building named in his honor, though he was never admitted and was incarcerated as a reprisal for his efforts. Mississippi University for Women desegregated in 1966, and Shirley Antoinette Washington became the first African American student at Delta State College (now Delta State University) in 1967. Historically black Alcorn Agricultural and Mining College (now Alcorn State University) admitted white students beginning in 1966, while Jackson State College (now Jackson State University) and Mississippi Valley State College (now Mississippi Valley State University) followed suit in 1969 and 1970.

The faculty composition of Mississippi’s higher education system also changed during the 1960s and 1970s. White faculty members began teaching at Alcorn State in the 1966–67 school year, at Jackson State in 1967–68, and at Mississippi Valley in 1968–69. Black teachers joined the all-white faculties at the University of Mississippi, Mississippi University for Women, and Southern Mississippi in 1970–71. Delta State desegregated its faculty in 1973–74, and Mississippi State hired African American teachers beginning in 1974–75.

African Americans now comprise more than one-third of Mississippi’s population and make up approximately 20 percent of the student body at Mississippi State, 30 percent at Mississippi University for Women, and roughly a quarter of the student body at Southern Mississippi. At Delta State, located in majority-black Bolivar County, African Americans make up 40 percent of the student body. At the University of Mississippi, African Americans comprise less than 15 percent of the student body. While Meredith’s registration began the desegregation of Mississippi’s higher education system, the project of fully integrating the state’s public colleges and universities remains unfinished.

Further Reading

  • Russell H. Barrett, Integration at Ole Miss (1965)
  • John K. Bettersworth, People’s History: The Centennial History of Mississippi State (1980)
  • Charles W. Eagles, The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss (2009)
  • David G. Sansing, Making Haste Slowly: The Troubled History of Higher Education in Mississippi (1990)
  • David G. Sansing, The University of Mississippi: A Sesquicentennial History (1999)
  • James W. Silver, Mississippi: The Closed Society (1964)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Desegregation of Public Colleges and Universities
  • Author
  • Keywords desegregation, public colleges, public universities
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date April 7, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 13, 2018