I never thought that I would meet a historic figure like James Meredith, the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi.
The opportunity presented itself during my junior year. I received a congratulation call from him after I was elected the university’s first black, female student body president. We began to regularly correspond: he even came to visit several times throughout my term.
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.”
Last week, I got a call that someone had hung a noose and a confederate flag around the James Meredith statute on campus.
My heart dropped. I was in shock. I was angry at whoever had committed this heinous crime and I was also angry with myself.
It took me back to my days at Ole Miss and I began to think about my experiences there. I questioned myself. Had I done enough and could I have done more?
I got on Facebook and read black students writing that they were going to transfer. Others were scared. It was time for me to share my story.
I had become a trailblazer in my family upon graduation from college last spring. I was the first to obtain a degree. It was a special time for my mother, who wanted to attend college but saw her dreams derailed because of her inability to read well.
I graduated from a small-town high school in north Mississippi. It wasn’t difficult for me to choose the University of Mississippi. It is the flagship, better known as Ole Miss. Growing up, I didn’t read about Ole Miss in my history books. I heard about it from the people in my community.
There was a notion in the black community that Ole Miss was still struggling to overcome racial tension. When I told people I would be going there, questions were asked.
“Are you seriously going down there?” they would say. “You know that school is known for racism, right?
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 in my eyes an academic institution parallel to the Ivy League.
Four years later, the decision is one I would never undo. Ole Miss challenged, pushed, tested and supported me.
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. One is elected by the student body, the other by varsity athletes.
Tradition has held 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, my friends told me I would never win.
I pushed ahead, campaigned hard and became the only black maid elected by the student body on homecoming court.
This turned out to be one of the highlights of my freshman year, but there were ups and downs. 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, wearing white robes and carrying Confederate flags. My eyes burned at the sight.
In sophomore year, I was invited to join Phi Mu, a traditional white sorority. I became the only black member of that sorority chapter.
The next week a blog online proclaimed: “Phi Mu Accepts Black Girl — Laughing Stock on campus.”
I kept telling myself they were just words. The words hurt; they cut me deep. 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.
I was elected first female black student body president in my junior year. 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 sorority sisters came to check on me. One gave me a hug.
“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, through the hurt, my sorority sister reminded me there was good in the world. Her love and compassion toward me, especially that night, will never be forgotten.
The days following days were extremely difficult. I pressed harassment charges and the case proceeded through the university judicial system. The trial day came and I learned that the young man could face suspension or expulsion.
It was not certain what his punishment would be but I did not want him expelled – that would not open his mind about race and diversity.
Just before the trial began I told university officials to drop the charges. 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.
That day, I chose not to fight hate with hate.
During my senior year, the university commemorated 50 years of integration since Meredith was admitted as its first black student in 1962.
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 reflect on Meredith, the riot and the lives lost the night before he was admitted. It made the struggles I faced at Ole Miss seem trivial.
James Meredith forever changed Ole Miss. Anything I accomplished was because of him.
Ole Miss is not perfect. It is a work in progress. There is more work to be done, more battles to fight, more obstacles to overcome.
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.”
That’s what I want to tell black students at Ole Miss. I hope that if they hear my story, they will know that I made it through and they can too. I hope that my story will encourage and challenge each of us to strive to make tomorrow better.
Kimbrely Dandridge was the first black, female student body president at the University of Mississippi. She is now a first-year law student at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law; excerpts of this piece first appeared in the The Daily Mississippian.