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Episcopalians: "Open Doors" recalls Episcopal presence at Ole Miss riots
Thu, 17 Oct 2002 14:50:27 -0400
October 17, 2002
Episcopalians: "Open Doors" recalls Episcopal presence at Ole
by Lauren Wilkes Auttonberry
(ENS) Forty years ago, in Oxford, Mississippi, two very
different men came face-to-face on the lawn in front of the
Lyceum Building on the campus of the University of Mississippi.
One was an imposing Texan, retired U.S. Army Major General Edwin
Walker. The other was a thoughtful, peace-loving priest, the
Rev. Duncan M. Gray, Jr. Both Episcopalians found themselves at
odds over an event that would prove pivotal for the
university--and for the entire country.
On that evening, September 30, 1962, Air Force veteran James
Meredith was escorted to the Ole Miss campus under military
protection so that he might complete his enrollment as the first
African-American ever admitted to the prestigious institution.
A night of anguish
The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that Meredith must be
admitted brought national attention to emotions surrounding a
generation of intense hatred and misunderstanding. Hysterical
rioters--students, community members and passionate racial
separatists--amassed in front of the Lyceum in protest. The
presence and fiery exhortations of Walker prodded them to
At the same time, Gray, then rector of St. Peter's Episcopal
Church in Oxford, and the Rev. Wofford Smith, Episcopal chaplain
to the university, cautiously circled the grounds, calmly
confronting individuals and small groups and convincing numerous
participants to give up their bricks, bottles and rocks. The two
even helped usher the confused and wounded to the safety of the
nearby YMCA building.
Although Gray and Smith offered a calming presence in contrast
to the riots, before the evening was over, Gray would be
ridiculed, threatened and even beaten by members of the
impassioned crowd. Before the night ended, two men were dead and
hundreds were injured. Federal troops occupied the campus until
Meredith graduated the following May.
A long way to go
On September 30, 2002, Gray, who served as bishop of the
Diocese of Mississippi from 1974-1993, spoke at a public service
of Evening Prayer at St. Peter's. More than 140 people,
including current and former students, faculty and community
members, attended the service and the reception which followed.
The gathering, exactly forty years after the 1962 riots, helped
mark a day of commemoration and reflection as the University of
Mississippi began a year-long observation entitled "Open Doors:
Building on 40 Years of Opportunity in Higher Education."
Gray also was one of four speakers featured during a day of
reunions and other events Oct. 1. He participated in a dinner on
the grounds of the university featuring a gospel music program,
a candle-lighting ceremony and a symbolic walk through the
Lyceum from the grounds where the riots occurred.
Gray talked about his experiences in 1962, about having the
courage to do the right thing, and he expressed optimism about
the university's future and its recognition of the importance of
accessibility by everyone. Although the University and the
Diocese of Mississippi have come a long way, Gray said there is
still, "a long way to go." "The fact remains, so far from 1962,
that those who have lived through that era, are thankful for the
important, special effort of the university administration to
really work on racial reconciliation; a concerted and conscious
effort to build a diverse student body and faculty. The
symbolism of the fortieth anniversary and of Meredith's
recognition is something -- if not to celebrate -- then to give
thanks about. The observance is to focus not so much on what's
already been done, but on what still needs to be done."
During his campus visit, Gray also met Robert Smith, the
former chaplain's son, who had come to Oxford for some personal
reconciliation and closure on the difficulties and
disappointments experienced by his father. Smith later said he
had found some.
Gray's remarks preceded an address by Myrlie Evers-Williams,
widow of Medgar Evers, the Mississippi state field secretary for
the NAACP who was instrumental in Meredith's admission to the
university. Evers was assassinated by white supremacist Byron De
La Beckwith in 1963.
Open Doors activities continue through September 2003, when
the university hosts an international conference on race. A
privately-funded memorial to the racial integration of higher
education, designed by New York artist Terry Adkins, will be
dedicated April 5.
--Lauren Wilkes Auttonberry is Coordinator of Communications for
the Diocese of Mississippi and Editor of The Mississippi
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