A Student's Perspective On Mississippi: Beautiful, Engulfing And Sometimes Enraging

Feb 22, 2017
Originally published on February 22, 2017 6:58 pm

Every day on his way to class, Terrence Johnson walks by a bronze statue and thinks about history. The statue depicts James Meredith, who in 1962 became the first African-American to enroll at the University of Mississippi.

"He transcended so much," says Johnson, a junior. "The fact that he had the will to integrate a university like this in Mississippi that has such a rich and chaotic history ... that will always be with me."

Johnson's a journalism major, with a minor in African-American studies. And he's a leader here: His schedule is packed with tutoring, mentoring, writing for the newspaper. He's active in the LGBT community and in black student groups, and sings with several choirs.

We're here in Oxford, on this historic campus, to talk about how race and history influence college life today.

We sat down to talk with Terrence Johnson behind the Lyceum, the administrative building that was at the center of the riots that erupted when James Meredith arrived on campus in 1962.

Thousands of rioters battled federal marshals at the heart of campus. When the marshals couldn't control the white mob, President John F. Kennedy called in the U.S. Army. Two people were killed in the rioting, and hundreds more were wounded.

The ugly fight left a scar on the University that is still felt now, 55 years later, when blacks make up roughly 13 percent of the student population.

The statue of Meredith was erected on the spot we're sitting in 2006. He's shown mid-stride, about to walk through an open door.

"He was carrying the torch for so many like myself," says Terrence Johnson.

In recent years, Ole Miss has tried to refashion its image and shed some of its past ways.

Last year, the university dropped the tradition of playing "Dixie" at football games. And there's now a plaque in front of the Confederate monument, which references slavery and the university's divisive past. Some have called for the university to drop the use of the nickname "Ole Miss" itself: Originally, that was how slaves would refer to the wife of a plantation owner.

But old prejudices die hard.

Three years ago, students woke up to find a noose tied around the Meredith statue's neck; two white fraternity brothers later pleaded guilty to civil rights charges.

Terrence Johnson was a senior in high school at the time, about to enroll at Ole Miss.

"It threw me off for a minute," he recalls. "I was just like, 'It's two thousand and what? You know, what year is it again?' It will always baffle me."

For a moment he considered going somewhere else. But, he adds, "I didn't feel like it was going to, at the end of the day, derail me from what I wanted to do."

That determination has taken Terrence far. He comes from the tiny town of Shuqualak, population about 500, out in the countryside in eastern Mississippi.

"I knew Shuqualak was small," he says, "but no one ever made me feel small, you know?"

When Johnson graduates next year, he'll become the first in his immediate family to complete college. His father is a welder; his mother works as a phlebotomist.

He grew up in a single-wide trailer. "It is a palace!" he says, with clear affection. "It's safety. It's a haven. It is relaxation. It is blessings! It's good music on Sunday and Saturday mornings, it's good fried chicken on Tuesday nights. It is a true palace."

When Terrence graduated from the prestigious Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science — a high school for gifted students — he saw his father cry for the first time ever. Seeing his son succeed means the world to his dad, Terrence says. His parents would always stress, "You gotta go be great."

Now he's about to fulfill those ambitions — in a place where the legacy of race and history are still close to the surface.

You can see it in the dining hall, Terrence says. "You will walk in, at the very front: nothing but black people. Always. Every single solitary day. And at the back? Nothing but white people. Every single solitary day."

In classes, he notices that black students will sit on one side of the classroom; whites on the other. "It just happens," he says.

I walk with Terrence Johnson inside the archway that stands in front of James Meredith's statue. Etched on the wall is a quotation from Meredith's memoir, written in 1966: "Always, without fail, regardless of the number of times I enter Mississippi, it creates within me feelings that are felt at no other time. Joy ... Hope ... Love."

But it's telling that the quotation has been sanitized: whitewashed, if you will.

What's not on the wall is the part where Meredith described the sadness he also felt in Mississippi. Sadness, he wrote, "because I am immediately aware of the special subhuman role that I must play, because I am a Negro."

For Terrence Johnson, that ambivalence about Mississippi still rings true.

"You have a love/hate relationship with it," he says. "All these incidents that have happened throughout the years, even way back to Emmett Till. There are moments where you do feel subhuman in Mississippi. But at the end of the day, this is just as much my state as it is theirs."

Before we leave, I ask Terrence to read the final words of that James Meredith quotation: "I have always felt that Mississippi belonged to me and one must love what is his."

Johnson thinks about that for a moment.

"I feel the exact same way," he says. "'Cause I come from Mississippi. I am very protective of it. It made me everything that I am, everything that I will ever be. And I've always been proud of the fact that I was from Mississippi. Mississippi doesn't feel like anywhere else! It's beautiful. It's engulfing. Sometimes it's enraging. But it's still beautiful."

The "Our Land" series is produced by Elissa Nadworny.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When you were a kid, how did you learn how to spell Mississippi? Was it like this?

TERRENCE JOHNSON: M-I - crooked letter, crooked letter - I- crooked letter, crooked letter - I - humpback, humpback - I. (Laughter) Yeah, that's how we learned how to spell Mississippi because it was a crooked letter. It wasn't straight. It was crooked.

CORNISH: That's Terrence Johnson. He's a junior at the University of Mississippi, aka Ole Miss.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The school became notorious for its fierce riots over integration when its first black student, James Meredith, enrolled in 1962. African-Americans now make up nearly 13 percent of the student body there, and Terrence Johnson is among them. NPR's Melissa Block spent a day with him to talk about race, history and his sense of place in Mississippi for her series Our Land.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Terence's day starts early.

JOHNSON: So, listen, you have X to the fourth minus 81.

BLOCK: By 7:30 in the morning, he's already in a high school classroom perched backwards on a chair tutoring one-on-one in algebra.

JOHNSON: Then it's going to be prime - boom. See, all you had to do was think about it and stop being lazy.

BLOCK: Terrence tutors as part of his work-study program, but he also likes that he's helping to catch vulnerable high school kids, helping them fight to believe in themselves.

JOHNSON: Oh, I was right. Hallelujah.

So we are on our way to the University of Mississippi.

BLOCK: Terrence sports a diamond stud in his ear, a tiny one in his nose. He wears his hair in a high-top fade - shaved on the sides, long and coily (ph) on top. He's a journalism major with a minor in African-American studies. When he graduates next year, he'll become the first in his immediate family to complete college.

JOHNSON: And when I got here, I felt like I just fit.

BLOCK: That's no small thing. We sit down to talk on campus behind the Lyceum. That's the administrative building that was at the center of the riots in 1962.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The town of Oxford is an armed camp following riots that accompanied the registration of the first negro in the university's 118-year history.

BLOCK: Those riots left two people dead, hundreds injured, and they left an indelible mark on the university's reputation. Now a statue of James Meredith stands in this spot. He's cast in bronze mid-stride, about to walk through an open door.

JOHNSON: He transcended so much. And the fact that he had the will to integrate a university like this in Mississippi that has such a rich and chaotic history, the fact that he was willing to make such a stance, that will always be with me.

BLOCK: But old prejudices die hard. Just three years ago, students at Ole Miss woke up to find a noose tied around the Meredith statue's neck. Two white fraternity brothers later pleaded guilty to civil rights charges.

JOHNSON: Yeah, I heard about it. It was - threw me off for a minute.

BLOCK: Terrence was a high school senior at the time about to enroll at the university.

JOHNSON: Because I was just like, it's 2000 and what? You know, what year is it again? So the fact that they even had the audacity to disrespect this monument will always baffle me. It will always baffle me.

BLOCK: Did it make you think, maybe I don't want to go to University of Mississippi?

JOHNSON: For a moment. I didn't feel like it was going to, at the end of the day, derail me from what I wanted to do.

BLOCK: And that determination has taken Terrence far. He comes from the tiny town of Shuqualak out in the countryside.

JOHNSON: I grew up in a single-wide trailer - three bedrooms, two baths, living room, partial dining room and a kitchen. And it is a palace. And I love every inch of it.

BLOCK: Why is it a palace to you?

JOHNSON: Because it's safety. It's a haven. It is relaxation. It's blessings. It's good music on Sunday and Saturday mornings. It's good fried chicken on Tuesday nights. It is a palace, a true palace.

BLOCK: Terrence's mom works as a phlebotomist. His dad is a welder. His parents would always stress to him, you've got to go be great.

JOHNSON: I knew Shuqualak was small, but no one - no one ever made me feel small, you know?

BLOCK: When Terrence graduated from the prestigious Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, a high school for gifted students, he saw his father cry for the first time ever. It meant the world to him, Terrence tells me. Now, in college, his schedule is packed. He sings in several choirs. He mentors, tutors, writes a newspaper column. He's active in the LGBT community and in black student groups. Terrence says on campus, students often still subdivide by race, like in the dining hall.

JOHNSON: You will walk in, at the very front nothing black people always, every single solitary day. And at the back nothing but white people every single solitary day.

BLOCK: It was just last year that the university dropped the tradition of playing "Dixie" at football games when some students would shout, and the South shall rise again. Also last year, the university added a plaque to a Confederate monument which stands not far from the James Meredith statue. That plaque now includes references to slavery and the university's divisive past. I walk with Terrence Johnson inside an archway in front of the James Meredith statue, and he reads from a quotation that's etched on the wall. Meredith wrote this in his memoir in 1966.

JOHNSON: (Reading) Always, without fail, regardless of the number of times I enter Mississippi, it creates within me feelings that are felt at no other time - joy, hope, love.

BLOCK: But it's telling that that quotation has been sanitized - whitewashed, if you will. What's not on the wall is the part where Meredith described the sadness he also felt in Mississippi. Sadness, he wrote, because I am immediately aware of the special subhuman role that I must play because I am a negro. For Terrence Johnson, that ambivalence still rings true in his home state.

JOHNSON: You have a love-hate relationship with it. You know, all these incidents that have happened throughout the years, even way back to Emmett Till, you know? There are moments where it's like you do feel subhuman in Mississippi. But at the end of the day, it's still - this is just as much my state as it is theirs.

BLOCK: Before we leave, Terrence reads the final words of that James Meredith quotation.

JOHNSON: (Reading) I have always felt that Mississippi belonged to me, and one must love what is his. James H. Meredith, 1966.

BLOCK: What do you think about that?

JOHNSON: I feel the exact same way, yeah, because I come from Mississippi. I am very protective of it. It made me everything that I am and everything that I will ever be. And I've always been proud of the fact that I was from Mississippi. Mississippi doesn't feel like anywhere else. It's beautiful. It's engulfing. Sometimes it's enraging. But it's still beautiful.

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News, Oxford, Miss.

SHAPIRO: And you'll find other stories from Melissa's series Our Land at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS CLARK SONG, "PLEEN 1930'S") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.