50 Years Ago, the College Tried to Silence Them: Now Black Protesters Are Returning to Campus to Be

Linnie Willis remembers the day federal troops came to town in 1962. She was attending an all-black school in Oxford, Miss., when James Meredith won a legal battle to become the first black student at the University of Mississippi, prompting a white mob to riot.

Five years later, when Willis enrolled at the university, she knew it would not be easy. She was just three months from graduating in 1970 when she was expelled, along with seven others, for participating in a peaceful protest against discrimination.

Though she’s from the college town and has visited often, Willis has never returned to campus. That will change next week, when she takes part in an event commemorating 50 years since the demonstration that changed the course of her life.

She’ll attend for the same reason she protested to begin with:

"Collectively we need to be able to say something to Ole Miss about our feelings," she said. "I’m willing and ready to be a part of that conversation."

A growing number of colleges have in recent years confronted their racist histories. They’ve moved Confederate statues, stripped white supremacists’ names from buildings, and examined how they benefited from the labor of enslaved people. Some of them are atoning for that exploitation by establishing reparations programs. What’s taking place in Mississippi marks an unusual effort to bring that reparations discussion forward to a more recent racial wound.

On February 25, 1970, Willis and other students marched into a campus chapel, where a musical group called Up With People was performing. Some gave the Black Power salute on stage. When the students exited after about 15 minutes, the state Highway Patrol was waiting for them, according to W. Ralph Eubanks, a professor at Mississippi who has studied the episode. Eighty-nine protesters were arrested and taken to either Lafayette County Jail or to the state prison at Parchman.

Authorities later dropped the charges, but the university expelled eight students.

Tens of thousands of black students were staging similar protests around the country during this period. Inspired by the Black Power movement, with its call for self-determination, they fought for black-studies programs and black cultural spaces. They pushed universities to admit more black students and hire more black professors. Their tactics, which included seizing buildings, damaging property, and taking hostages, were often aggressive. So were the reprisals. In one national study of the protests, Ibram X. Kendi, a scholar of racism at American University, found that hundreds of black students were hurt or jailed, while thousands were suspended and kicked out of college. In some cases, like the Orangeburg Massacre at South Carolina State University, protesters were killed.

Some universities, like Columbia and Cornell, have sponsored anniversary events to reflect on the student rebellions that took place on their campuses. At Mississippi’s gathering, one-third of the jailed students will return to campus, along with the lawyer who represented them, according to Garrett Felber, a historian at the university who is organizing the event with other faculty members, students, and staff. Participants planned to gather at Fulton Chapel, the site of the 1970 protest, for a staged reading of the eight students’ expulsion hearings and a panel discussion. The goal is to both recognize what happened and discuss how to repair it.

That approach is rare, says Stefan M. Bradley, a Loyola Marymount University professor of African American studies who is an expert on black-student activism.

"I haven’t seen a lot of effort placed into studying what institutions participated in, in terms of police actions and National Guard actions on campus during the 1960s and early 1970s," Bradley says. "But I do strongly feel that institutions should take the opportunity to study those in the same way that they studied the role of slavery in the building and benefiting of these institutions. And take the next step of considering ways to compensate or repair these broken relationships and broken situations from a half-century ago."

In a statement, the University of Mississippi’s provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, Noel Wilkin, said the events of 1970 are "not indicative of who we are today." He described the anniversary gathering as a chance to honor the student protesters "for the strength and courage it took for them to stand up for what they believed in."

"I welcome the opportunity to engage with our former students to learn about their experiences and how they impacted them," he said. "In the decades since they took the stage at Fulton Chapel, the University of Mississippi has worked earnestly to advance diversity and inclusion, and we celebrate the role these students played in those efforts."

The Chronicle spoke with two of the expelled students, and the attorney who fought for them, about how the 1970 protest reshaped their lives and how, half a century later, the university could atone for the injustice.

‘It Was Worth It’

Linnie Willis thought for three weeks about whether she would go back to the University of Mississippi for the reconciliation event. She’d felt unnerved when an organizer sent her an FBI file on the Black Student Union at the time; she had not known they’d been surveilled. But her family persuaded her to go.

"It’s time to heal," she said.

It was also a family member who encouraged Willis, then Linnie Liggins, to attend the University of Mississippi in the first place. Willis’s grandmother convinced her to transfer from Tougaloo College, a historically black college in Jackson, in her second year.

"She thought that it would be great," Willis said, "if I graduated from Ole Miss as a hometown girl — the first college graduate in my family."

She double-majored in French and sociology and hoped to travel after she graduated. A professor had encouraged her to consider returning for a master’s degree in French, she said.

At the time, there were fewer than 200 black students on a campus of about 5,000 undergraduates, and they made sure to befriend one another.

"We were on the campus, but we were not a part of the campus," she said. "We didn’t have the opportunity to participate in any organizations, in sports. There were no black teachers on the staff that we could talk to that could mentor us."

Willis joined the Black Student Union, which held protests to draw attention to a list of demands — demands like hire black professors and get rid of Confederate-flag imagery. On February 25, 1970, they protested at a concert by an international group called Up With People.

"They just thought it was the greatest thing in the world that they were bringing this group to campus, which was fine," Willis said. "But the campus itself did not embrace any of the principles of what Up With People stood for."

Though she was expelled following the protest, Willis continued to attend classes until the end of the semester. She was not able to graduate and didn’t receive a diploma, but she has a transcript that shows she completed her bachelor’s degree.

"I was disappointed because there was the expectation that in May, when there was graduation at Ole Miss, I was going to be there," she said. "I was going to march across the stage, receive my diploma. My family was going to be there to support me. And that didn’t happen."

Willis moved to Toledo, where she found work counseling low-income families seeking affordable housing. She retired from her role as executive director of the Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority in 2016.

It wasn’t the career she had envisioned as an undergraduate, but she enjoyed it and said she would go to that protest again.

"Even though I wasn’t able to achieve all the things that I wanted to in the rest of my life, I still think it was worth it," she said. "It was worth it in terms of trying to prepare Ole Miss to accept the next generations of black kids who will be coming to that school."

Willis isn’t sure what to expect from the reconciliation event or whether it will bring about the healing she seeks. But she wants to learn about the progress the university has made since she attended, and maybe encourage it to make even more.

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