OXFORD, Miss. — The University of Mississippi marked the 44th anniversary of its integration Sunday by dedicating a civil rights monument at a ceremony attended by politicians, actor Morgan Freeman and the student, now 73, who started it all.
The monument features a life-size bronze likeness of James Meredith, the first black student admitted to the university.
The statue is posed as if it is striding toward a 17-foot-tall limestone portal topped with the words "courage," "perseverance," "opportunity" and "knowledge."
"This is a day to rejoice," said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, who delivered the keynote address to about 1,500 people who attended. "With the unveiling of this monument, we free ourselves from the chains of a difficult past. Today we can celebrate a new day, a new beginning, the birth of a new South and a new America that is more free, more fair and more just than ever before."
Meredith, who lives in Jackson, attended the ceremony but was not a speaker.
After the ceremony, he posed beside the statue for photos with former Gov. William Winter and autographed printed programs. The monument was built with $160,000 in grants and private donations.
The ceremony included remarks by university Chancellor Robert Khayat; U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.; Meredith's son, Joseph, who earned a doctorate in finance from the university; and Freeman.
"Mississippi is a much better state today because of James Meredith, and this is a much better university," said Freeman, a Mississippi resident. "Thank you, Mr. Meredith."
Lewis brought the crowd to its feet by recounting his childhood and his time as a national organizer of civil rights activities, including the historic March on Washington in 1963.
Lewis, who was beaten by a mob in Alabama in 1961, praised Meredith and university leaders for fostering acceptance and equal access.
"This is a monument to the power of peace to overcome violence," he said. "And it is a monument to the power of love to overcome hate."
After Gov. Ross Barnett tried to block Meredith's admission in 1962, President John F. Kennedy used National Guard troops to restore order.
The soldiers were bombarded with brickbats and Molotov cocktails by a mob of hundreds of whites — students and others — who chanted, "Two, four, six, eight, we will never integrate."
Two people were killed in the riots.
The leafy Oxford campus, in the hills of north Mississippi, also contains a Confederate soldier statue as a tribute to students who fought in the Civil War. The statue of Meredith is about 100 yards away, separated from it by a building that still bears bullet scars from the integration fight.