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Fifty years ago, a 29-year-old veteran named James Meredith became the first black student at the University of Mississippi. His enrollment at Ole Miss, eight years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation, became a flashpoint in the civil rights movement, as rioting Southern segregationists clashed with federal forces on campus.
The events were well-documented by hundreds of reporters who had descended on the Oxford, Miss., campus. But a few years ago, a photographer unveiled a sequence of photos no one had seen before: pictures of Meredith's first day of class on Oct. 1, 1962.
The images show Meredith, dressed sharp in a suit and tie, sitting at a desk, waiting for class to start. A few frames show some students at desks and a teacher at a blackboard. But as the sequence evolves, the classroom empties in protest. Even the person teaching the class exits. And then it's just Meredith, sitting among empty desks littered with books and bags left by students in a rush to flee a room he's in — because he's in it.
"I think it confirms the attitudes that were held at the time. People didn't want to be associated with James, even didn't want to be photographed with him, I assume," says the photographer, Ed Meek.
Meek kept the photos a secret for 40 years, stashed in a safe deposit box at the local bank. That's because he wasn't supposed to have taken them at all. Meek says he and other photographers covering the historic events at Ole Miss were told by the university that President Kennedy did not want anyone to interrupt the academic process. That meant, Meek says, photographers were blocked from entering buildings where Meredith had class.
"I took the negatives and hid them away. I don't think I told anybody but my wife," he says.
Back then, Meek was a 22-year-old journalism graduate student who was serving double duty as a correspondent for several news outlets and as a photographer hired to document the events for the university. In that role, he was able to blend in as part of Meredith's official entourage — Meredith was protected by federal marshals — and was allowed to enter Peabody Hall on that first day of class.
He saw it as an opportunity he could not pass up. He headed to the hall with his Nikon
F2 F concealed under his trench coat.
"I just said somebody has got to take pictures of this. This is too historic — whether Kennedy likes it or not," he says. "I just opened up my trench coat, without even focusing, and started snapping pictures."
He says he was scared he was going to get in trouble. "I was a young guy, and I guess that's why I kept them secret all those years. But I felt that was really important," says Meek. "That moment will never happen again, and it just had to be captured."
Decades later, while serving in the university's public relations department, Meek decided it was time to make the photos public. The university, he says, was making an effort to move beyond its painful history and was preparing to unveil a statue of Meredith on campus. Meek also sent the photos to Meredith, who told him he remembered being photographed.
The sequence of 14 photos is a small fraction of the total Meek took of Meredith throughout his time at Ole Miss. He was there the day Meredith's attempt to enroll at the school's registrar was blocked by then-Gov. Ross Barnett. He was with Meredith his entire first day until, he says, "James went back to his dorm." He even photographed Meredith's graduation the following August. Meek donated the entire collection — he estimates about 800 pictures — to the university's journalism school, which plans to unveil the collection this fall.