HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The following is a news release from The University of Southern Mississippi
Gwendolyn Armstrong and Raylawni Branch weren't typical freshmen when they enrolled at The University of Southern Mississippi in September of 1965.
As the historically all-white school's first African American students, they blazed a trail for others to follow and left a legacy at a University that today celebrates its diversity. At the height of the civil rights movement in America, their integration of Southern Miss went off peacefully, though their presence on the Hattiesburg campus was not welcomed by those who resisted integration.
But during the University's 50th anniversary celebration of its desegregation Sept. 2-6, they returned to Southern Miss and greeted as two of its most celebrated former students, with a slate of activities marking their brave and historic act of defiance.
"For so many of us, it's hard to believe it's been 50 years since these two brave women stepped forward and changed forever the story not only of USM and Mississippi, but of the country," said Dr. Rodney D. Bennett, the University's first African-American president. "I'm honored to be president of the University as we mark this occasion and pay tribute to a legacy deserving of our respect."
Soledad O'Brien, a renowned journalist and former news anchor for CNN, served as keynote speaker for the week's celebration. She told Armstrong and Branch that what they did was an act not of personal gain, but about "doing something for other people, paving the way for other people." "I'm inspired to be here with you," she said at a dinner hosted by the Southern Miss Alumni Association.
Branch said that while much has been achieved at USM and across the country with respect to race relations, vigilance must be maintained to prevent a decline in that progress. "I say to students to get involved, stay involved, get into diverse study groups and if there is something wrong, bring attention to it and be the change you want to see," she said. "One cannot change things from the outside."
Armstrong said she marvels at the progress of the University, not only in the advancement of diversity among its student population, faculty and staff, but in its stature as a premier institution of higher learning. "It makes me so happy that so much is happening here not just for people of color, but for everyone."
Dr. Anthony Harris and Dr. Riva Brown both participated in a Hattiesburg campus forum discussing the history of the University from its desegregation to today. Harris is a Southern Miss alumnus who grew up in Hattiesburg during the height of the civil rights movement, and reflected on the positive changes that have taken place since.
Harris said he would recommend Hattiesburg and the University to anyone who wanted to live in the city or attend college at USM. "I've seen the good, the bad, and the in-between," Harris said. "Today, you would find this a warm, inviting place. A lot of progress has been made."
Brown earned her Ph.D. in Mass Communication from USM and is now on the faculty at the University of Central Arkansas. "I'm proud of my alma mater for taking time to remember this 50-year milestone, and realize that it can continue to rectify some wrongs of the past and further enhance its commitment to diversity," Brown said.
University Historian Dr. Chester "Bo" Morgan, who moderated the panel discussion, said the story of the desegregation of Southern Miss shows today's students what Armstrong and Branch faced to secure a college education "and how far we have come" as a University.
Brandon Hersey, a recent graduate of USM who earned a prestigious Truman Scholarship while a student at the University, is now a policy analyst for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the Office of Planning Research and Evaluation in Washington D.C. Hersey said Southern Miss "is, for so many people the pure embodiment of opportunity."
"As we as a nation and community charge forward into what seems to be a vastly unknown future, filled with uncertainty and challenges, it's comforting to know that my alma mater, the place I call home, remains a leader in the idea of equality and tolerance of all creeds, races, backgrounds, and identities," he said.
Southern Miss alumna Markeda Wade, a scientific editor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, said the student body at USM is the most diverse and inclusive in the state, and one of the primary reasons she chose Southern Miss. "I attribute much of my academic and personal development to having had that environment of cultural awareness and tolerance - an environment that is a reflection of the legacy of Ms. Branch and Ms. Armstrong," she said.