Oxford • The Feb. 25, 1970 protest at the University of Mississippi wasn’t supposed to be the signature protest for the Ole Miss Black Power movement; it was simply the protest for the day, said Donald Cole.
Approximately 90 students participated in a nonviolent protest at a Fulton Chapel concert. Before the night was over, all protesters were arrested and taken to the Lafayette County Jail or, for over 40 of them, Parchman. While they were released the following day, the impacts were more severe for eight students, who were expelled from Ole Miss.
Kenneth Mayfield, Theron Evans, and Donald Cole were three of the expelled students. Fifty years later, the men reflected on the impact of those protests in their own lives and at the university.
Okolona native Mayfield, now 68 and a Tupelo attorney, said a home football game protest opened his eyes. Mayfield said during this era, black students were not allowed to play sports at Ole Miss. As part of the protest, they sat on the Ole Miss side but cheered instead for the away team, which had a black player.
“We were lambasted, if you will, with bottles and cans and cups and different things that different Ole Miss fans were throwing at us, and of course we exited the game shortly thereafter,” Mayfield said. “...To get confronted with racism in your face like that, it had an effect on me personally, so from that day forward, I went to every meeting that was held as we discussed the plight of black students at Ole Miss.”
Evans, 68, a retired internist currently in Gulfport, became part of the movement to feel like more than a number. At the time, other than the Black Student Union, there was nothing for black students to be involved in, Evans said.
“I felt that I was there more to be tolerated than to actually be a part of the university,” Evans said.
Day of the protest
Jackson native Cole, 69, of Oxford, said the Fulton Chapel protest was part of daily protest efforts to get the administration to listen to their 27 demands, among which included distancing from the rebel flag, recruiting athletes of color and black faculty and staff, creating a black studies program, etc.
“It was natural, for myself and others, as we got to the University of Mississippi, to recognize that any change in our uncomfort there would probably have to be done through protest as well,” Cole said.
The Fulton Chapel protest was planned because protesters saw the international group Up With People were performing. Cole said they saw it as a perfect opportunity to increase visibility, as the press was in attendance.
Mayfield remembers the group entering the building chanting, led by leader John Donald. Several made their way to the stage where Up With People was performing, and held raised fists. Mayfield recalls a few, himself including, getting mics to discuss their plight, but mics were quickly turned off. He said they were on stage for 30 or less minutes when they received word Fulton Chapel was surrounded by Mississippi Patrol Highwaymen who came to arrest them.
Cole said the response probably came because the Ole Miss administration had enough and a lot to lose. All protesters were transported to the Lafayette County Jail or Parchman, and he said he believes it was heavy handedness on the part of the administration done purposely to show animosity and make a statement.
Evans and Cole both recall the fear they held while in custody at Parchman.
“The worst food I’ve ever seen was at Parchman. I think that’s the only time I’ve seen gray grits and black eggs in my lifetime, and it was kind of humiliating because the toilet was right in center of the cell and it was supposed to be a white toilet, but it had more green and black and gray than anything else and out in the open. I remember the beds had mattresses with no sheets,” Evans said. “It was traumatic … even today, when I see a jail cell, that still leaves an imprint on my mind.”
Cole recalls officers being armed, and said it was the first time he ever had a gun pointed at him.
“The officer who was pointing it at me took me in his aim and followed the barrel of that rifle with my movement,” Cole said.
Mayfield also had his own encounter with law enforcement while in custody when a patrolman knocked off his Black Panther-inspired black beret with a billy club. He said he considered retaliating, but when no one else in the group responded, he decided it was not wise. The group wasn’t released until late night on Feb. 26.
For the eight students who would ultimately be singled out to be suspended, there was a lot of uncertainty. Two weeks after the protest, Mayfield recalls hearing of eight students being suspended though a Memphis radio station broadcast. He checked his mail, hoping he would not be one of the eight.
“Unfortunately, as I opened the mail, I was one of the eight suspended, and that was the shock among shocks. I think if you had hit me with a sledgehammer at this moment, it would not have had a greater impact than opening that letter,” Mayfield said.
Evans was also shocked, and said being suspended and jailed hurt his father. His father was proud his son was going to Ole Miss, as he didn’t have the opportunity to attend college or finish high school, and impressed upon him and his siblings the importance of education. Evans said he didn’t feel he atoned himself to his father until he graduated medical school at the Medical College of Wisconsin in 1979.
“[Being expelled] was a burden for him, particularly. My mother[‘s love] was unconditional, and my father still loved me, but he was hurt by the fact that his son was kicked out of school. Hopefully, I think by the time that he passed on [in 2006] … he redeemed his faith in me.”
The three men agreed that they never entered the protest with the intention of being kicked out of Ole Miss and were ultimately shocked when they were expelled.
While the suspended students held some hope of being vindicated in the beginning, both Mayfield and Cole admitted that as the judiciary process went on, they realized they probably were going to be kicked out of Ole Miss.
“I remember conceding that we weren’t going to win the day in any of these situations, so the idea then became not so much to defend yourself as it became as much to make the other side look stupid for the punishment that they’re going to hand out,” Cole said.
The three would go on to achieve success despite expulsion. Mayfield and Cole both went to Gary, Indiana to get away from the situation, as both had family there. The two worked in the steel mills and worried about their futures.
Tougaloo College would ultimately offer them and Alva (Peyton) Taylor, another of the expelled eight, a lifeline when they accepted them as students.
Mayfield said after being expelled, he was very angry at Ole Miss but focused on working to graduate early. Since he had already taken 20 plus hour semesters at Ole Miss, he was able to enroll in Tougaloo as an advanced junior and finish in one year.
Evans was also angry to be suspended, but quickly realized he could either let it define his life or use it as a catalyst to continue pursuing his education. He said returning home to Newton County would mean having limited options.
He attended East Central Junior College, a predominantly white institution, on the caveat that he would remain on social probation, meaning no social activities, group meetings no demonstrations, organization involvement, etc. He agreed in order to finish his education, but said it was while at Texas Southern, an HBCU, where he felt “accepted without conditions.”
Since then, Evans has served in the Navy and worked in internal medicine for several years. He retired as a staff internist for the Veterans Affairs Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System-Biloxi in 2015. He has lived in Gulfport for the last 30 years with his wife of 46 years, Glenda Evans. The two have a 38-year-old son, an accountant, and daughter-in-law living in California.
“One of the things that I’ve learned in this life is that, if you expend too much energy in either self-pity or hatred or anything of that sort, you’re the one who loses.” Evans said. “... I decided early in my life that I didn’t want to be the casualty of the ‘what if’.”
Cole was the only one of the expelled students who returned to Ole Miss, where he earned a graduate degree. Before retiring, he worked as both a professor and administrator at Ole Miss. Cole now works at Rust College as a mathematics professor.
Cole said that while expulsion was not something he wanted, he saw a higher power at work in the whole process.
“Perhaps we were sacrificial lambs for that particular event, but it wasn’t life ending, and I think I came out a good person anyway and a very blessed person in spite of,” Cole said.
After graduating Tougaloo, Mayfield attended law school at the University of Michigan. He returned to Mississippi to do civil rights work for over a decade and said he no longer holds a grudge towards the university. He encouraged his daughter to attend Ole Miss.
“I was able to see her do what I was unable to do at Ole Miss, and I felt real good about that,” Mayfield said.
What “put the icing on the cake” was asking Cole, who remains his best friend even today, to hand her the degree.
“We made that happen, so I watched my best friend hand the degree to my daughter...it was quite a moment for us to record there,” Mayfield said.
Legacy of protests
Many of the protestors’ demands were met over the years. According to Ole Miss’s history of the African American Studies Program, fall of that same year, the school hired Ms. Jeanette Jennings as the first black faculty member and offered its first Black Studies Program classes.
Looking back, Evans said he realized change comes slowly.
“It is through active protesting that change comes, and there have been some positive changes at Ole Miss. I’m very happy for those students who have benefited from those positive changes,” Evans said.
Mayfield also feels that in some ways, the protest and subsequent expulsion became a sacrifice to push the cause forward.
“Until there was this uprising, nothing was ever going to take place,” Mayfield said. “Little by little, we would see some of demands being met.”
Cole said it wasn’t until years later that he heard how many of the Ole Miss Eight went on to have great careers. Seven managed to get degrees, with some gaining postgraduate degrees. Of the remaining five, Alva (Peyton) Taylor went on to become an attorney. Paul Jackson became a medical doctor. John Donald is a Shelby County, Tennessee General Sessions Court Judge. Linnie (Liggins) Willis would be executive director at Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority in Toledo, Ohio. Henriesse Roberts would dedicate her career to raising awareness about public health, sexuality and HIV/AIDS issues for nearly 30 years ago and is an aspiring health education filmmaker.
The 1970 Fulton Chapel protest will be recognized at Ole Miss on Feb. 24 and 25 with “Black Power at Ole Miss: Remembrance, Reckoning, and Repair at Fifty Years.”
The event team includes Brittany Brown, a graduate student in Southern studies; Ralph Eubanks, visiting professor of Southern studies and English; Garrett Felber, assistant professor of history; Arielle Hudson, president of the Black Student Union; and Jasmine Stansberry, a doctoral student in history.
According to the Dec. 12 invitation, the Office of the Provost and the Division of Diversity and Community engagement offered financial support for everyone impacted by the arrests and their families to attend the event.
For Mayfield, the invitation back is something he never thought would happen.
“I felt that history was on our side at Ole Miss, even back then. I thought that eventually, we would be vindicated in some way, but to think that I would live to see a day, 50 years later, first that I’m living, and that we’d be invited to come back and share the experience, is quite remarkable,” Mayfield said.
For Evans, this will be his first time back on campus. He said he was surprised to receive the invite in early December, and looks forward to meeting the young students.
Cole described the “Black Power” event as coming full circle and said he was more pleased for the others who had been expelled. He hopes the event can recognize those who couldn’t come back, as well as those who held grudges that wouldn’t allow them to return or those who experienced hardships such as unsupportive parents or more taxing life circumstances than he did.
“We get a chance to say that we appreciate what you did in bringing our attention to some things though we were slow to listen [to] or we didn’t listen [to] at the time. I see it as a way for all of those individuals to know that they did the right thing at the right time,” Cole said.