The University of Mississippi offered apologies Tuesday to a group of African-American students who were arrested in 1970 for protesting racial inequity at the predominantly white institution.
The redress came during a conference hosted by the university titled, “Black Power at Ole Miss: Remembrance, Reckoning, and Repair at Fifty Years.”
“I’m so sorry it took us 50 years to do this,” Provost Noel Wilkin told conference attendees, according to the AP.
A total of 89 people were arrested at the protest, with the university later suspending eight students who’d participated. Linnie Liggins Willis was among the group known as the “Ole Miss 8″ and was denied a diploma, despite having completed her coursework prior to her arrest.
On Tuesday, Feb. 25, Willis was finally awarded her degree from the university. Five of the eight suspended students also were present at the conference.
“I’m sorry that your life was complicated by decisions made by the stewards of the institution at that time,” Wilkin added. “I’m sorry you were forced to leave an institution that was created to give you opportunities.”
On Feb. 24, 1970, 40 students from the school’s Black Student Union presented a list of 27 demands to then-chancellor Porter L. Fortune Jr., calling for the hiring of more African-American faculty and the scrubbing of Confederate imagery on campus, The Daily Mississippian reported.
Black students also set fire to a Confederate flag that same month, and nearly half the Black students on campus took part in a peaceful protest during a concert by music group Up with People, which featured a song about racial inclusion.
“To this day, we still don’t really know how the eight were singled out,” Willis, a former executive at Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority in Toledo, Ohio, told local station WREG-TV News Channel 3. “We were told [it was] because they could recognize us in the picture. But we didn’t do anything different from the rest of the group.”
The dozens of folks arrested were sent to a local jail or to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and released the next day, AP reports. Their arrests came less than eight years after Ole Miss admitted its first African-American student, James Meredith, under a federal court order in 1962.
Willis recalled the fear she and fellow students felt after being taken into custody.
“Worried in the back seat of a patrol car, worried someone would pull us over in the middle of the night, and we’d be a mound somewhere out there,” she said.