Speaking to a crowd of more than 100 students, faculty and community members, Angela Dillard, the LSA Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education, delivered a lecture Thursday afternoon on civil rights era conservatism and monument history. Dillard, who also serves as the Richard A. Meisler Collegiate Professor in Afroamerican and African Studies, centered the discussion on James Meredith, a controversial civil rights figure who was the first African American admitted to the University of Mississippi. Dillard spoke in anticipation of her new book, “Civil Rights Conservatism.”
LSA Interim Dean Elizabeth Cole opened the lecture by noting the important work of Lewis, professor of History and Afroamerican and African studies — and the new head of the University Social Solutions Center — and former American Culture Lecturer Richard Meisler, who are the namesakes of Dillard’s positions. Cole said recognizing Dillard’s mentors is crucial in understanding the inspiration for her work.
“A really nice thing about these collegiate professorships is that it gives the professor being honored a chance to honor a former faculty member here whose work they admire, who they respect, who’s inspired them,” Cole said. “It was a really nice thing that (Dilard) was able to honor Prof. Meisler, who passed away recently and who has done a lot of work developing innovative pedagogy in the Residential College.”
Dillard’s work focuses on multicultural conservatism and the legacy of the civil rights movement, especially in relation to African American conservatives. The first part of her lecture discussed what she called Meredith’s “move toward the new right,” or his rejection of civil rights ideas about integration and Black empowerment. Dillard said mainstream history has misidentified Meredith’s years at the University of Mississippi as liberal activism.
“For better or for worse, in the public mind, within the movement’s public culture, Meredith was a civil rights icon –– despite the fact that even after 1962, when Meredith wasn’t bickering with the movement’s leaders and activists, both local and national, he largely ignored it,” Dillard said.
Though Dillard argued Meredith was by no means a “civil rights icon,” she also noted people like him “straddled civil rights and conservatism.” She compared Meredith to author George Schuyler, another African-American conservative who criticized major figures like Martin Luther King Jr. Dillard said people should begin to see African-American conservatives as legitimate actors in the civil rights narrative rather than as insignificant outliers.
“A wide history would not view Black conservatism as an ideological orphan, and would not flinch at the prospect that Black conservatism is a product of important strategic and philosophical debates within Black culture,” Dillard said. “(My book) was born in my fascination with Meredith’s role status as a reluctant movement icon and as an often uncomfortably situated member of a loosely connected group of African-American conservatives who had struggled since the 1980s to remake the American right.”
LSA junior Leena Ghannam said the lecture led her to reconsider the legacy of the civil rights movement and see it in a new light.
“I think that I haven’t really considered Black conservatism as something that was integrated into the history of civil rights before,” Ghannam said. “I like how part of her thesis is trying to develop equivalency between them and making them part of the same history.”
However, Ghannam also noted how a majority of the audience was scholars and professors, which made it difficult for her to grasp some key concepts that she needed to fully understand the lecture.
“I think some sort of definition of what conservatism is and what Black capitalism is and some critique or acknowledgment of the fact that bipartisanship isn’t the only divider because if you do that, it’s like conservatives, and then Black conservatives,” Ghannam said. “It makes the standard white conservatives. I think that she could have elaborated on that more.”
Dillard also discussed monument history, one of the key focuses of her new book. In 2006, the University of Mississippi unveiled a bronze statue of Meredith to honor the admission of the University’s first African-American students.
“Encasing his memory and our memory of him, the 500 pounds of bronze does not alter the fact that he was not a willing participant in the movement,” Dillard said. “Let me take this a step further and suggest that people fundamentally misunderstood what Meredith was doing in 1962. I think he was able to ignore and keep the movement at a distance because his goal was desegregation as opposed to integration.”