HATTIESBURG, Miss. – On Friday, four decades after University of Southern Mississippi officials tried to keep student newspaper editor Charles Kershner from telling the story of John Frazier, an African-American denied admission into the then all-white university, the two met for the first time.
Audience members clapped as Kershner and Frazier hugged before kicking off the university’s School of Mass Communication and Journalism’s Symposium “Social Justice and the News,” with a session focusing on the university’s censorship of the school newspaper’s coverage of Frazier’s failed attempt to break the color barrier at Southern Miss. No explanation was ever given for the rejection of his application.
Kershner, who is executive editor of the Clinton (N.Y.) Courier, told of how school officials stopped distribution of the issue of the Printz after they learned it included a front-page story about the denial of Frazier’s admission application.
“It had a chilling effect on student journalists in their attempt to be good practitioners of honest reporting and free speech,” he said.
Copies of the paper were confiscated from students as they attended class and while walking on campus and from the Printz’s offices, and then burned in a furnace at what is now the Power House restaurant on campus.
A Printz staffer attempting to stock newspaper racks with the papers had them confiscated by the university police chief who warned a Printz photographer standing nearby not to take pictures of the action.
If the experience was chilling for student journalists at the university, it was no less daunting for Frazier, who described the “terror, the cold feeling in my stomach” when he arrived on campus to try to enroll. As the state and nation were embroiled in a turbulent wave of civil rights demonstrations and violence against those participating in the movement for freedom, Frazier’s fears were not without foundation.
Returning to campus last week, Frazier had a different feeling, “a sense of excitement, awe and hope” about the progress that had transpired in the state and at the university in terms of race relations. He praised Kershner for playing an important role in helping bring about that progress.
“I applaud and salute this man, who, as a student, had the guts to print the truth,” he said.
Kershner said the paper was reprinted with what he described as two “innocuous stories” on the front page to replace the one about Frazier.
But some copies of the original were hidden away by members of the newspaper’s staff and other students, to be later displayed at a reunion of Printz editors held at Southern Miss in 2005. Copies of the issue can also be viewed at the university’s McCain Library and Archives, named for then school president Dr. William D. McCain.
The next year, Kershner received a letter from Frazier thanking him and the Printz staff for their efforts to draw attention to the situation. “The officials of your school may confiscate your paper, but they cannot confiscate your minds or your ability to think for yourselves,” Frazier wrote.
Kershner typed a copy of the letter to show to school officials. He kept the original letter in a locked desk drawer, but it was later stolen.
Kershner attempted to contact Frazier in the years that followed, but was unsuccessful. Friday’s chance meeting came as both men had been invited to Southern Miss to participate in two different lecture series – Frazier for the Trent Lott Center’s Minority Entrepreneurs Lecture Series and Kershner for the journalism symposium.
After learning Kershner would be on campus, Frazier agreed to stay a few extra days to participate with him on the panel.
Despite adversity, Southern Miss education an experience of a lifetime
Kershner came to Southern Miss as a student after hearing positive reviews of the Hattiesburg university’s journalism program, and caught a bus for Mississippi to check it out.
What he found was a devoted faculty of two, cramped quarters, the smell of linotype and the sounds of a newsroom full of student journalists in the basement of Southern Hall, which he said had a welcoming, club-like atmosphere. He was sold.
Not counting his marriage and family, Kershner said he recalls his undergraduate days at Southern Miss as “the best three years of my life,” despite the censorship incident.
He believes Dr. McCain and other school officials realized integration was inevitable, but were waiting for what they believed was the right time for it to take place at Southern Miss. “He (Dr. McCain) didn’t want a repeat of the chaos at Ole Miss,” said Kershner, referring to the 1962 integration of the University of Mississippi by James Meredith that touched off violent riots, leaving two people dead and many more injured.
To understand the actions of those involved in the story of John Frazier and the censorship of the Printz requires understanding the history of times. “It was a terribly conflicted period, not a particularly healthy environment to live in or to work,” he said.
In September 1965, the Southern Miss admitted African-Americans Gwendolyn Armstrong and Raylawni Branch into the university, without incident.
“It was a process that did not come quickly or easily, but it came quietly and peacefully, despite the bumps in the road,” he said of the integration of the university.
Overcoming the “insanity” of racism to succeed
An accomplished businessman, real estate innovator and past advisor to two North Carolina governors, Frazier recovered from his ordeal at Southern Miss to study at Harvard and England’s Oxford University, and has served as advisor to two North Carolina governors.
He said his experience at Southern Miss and his later career success are proof that setbacks of all kinds can be overcome with willpower and determination. “You don’t have to stop at the point of rejection, or at barriers, to fulfill your intentions,” he said.
Frazier’s little-known attempt to integrate Southern Miss followed that of the more well-publicized attempts by Clyde Kennard, who was denied enrollment three times before being jailed on what has been described as trumped-up charges of stealing chicken feed.
The university’s Student Services building was later named in Kennard’s honor, along with the first African-American student to receive a doctorate at Southern Miss, the late Alcorn State University President Dr. Walter Washington.
The godson of slain civil rights worker Medgar Evers, Frazier paused to add levity to the session, reading a letter from the Sovereignty Commission that warned university officials against admitting Frazier because he was a known “homosexual.” The letter, which he finds humorous for its absurdity, was yet another element in the affair Frazier described as “insanity.”
But the heartwarming reunion between the two men, both of whom are battling cancer, showed that their shared humanity overcame the insanity that was the divisive politics of race that they both confronted in Mississippi and the nation in the 1960s, Frazier said.
“You do not allow insanity to determine what you are, who you are or what your potential is,” he said.
Charles Kershner, left, and John Frazier talk with audience members following a symposium session at the University of Southern Mississippi Friday, Nov. 9. Kershner was editor of the university’s school newspaper, The Student Printz, in 1964 when school officials censored a story published in the paper about how Frazier’s attempt to integrate the then all-white university was denied. (Southern Miss Marketing and Public Relations photo by Jana Bryant)
About The University of Southern Mississippi
The University of Southern Mississippi, founded in 1910, is a comprehensive doctoral and research-extensive university fulfilling its mission of being a leading university in engaging and empowering individuals to transform lives and communities. In a tradition of leadership for student development, Southern Miss is educating a 21st century work force providing intellectual capital, cultural enrichment and innovation to Mississippi and the world. Southern Miss is located in Hattiesburg, Miss., with an additional campus and teaching and research sites on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; further information is found at www.usm.edu.