There were riots, there were army troops in the streets, there was death. The state defied the president; the president defied the state. Old wounds were opened, new ones were made. To watchers on television, it seemed as though Mississippi had become another country, and to people in Mississippi on both sides of the line about integration, it sometimes seemed that way, too. It was 1962. In Oxford, Mississippi, James Meredith was enrolling as the first African American undergraduate student at the University of Mississippi.
Things were quieter a few hundred miles away, in the Florida panhandle. In Tallahassee, Florida’s capital city, Maxwell Courtney was accepted to Florida State University. With an interest in math and high grades, he could have chosen to go elsewhere. He could have done that and chosen to stay in his hometown of Tallahassee: historically black Florida A&M University is just across town from the FSU campus. Courtney made another choice. He became the first African American undergraduate student to enroll at Florida State University. In his class he was the only black.
John Marks, who has served as mayor of Tallahassee, was one of nine African Americans who were part of the freshman class four years later. He has recalled that while some greeted them with kindness, in his words to an alumni publication, “ the welcome mat wasn’t exactly out. But we had each other.” Maxwell Courtney, however, had no black classmates to share his experience.
There’s a statue of Maxwell Courtney on the Florida Sate University campus these days. It shows a young man with a determined expression, a book in his hand, and his head held high. During his time as an undergraduate, civil rights issues were front page news almost every day across the American south, and elsewhere. People died, people disappeared, riots flared, churches were bombed, hard words were hurled, and so were rocks. Those things, too, were just what made it into news reports. With all this going on around him, Maxwell Courtney earned a degree in mathematics with honors, and with minors in French and English.
In the Florida Memory project archive, there’s a photograph of a slightly older Maxwell Courtney than the man in the statue, a man caught looking up and smiling, as though he’s just about to say hello to someone he likes. Those two images, the resolute face in the statue and the open face in the photograph, stand as vivid memory of the courage and perspective he must have had to take the risks and face the challenges he did. The statue, by renown sculptor Sandy Proctor, was dedicated in 2004, but Maxwell Courtney never got to see it. After graduating from FSU, he moved to the Washington DC area, where he earned a master’s degree from the University of Maryland and did consulting work for the Smithsonian. He died in a boating accident in the 1970s.
1962. Part of history, and yet close enough to touch as part of living memory as well. Take a look at this UPI newsreel about integration at the University of Mississippi, and Eyes on the Prize, a documentary with archival footage and interviews of those who were there during events of the Civil Rights years. James Meredith and Maxwell Courtney both took actions of great courage in hard circumstances, and both walked a sometimes lonely path to open the way for generations to come.
Along with Maxwell Courtney, Fred Flowers and Doby Lee Flowers are honored in the FSU Integration statue. Thoughts on their legacies to come.
Photograph by Kerry Dexter
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