USM celebrates 50 years of desegregation


Former CNN news anchor, reporter and award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien will speak at a keynote address on Friday at 7 p.m. in Bennett Auditorium to complement the 50th anniversary of The University of Southern Mississippi’s desegregation.

The featured program, “Celebrating 50 Years of Progress: Desegregation of The University of Southern Mississippi,” will involve discussion of the historical event.

Southern Miss accepted its first two African-American students, Raylawni Branch and Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong, in September 1965.

“Southern Miss has changed drastically since 1965, and it would be beneficial to students attending either the panel discussions, community receptions, keynote address or the Ecumenical Prayer Service to reflect on the courageous actions of Raylawni Branch, Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong and all those who came after them who have forged the path that has led to such a diverse and inclusive student body at Southern Miss,” – Jerry DeFatta, Celebration Committee co-chair and executive director of the Southern Miss Alumni Association.

The anniversary will help the public remember the critical history surrounding racial relations at USM.

“That is an important mission for the center, through our research, teaching and service activities,” Director of the Southern Miss Center for Black Studies Sherita Johnson told the Hattiesburg American. “Having O’Brien on campus for this occasion illustrates the university’s commitment to educating and empowering the next generation of leaders.”

Soledad O’Brien hosted “American Morning” and “Starting Point” and authored two books. O’Brien also serves as CEO and founder of Starfish Media Group.

She is a Harvard University alumnus and a member of the National Association of Black Journalists, as well as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. O’Brien currently serves as television anchor and correspondent for CNN, HBO and Al Jazeera America’s “America Tonight.”

She is the recipient of the George Foster Peabody Award as well as the NAACP’s President’s Award for her coverage of Hurricane Katrina. In 2009 she received the Medallion of Excellence for Leadership and Community Service from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

She covered the U.S. presidential election and the earthquake disaster in Haiti, all for which she won three Emmy awards. Southern Miss alumna Tena Clark, chief executive officer and chief creative officer of DMI Music and Media Solutions, is a personal friend of Soledad O’Brien.

“Clark was a tremendous help in reaching out and assisting us in contacting O’Brien to be the keynote speaker,” DeFatta said. “We encourage all students to take the opportunity to hear first-hand from an award winning American journalist and author. Her experiences, paired with the extensive list of prestigious accolades she has earned throughout her career, will no doubt be inspiring to students and all in attendance. Through her experiences, she will be able to share some keen insights on the importance of the desegregation of Southern Miss and its subsequent impact on the student body today and in the future.”

There will be a panel discussion Thursday starting at 3 p.m. in the Thad Cochran Center Ballroom followed by a reception featuring panelists Anthony Harris, Judge Deborah

Gambrell, Riva Brown, Aubrey K. Lucas and moderator Chester Morgan. “We are excited about the opportunity for Soledad O’Brien to visit Southern Miss,” DeFatta said. “We do expect she will generate a large crowd, which Bennett Auditorium will accommodate.”

The keynote address is open to students, faculty, staff and all members of the community. Reserved seating located towards the front of the auditorium will be available to students in attendance.