Dr. Benjamin Graves inherited the wind when he became the seventh president of Millsaps College in 1965, for soon the College became embroiled in the racial tumults of the decade.
Graves, a native of Jones County, graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1942. He received a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard and a PhD. from LSU. He was an associate professor at the University of Virginia, taught at LSU and before coming to Millsaps. When Graves arrived at the College In February 1965, over two years had passed since the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 required colleges in the U.S. to integrate in order to receive federal funding. Graves agonized over the acceptance of the presidency; he was well aware that his predecessor President Homer Ellis Finger Jr., had been subjected to criticism from hard-line segregationists for his moderate views, but Graves took the helm immediately and firmly in hand.
At a meeting of the Millsaps College Board of Trustees that month, it was unanimously decided by the governing body to consider all qualified applicants for enrollment at the College. This news made headlines: Millsaps had become the first institution of higher learning in the Mississippi to voluntarily lower its racial barriers. According to the statement issued by the Board of Trustees, the College stood to lose approximately $200,000 if it did not comply with the Civil Rights Act. The statement also stressed that there would be no relaxation of scholastic qualifications, and said that the college would oppose the efforts of any extremist persons or groups “to use the campus, its facilities, its faculty or its students as vehicles for activities unrelated or detrimental to the educational purpose of the College.”
Nonetheless, Graves faced quite a challenge. Though the Board had made its position clear, it was up to Graves to convince supporters and alumni of the College that this transition was implemented to move Millsaps forward as a superior institution of higher learning. Immediately after the Board’s announcement, he mailed a copy of the Board’s statement with a personal letter to the alumni. “Unless we can continue to receive your support as alumni, the support of the Methodist Church and our other friends, this institution could sink into oblivion. On the other hand, if we make a successful adjustment, which we believe is going to be relatively easy, we can make this college one of the finest liberal arts institutions in the United States.”
Although some faculty and Board members felt that the loss of federal funds was the motivating factor in the Board’s decision, The Millsaps Associates, countless alumni and both conferences of the Methodist Church in Mississippi gave Millsaps their support in view of the morality behind desegregation. On June 8, 1965, Millsaps formally enrolled its first black student, a college graduate attending summer school in a specialized field.