By Brinda Fuller Willis
In 1970, Dr. Don Cole was kicked out of the University of Mississippi. Despite that experience, he decided to return years later to Ole Miss, where he now serves as assistant provost. Here’s the story of his journey as the “comeback kid.”
Dr. Cole, a native of Jackson, Mississippi, grew up in the Bailey Avenue and Northside Drive area with his parents and seven siblings. Education was always the central focus for African American families living in a state where civil rights and Jim Crow were at odds. His father, Andrew Cole, had a stroke when Don was very young; and his mother, Ethel Lee, worked as a domestic in the Eastover neighborhood.
Domestic workers in Jackson during the 1960s had an entire public transit system built around them, primarily because many black women at the time did not drive or own cars. That’s when the Jackson Bus Company constructed bus routes that catered to the needs of elite white neighborhoods such as Belhaven and Eastover. Buses went from the peripheral edges of black neighborhoods to pick up workers and meandered into the innermost neighborhoods of white women and dropped the domestics off in front of homes. Sometimes bus drivers stopped in each block to keep their passengers from having to walk long distances, and from being seen and frightening people who might be visiting the elites.
But Dr. Cole was protected and thrived in his segregated neighborhood. “I am a proud graduate of Brinkley High School and was elected Mr. Brinkley High in my senior year, which was an honor because of all the great people who had gone there before me,” Dr. Cole said.
“After high school, I applied to Ole Miss and got accepted — but that was the easy part of my quest to gain my college education in Mississippi,” Dr. Cole said. “I went to college on a combination of grants, student loans and some scholarships. I declared mathematics as my major. I entered Ole Miss in 1968 as a freshman thinking that James Meredith had paved the way and I’d have smooth sailing. But to my surprise, very little had changed with regard to race relations.
“Along with a handful of blacks, I arrived with only a little apprehension about our journey on campus. However, we were bombarded with racial insults, heckling, verbal threats, staunch resistance and opposition to our being on campus,” Dr. Cole recalled in a solemn tone. “We were met with name-calling and jeers as we walked to class, and some staff had vowed that they would not serve blacks in the cafeteria and in other places where we had to request services.”
Tensions around the country were at a fever pitch as civil rights protests became more frequent and confrontational, even when nonviolence was the predominant mantra of black marchers and boycotts. Students on college campuses were at the forefront of many protests simply because of the centralized brain trust and large numbers of students concentrated in educational institutions.
“As time went on, my comrades and I could no longer take the abuse without standing up for our rights,” Dr. Cole said. “Therefore, we arranged a protest by marching and picketing on campus institutions that had refused or denied us our civil rights as Ole Miss students.
“As tensions rose and became more physically overt, the provocateurs met us at Fulton Chapel where my friends and several hundred of our sympathizers and I staged a protest at a ticketed event for which we did not have tickets,” Dr. Cole continued. “We demanded that blacks be treated better on campus. We disrupted the performance that was occurring on stage and were arrested according to the police for not having tickets to the event and causing a public disturbance.
“This was the first time I had ever had a weapon pointed at me,” he remembered. “Many of us were taken to the city jail in Oxford but due to its small size, the overflow of protesting students was taken to the State Penitentiary in Parchman. We stayed in jail for a few days. Eight of the protestors including me were identified as instigators of the disturbance at Fulton Chapel. During the long, protracted legal battle that ensued, we were kicked out of the university.”
Protesters of the day were often jailed on felony charges, a practice designed to preclude them from access to jobs and denial of other rights as United States citizens well into the future. But black legal defense teams were often supplied by civil rights organizations such as the NAACP to curtail this practice.
“After the legal battle was over, my best friend Kenneth Mayfield and I went to work in the steel mills of Gary, Indiana, where I had family to stay with,” Dr. Cole said. “We worked in the steel mill for a while, then I got an acceptance letter to attend Tougaloo College. I must have read that letter a hundred times. I couldn’t believe it because I had applied to so many schools, but Tougaloo was the only one to accept me and two of the eight students who got kicked out of Ole Miss. I will never forget the days I spent at Tougaloo.”
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) became the refuge for black intellectuals who had become leaders of student protests and civil rights activists who had been expelled from white universities because of their being identified as instigators of rebellion against Jim Crow laws. Other Northern schools also became beacons of light where blacks were accepted and flourished as national and international scholars.
“Once Kenneth and I graduated from Tougaloo, we both entered the University of Michigan for graduate school,” Dr. Cole said. “I received my master’s degree from Michigan in mathematics and I met my wife, Marcia, there. Kenneth got a law degree and now practices law in Tupelo, Mississippi.”
Still feeding his fervor for education that was instilled by his parents, Dr. Cole entered State University in New York to work on his doctorate degree in mathematics. In 1985 he returned to Ole Miss to complete his doctoral studies.
“It was never clear if I was expelled or suspended from Ole Miss,” he said. “God was in the mix for sure to hasten my return to the place where I had a gun pointed in my face for the first time as a young man. I always felt that my being kicked out of Ole Miss was an overreach by the overzealous school administrators.”
After graduating from Ole Miss, Dr. Cole worked in Fort Worth, Texas, in the aerospace industry and then moved to California to work at Berkley. Later he accepted an offer to work as a professor of mathematics at Florida A & M. While in Florida he was contacted by Ole Miss to return to the campus to work as a teacher and administrator.
“At first I said no because I was a department chair, but my wife was ready to leave Florida,” Dr. Cole said. “I returned to Ole Miss in 1993 as an associate professor of mathematics and assistant dean of the graduate school. I worked to increase the diversity of the graduate school to graduate more minority students with their doctorate degrees. As worked progressed and positions evolved, I was offered the position of assistant provost.”
Leisure activities for Dr. Cole include photography, fishing and collecting blues music — all hobbies he plans to devote more time to when he retires in the future. For now, though, his energies are focused on being an effective leader and role model for all students at Ole Miss.