by Mike Harpold
November 14, 2002
On the afternoon of September 25, 1962, a tall black man in a brown suit surrounded by a force of white Deputy United States Marshals approached the offices of the Board of
"Which one of you is Meredith?" the governor asked. The fifty state legislators standing behind the governor exploded in belly laughs. The crowds outside listening on transistor radios broke into tidal waves of laughter.
Governor Barnett then proudly read a proclamation: "I, Ross R. Barnett, governor of the State of Mississippi, having heretofore by proclamation, acting under the police powers of the state of Mississippi . . . do hereby deny you admission to the University of Mississippi."
Five days later, on Sunday afternoon, September 30, 1962, James Meredith escorted by a convoy of 536 Deputy U.S. Marshals entered the campus of Ole Miss and was immediately whisked to a dorm room. The bulk of the marshal force proceeded on to the Lyceum building a half mile away where the plan was to register Meredith. The marshals, wearing white military helmets and armed with billy clubs, spread out in a cordon around the building. But the registrar could not be found so Meredith remained under protective guard in his dorm room.
Alerted by radio reports that Meredith was on the campus, a hostile crowd, mostly students at Ole Miss, began to gather around the marshals at the Lyceum. The American flag was torn down and the Confederate stars and bars raised on the university flag pole. By nightfall jeers turned to violence. The crowd, grown to several thousand by rednecks and racists, many from out of state, began throwing Molotov cocktails at the surrounded U.S. Marshals. The marshals responded with tear gas.
The battle raged throughout the night, and the marshals were nearly overrun. In the predawn hours, amidst the crackle of gunfire, the scene illuminated as bright as day by the flaming wreckage of overturned cars, a battalion of military police arrived to relieve the desperate marshals. They were the vanguard of a force of 15,000 troops, including the federalized Mississippi National Guard, that arrived to restore order to the town of Oxford. Said one Military Police officer, "I can't believe this is America."
Two men were killed during the course of the riot, hundreds were injured. Of the 536 marshals, 166 were injured, 30 suffering gunshot wounds. Forty-eight American soldiers were hurt.
Occurring just before the advent of television news and quickly overshadowed by the Cuban Missile Crisis occurring just two weeks later, the event quickly passed from public attention. Three hundred news reporters and newsreel cameramen were present, but became targets of the mob so few pictures were made.
The description of the riotous night at the Lyceum is contained in a new book, "An American Insurrection; The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962" by William Doyle, published by Doubleday, and coincides with the fortieth anniversary of the event. During four years of research, Mr. Doyle interviewed hundreds of participants and meticulously pored over thousands of records. Using the quotes and stories of the participants, Mr. Doyle weaves a vivid chronicle that is tough to put down.
I heard about the riot at Oxford soon after joining the U.S. Border Patrol in 1962 from the first hand accounts of a number of officers who were there. That's probably what attracted me to buy the book. The bulk of the marshal force, 316 men, were deputized Border Patrol officers. The Border Patrol was the only trained civilian force of any size available to the Justice Department to back-up the enforcement of court ordered civil rights measures. Border Patrol officers generally welcomed such duty as it was relief from the tedium of patrolling the desert or the open areas of the Rio Grande night after night. But Oxford was different. Many of the officers suffered disabling injuries; some were unable to return to duty for months. To a man, the officers were stunned by the fierceness of the fighting that night at the Lyceum and the hatred they faced. Those who had served in World War II or Korea compared it to combat, but with an added element; incredulously, they were fighting their own people.
The integration of the University of Mississippi was not a watershed event in the history of the civil rights movement; the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education had occurred eight years before. Many southern schools were already integrated, and Ole Miss itself admitted other races - but not blacks. But the Battle of Oxford would mark the end of the states rights doctrine of interposition, the notion that a state by asserting it's sovereignty could ignore the laws of the United States. It also marked the end of the dream that the specter of massive resistance by the people of the south could thwart integration of southern society.
As riveting as the development of the events at Oxford in Mr. Doyle's narrative is the interplay of the characters who played out the events of that night. Governor Ross Barnett hoped to resurrect his failing political career by keeping Ole Miss white. While preaching that the constitution gave Mississippi the right to "interpose" its sovereign authority and ignore an edict of the Supreme Court, he tried to cut back-room deals with Attorney General Robert Kennedy to gain himself a politically face-saving way out.
Retired General Edwin Walker, as the commander of the 101st. Airborne at Little Rock, enforced the Federal Court order to integrate Central High School, but at Oxford he sought to raise a mob to fight the marshals attempting to integrate Ole Miss, believing that he was making a stand for states rights.
William Simmons, Mississippi businessman and head of the politically powerful Citizen's Council, reasoned that a total rejection of integration in Mississippi had worked to that point, and if the federal government was forced to withdraw from a showdown at Ole Miss, the segregationist dream of "massive resistance" could be resurrected as a viable strategy.
Robert Kennedy, Attorney General of the United States, linked to his deputy in the Lyceum through a single phone line, worked through the night trying to avoid the use of military force, but in the end he was compelled to advise his brother to call-up the Army.
John F. Kennedy stressed adherence to the rule of law rather than emphasizing the moral issue of equality of the races. "If this country should ever reach the point where any man or group of men, by force, or threat of force, could long defy the commands of our courts and Constitution," JFK warned in a televised speech that night, "then no law would stand free from doubt, no judge would be sure of his writ and no citizen would be safe from his neighbors."
There are genuine heroes in the story. The Reverend Duncan Gray, rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Oxford and Ole Miss student body president Dick Wilson risked their lives pushing their way through the mob urging students and townspeople alike to go home. And the Mississippi National Guard, who responded to the president's order to mobilize as a federal force to a man, was the first to arrive at the Lyceum to save the beleaguered marshals.
At the heart of the story is
James Meredith, an Air Force veteran who had a messianic dream
to marshall the force of the United States government to integrate
Ole Miss. By courage and force of will he became the first black
to graduate from Ole Miss. Later he told a reporter, "It's
just as impossible for me to imagine that fear could stand in
the way of the education I want as it is for me to imagine not
wanting that education."