Thursday, January 3, 2013

James Meredith and the Ole Miss Riot: A Soldier's Story

Henry T. Gallagher

From the Memphis Commercial Appeal, "Violence helped forge new Ole Miss," by Michael Lollar, on 1 October 2012  -- OXFORD, Miss. — When the smoke and the tear gas cleared, a French journalist and a local jukebox repairman lay dead. Twenty-two deputy U.S. marshals were shot, and 166 other marshals injured. Dozens of students were wounded by exploding tear gas canisters, bricks and rocks.

The next morning, Oct. 1, 1962, most of 30,000 U.S. troops began arriving. It was the biggest invasion of the South by a federal army since the Civil War. They were there to assist marshals and National Guardsmen, to put down riots and to escort James Meredith from his dorm to his first class at the University of Mississippi.

James Meredith and the Ole Miss Riot: A Soldier's Story, By Henry T. Gallagher

A 12-member security detail of Army sharpshooters was assigned to accompany Meredith and to keep him in sight at all times, but it couldn't stop every hostility. An Army 2nd lieutenant in charge of the detail recalls a student yelling to Meredith as he emerged from the dorm that first morning: "Good morning, you black bastard." Another shouted, "Go back to Africa where you belong, n — "

Meredith walked through the insults and into history as the first black student enrolled at Ole Miss. Fifty years later, he is ranked by some in the top echelon of civil rights heroes. "I would rank him with Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall," said pre-pharmacy student Da'Andrea Kelly, 18, as Ole Miss observed what it calls "Fifty Years of Integration — Opening the Closed Society."

Notably absent from the observances is Meredith himself. He was 29 and an Air Force veteran when he enrolled to complete his undergraduate degree in political science at Ole Miss. Now 79, Meredith said last week, "I'm not involved in all of that. That was an insult to me and an embarrassment ... I took the insults for 50 years. I'm not going to take it no more."

Meredith, who later got a law degree from Columbia University, said his role in 1962 was bigger than himself. "I was at war. I was on a mission from God." It was a mission to end white supremacy, he has said through the years. "My present mission from God is to get the black people of Mississippi to do for themselves all that they can do to improve their lives."

The Ole Miss anniversary observances began Sept. 19 and continue through Oct. 15 with talks Monday including a 6 p.m. lecture by singer and social activist Harry Belafonte at the Gertrude Ford Center and a 3 p.m. talk at Overby Auditorium by former Army 2nd Lt. Henry T. Gallagher.

Gallagher, now an attorney in Washington, was head of Meredith's security detail and has written a new book, "James Meredith And The Ole Miss Riot — A Soldier's Story." Gallagher said last week he grew up in Minneapolis and arrived in Oxford as a 23-year-old with little understanding of the hidebound traditions that fueled the riots and the determination to preserve the South's "separate-but-equal" version of education.

Gallagher said his relationship with Meredith "bordered on friendship. Meredith would not let anyone get to know him well. Courageous guy, didn't warm up to people. He was a lone wolf if there ever was one. He distanced himself from everybody."

While the Army was sent by President John F. Kennedy to guarantee his safety, Meredith seemed to be oblivious to the grave threat he faced. "I think he was annoyed by our presence," said Gallagher, who sometimes read Meredith's mail. "A lot of the letters were death threats. I once said, 'Look at this one. They know where your parents live in Kosciusko.' He would say, 'I've got to go to my Spanish class.' He was so single-minded."

Few students made gestures of friendship or kindness to Meredith, but when they did it was awkward, Gallagher said. "It wasn't that he was annoyed, but it broke his stride, his momentum. He didn't like distractions." Students who did speak to him sometimes faced reprisal from fellow students, like one female student whose classmates bleached her clothes simply because she spoke to Meredith, Gallagher said.

Students had been among the rioters on Sept. 29, but he said many were outside agitators, members of hate groups and included people from Alabama to Texas to California who traveled to Oxford to protest Meredith's admission. "These were mean guys with cigarettes rolled up in their sleeves, ducktail haircuts." Their anger was fed by then-Gov. Ross Barnett, who had sworn Meredith would never be admitted to Ole Miss. Barnett tried to bargain with Kennedy and his brother, Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy, until they made it clear Meredith was to be admitted. The eventual rioters then took up positions including sniper posts atop the library and on the ground surrounding the Lyceum, the school's administration building.

Barnett then tried to convince the Kennedys to make it appear that he was forced at gunpoint to stand aside.

Ole Miss traditions and the sympathies of most students and faculty favored Barnett's resistance, a defiant stance reminiscent of Gov. Orval Faubus' efforts to prevent nine black students from entering Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Almost a year after the Ole Miss riots, Gov. George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama, making a show of defiance to block the entry of two black students. "The president (Kennedy) wants us to surrender this state to Martin Luther King and his group of pro-communists who have instituted these demonstrations," Wallace fumed.

Ken Wooten, 79, was one of five student affairs directors on duty the night of the Ole Miss riots and spent most of the night and next morning inside the Lyceum. "The student affairs folks felt like we had an obligation to go out and try to get the students to go home. When we did we were encircled. The tear gas was so thick people were crying and puking and cursing. A mob is a mob is a mob. It was a bunch of wild people who did that." Wooten said he feared for his life that night. Inside the Lyceum, he said, "There was a time you could not walk those halls without stepping over a wounded man."

Wooten, who later became registrar and dean of admissions for Ole Miss, was among eyewitnesses who took part Wednesday in a panel discussion at Barnard Observatory, home to the Ole Miss Center for the Study of Southern Culture. He said some parents immediately withdrew their children from the school out of fear for their safety. "And the following four to five years were a no-growth period for the university."

But enrollment rebounded, and Ole Miss began actively recruiting black students. By 1982, the 20th anniversary of the riots, it had eight black faculty members and 750 black students — 8 percent of total enrollment. Ole Miss' enrollment this fall is 21,535. Of those, 3,546 students or 16.5 percent, are black, said spokesman Mitchell Diggs.

In 1962, only a few faculty members were considered "liberal" and open to black enrollment. "The whole state of Mississippi had been devoted to the way things were," said Ann Abadie, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. She had grown up in South Carolina, gone to school in North Carolina and came to Ole Miss as a graduate student. "It was more violent here. Many people were not considered in the human race. The racist attitudes were unbelievable and institutionalized here."
Those attitudes and the showdown over federal-versus-states' rights drew newspapers from around the world. Pravda and Izvestia, the state-run newspapers of the old Soviet Union, were among them, said Ed Meek, former head of public relations for Ole Miss.

 Meek was a journalism student in 1962 and had press credentials to cover the riot. He said the rioters were arrested, but, "They were all ultimately let go." Bitterness followed Meredith into his first class, where Meek said, "The other students left the classroom and so did the teacher, a graduate student." The Army maintained a presence for months, digging foxholes on campus and camping in pup tents in a nearby national forest because the land was owned by the federal government.

Memphis financial consultant Lyman Aldrich was a sophomore in 1962 and said Meredith's violent entrance to Ole Miss and his Army security detail did not put an end to his ordeal. The floors of his dorm were concrete, and students above him used to dribble basketballs and bang soft-drink bottles on the floor to wake him during the night.

Still, empathy for Meredith waned over the years as he became increasingly enigmatic. When Ross Barnett ran (unsuccessfully) for governor four years after the confrontation, Meredith endorsed him. He later worked as an aide to staunchly conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, then endorsed former Ku Klux Klansman David Dukes' campaign for governor of Louisiana.

English professor Robert Hamblin was a graduate student in 1962 and also a National Guardsman activated to help contain the riots. Now director of the Center for Faulkner Studies at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Mo., he was invited to take part in the 50th anniversary observances at Ole Miss.

"The scene is calm and quiet and clean: no tear gas, no burning vehicles, no angry and screaming mob, no threatened reporters, no uniformed soldiers," he said in a talk last week.

During a campus jog, he passed the Lyceum and noticed its stately white columns show no trace of the bullet marks long visible after the riots.

As he continued, he passed a young black couple sharing lunch at a picnic table. "I wonder if they know the bloody history of this spot of ground, if they've ever heard of James Meredith ... or the other blacks who paved the way for their attendance at this institution.

"What matters is that they are here and welcome, and safe, and unafraid, entirely at ease in this place, subject to no threat of harm or censure. Not fifty yards away stands the Confederate soldier high on his marble pedestal. He too is calm and peaceful in this new world, and I like to think that he now celebrates with us not the divisions and conflicts of the past but the brighter, nobler promises of the future we always yearn and strive for, and sometimes possess." (source: Memphis Commercial Appeal )

James Meredith and the Ole Miss Riot: A Soldier's Story at the Winter Archives from University Press of Mississippi on Vimeo.

1 comment:

  1. Highly energetic post, I enjoyed that bit.
    Will there be a part 2?
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