Showing posts with label Ole Miss. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ole Miss. Show all posts

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sons of Mississippi, Paul Hendrickson

"This photograph was taken in late September 1962, seven years after the killing of Emmett Till. The photograph, which isn't an icon image of the sixties—but should be—was recorded a few days before an all-night riot in Mississippi in which two died and hundreds were injured. It was made by an uncommonly brave and gifted white freelance photographer from Alabama named Charles Moore, on a Thursday afternoon, in a grove of elms and oaks and fine old catalpa trees, at Oxford, Mississippi, on the campus of a place known lovingly as Ole Miss. A week later this document was published in a double-truck spread in Life magazine with this small headline down in the left-hand corner: 'Local lawmen, getting ready to block the law.' There were a lot of other pictures in the story, but this was the one that stole your eyes...

Paul Hendrickson

"...Even now, after years of looking at it, examining it, carrying it, I can't precisely say what it was about the image that so took hold of me. It had an overwhelming storytelling clarity—and simultaneous confusion. It was only much later, with the research and reporting and interviews unfolding before me, that I found a certain corroboration for all I must have been imagining the first time I came across it."

—from Sons of Mississippi by Paul Hendrickson

From the April 2003 Washington Monthly, "Rising Sons: A review of Paul Hendrickson's Sons of Mississippi," by Wen Stephenson: On Sept. 27, 1962, in Oxford, Miss., among the elms and oaks and catalpa trees on the campus of Ole Miss, a gifted young freelancer snapped a photograph for Life magazine of seven Mississippi sheriffs having too good a time. It's not an icon of the 1960s, but it should be, says Paul Hendrickson. They're standing, "these seven faces of Deep South apartheid," around the hood of a squad car, and the handsome one in the middle--head of the state sheriffs' association, cigarette between his grinning teeth--is taking a practice swing with a billy club to the amusement and grim appreciation of his colleagues. It was three days before James Meredith would become the first African American to enroll at the University of Mississippi (accompanied by more than 500 federal marshals and several thousand U.S. troops), and these sheriffs, in their white shirts and dark ties, had come from all over the state to help keep their fellow Mississippian from setting foot on the sacred campus.
Paul Hendrickson

For Hendrickson, a former Washington Post reporter who was born in California but raised partly in the Deep South, that photograph contains an essential underlying story of the Battle of Oxford and the larger civil rights struggle, a story of race and its legacy that holds the key to much of the past 40 years. In Sons of Mississippi, Hendrickson takes a rare approach to this subject, focusing on the white supremacists themselves, rather than the familiar, and safer, heroic narrative of the people who rose up to defeat them. His driving impulse is to get beneath the surface and beyond the frame of that photograph in order to see these seven Southerners, and their children and grandchildren after them, as complex individuals rather than two-dimensional caricatures. He knows that racism--even in a time and place as benighted as Mississippi in 1962--is never monolithic, and is careful to highlight the nuances of racial feeling along a spectrum that runs from virulent bigotry to complacent (and complicit) passivity. He knows that the only way to understand the inhumanity in that photograph is to make the men who populate it human.
1962 Ole Miss University campus riot.

Two of those men were still alive when Hendrickson started the project; all of them are well remembered by family, friends, and colleagues. One of the deceased, the former sheriff of Pascagoula--alcoholic, viciously bigoted, and beloved of his men--has an FBI file on him big enough, yet maddeningly inconclusive enough (full of "redactions" pointing all the way to J. Edgar Hoover) to be the stuff of legend. For more than one of them, Hendrickson unearths evidence of Klan and Klan-related activities, though he's unable to prove anything, and none can be linked directly to any civil-rights crime.

The University of Mississippi, Oxford 1962.

But as Hendrickson states at the outset, his book isn't really about the men in the photograph. "Instead," he writes, "it's about what's deeply connected but is off the page, out of sight, past the borders. It's about what has come down from this photograph." And so the portraits of those men are followed by longer, more intimate profiles of some of the descendants, those he calls "the inheritors," in whose stories he finds "some modest surprises and small redemptions and blades of latter-day racial hope."

U.S. Border Control

There's Sheriff Tommy Ferrell, who succeeded his father as sheriff of Natchez (Adams County), keeps a portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest--co-founder of the KKK--on his office wall, and has nonetheless risen to national prominence in his determination to modernize the image of Mississippi law enforcement. (And whose proud political demeanor conceals an edge of defensiveness about his father's role in the 1960s.) There's Tommy's son Ty Ferrell, a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Santa Teresa, N.M.--compassionate, painfully self-conscious, prone to tears--who seems to carry around with him the entire burden of the family's racial past. And there's John Cothran--grandson and namesake of Sheriff John Ed Cothran of infamous Greenwood (Leflore County) in the Delta--a "working stiff" whose good heart and bad temper have left him with four broken marriages, who works as a floor manager at Home Depot and a second job stocking shelves at the Kroger supermarket to pay child support for the kids he loves, and whose ambition is a double-wide trailer in an all-white development outside Senatobia. (And yet whose humanity toward, and willingness to stand up for, his black co-workers and friends give him a shot at redemption that is neither simple nor sentimental.)

Ole Miss was the scene of rioting that spilled over into the streets of Oxford, Mississippi (1962)
Hendrickson succeeds, movingly and compellingly, in these portraits of contemporary Southerners. But his feel for the deeper Southern past, and for the broader context of Southern politics, is less sophisticated and less satisfying. That is to say, Hendrickson gives us vivid pictures of who the men in that photograph were in 1962, and of what they passed on to their descendants, but he makes almost no effort to explain how they got that way--almost forgetting, it seems, that these men themselves were descendants, inheritors of the forces that shaped their South. Despite a central chapter in which he weaves a kind of historical essay on the events surrounding the Battle of Oxford and its aftermath, I found myself searching for some analysis of the social and political dynamics of race and class that run as an inescapable current through Southern history.
Ole Miss 1962

How, for example, did the poor and working-class backgrounds of these men, their lack of education, and their place within the stratified society of white Mississippi, affect their racial fear? How did white supremacism, and the populist politics of racial solidarity, offer them a kind of perverse security within that world? How did the tangled history of race and class in the Jim Crow South set the social boundaries and norms of behavior in their time and place? Hendrickson hints elusively at such questions, but fails to confront them. (source: Wen Stephenson, Washington Monthly)

click here to watch Paul Hendrickson on C-Span's Book TV

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Barack Obama in the Footsteps of James Meredith

History News Network article, "Barack Obama in the Footsteps of James Meredith," by Frank Lambert (Mr. Lambert is Professor of History at Purdue University.)

On September 26, 2008, Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama arrived on the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, Mississippi for his first debate with the Republican candidate Senator John McCain. Many of the university students and guests from around the state of Mississippi who comprised the audience were mindful of the occasion’s historic significance. Obama, the first African-American presidential nominee in American history, was welcomed on a campus that on a September evening 46 years earlier had erupted into violence over the mere presence of an African-American who sought admission to the all-white university. James Meredith was met with a starkly different reception from the cordial welcome extended Obama.

Hoisting a Confederate flag, hundreds of Ole Miss students protested integration of the school in front of the registrar's office on Sept. 20, 1963. Mr. Khayat, a former Ole Miss football player, banned Confederate flags at football games, sparkling controversy that earned him death threats.
Thousands of rioters hurled bricks and stones and fired bullets in a storm of protest against Meredith’s assault on white supremacy and racial segregation, which white Mississippians defended in the name of states’ rights. Meredith prevailed in his courageous battle for civil rights, and it is impossible to conceive of presidential candidate Barack Obama at an integrated Ole Miss without first considering James Meredith’s path-breaking effort to open the university to all qualified students regardless of race.

In his campaign, Obama asked Americans to consider his candidacy on the basis of his character and ideas, not on that of his race. Similarly, in his application to the University of Mississippi, Meredith asked Ole Miss to consider him as a qualified transfer student, not as an African-American. Fully aware of the state’s history, Meredith knew that the university would in fact make his race an insurmountable hurdle. So, when he received the expected rejection letter he filed suit and began the long campaign for his civil rights against the equally determined governor, Ross Barnett, who pledged to uphold Mississippi’s states’ rights.

Since he was 14 years old, Meredith had dreamed of attending Ole Miss and then becoming a lawyer in the state, but when he graduated from high school in 1950, four years before Brown v. Board of Education, he joined the Air Force because he had no chance of enrolling at segregated Ole Miss. He was stationed at the Strategic Air Command base near Topeka, Kansas when the Brown decision was handed down, and that decision rekindled his desire to attend Ole Miss. In 1957, when President Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock to protect nine African-American students seeking admission to Central High School, Meredith began to hatch a strategy for entering Ole Miss. As a military man, he conceived of the challenge as a battle and thus he devised a plan of attack similar to that of a military mission.
An unidentified soldier gets first aid from his buddy following a clash in the Oxford town square where he was hit by flying glass. September 30 - October 1 - Oxford, MS - James Meredith, former Staff Sergeant of the Air Force, along with his legal team from the NAACP, ended an 18-month court battle to be allowed to enroll at the University of Mississippi over the objections of Governor Ross Barnett and white segregationists. Although President Kennedy addressed the nation asking Mississippians to obey the law and "live up to their honor," violence erupted on the campus and continued for fifteen hours.

His was a two-part strategy. First, he needed to secure the support of the federal government to counter what he knew would be massive and determined state resistance. Second, he needed to ensure that his enrollment efforts would take place under the bright lights of national publicity, not under the cloak of night as preferred by those who fought to maintain racial segregation in Mississippi.
Army trucks, carrying marshals in steel helmets, rolled across the University of Mississippi in September 1962. They were called in to enforce a federal court order to enroll Mr. Meredith at the previously segregated school. Chancellor Robert C. Khayat sees the presidential debate as an opportunity to supplant the image of the university that is most closely linked to civil rights-era violence.

With unflinching courage and iron resolve, Meredith followed his battle plan and prevailed. He enrolled at Ole Miss with the reluctant, though resolute, backing of the Kennedy Administration, which provided federal troops to ensure his safety. While he had anticipated stiff resistance, Meredith was unprepared for the ferocity and persistence of the opposition. The campus turned into a battlefield on the evening of September 30 with perhaps two thousand rioters attacking the 500 federal marshals sent to protect Meredith. In the end, hundreds were wounded, two were killed, and millions of dollars of property was destroyed. Within a week more than 10,000 federal troops had arrived to restore order on the campus.

When CBS’s Schieffer went to Ole Miss to cover the presidential debate in 2008, he recalled his visit there in 1962 covering the Meredith case. He was struck by the contrast between the tranquility of the campus in 2008 and the violence of 1962. He called the riots “the most terrifying experience I ever had,” quite a statement from a correspondent who had covered the Vietnam War. Meredith has a different interpretation. He objects to the characterization of the violence surrounding his admission as “riots.” Legitimate governments do not riot, he points out, adding that “everything at Ole Miss was a consequence of state action.” Meredith prefers the term “battle.”

Meredith graduated in 1963 and thus inspired thousands of African-Americans to follow him as students at Ole Miss. In the first years after 1962, they came as lone individuals, and then by the end of the decade they began enrolling in significant numbers. When Obama visited the campus, about 13 percent of the student body was African-American, and a sizeable number were among those assembled on September 26, 2008 to witness the presidential debate.

Conspicuously absent was James Meredith. University and state officials had hoped he would attend to underscore the historic significance of the occasion and to demonstrate the great strides that the state had made in race relations. But the 75-year-old Meredith stayed at his home in Jackson, Mississippi, and the reasons that he gave say much about the man. First, he said that he was babysitting his granddaughters. When I heard that, I recalled my meeting with him in Jackson for an interview for my book, The Battle of Ole Miss. He arrived at the restaurant with one of his granddaughters in tow, explaining that he had forgotten that it was his day to pick her up from daycare. Clearly family is important to James Meredith, as it had been in 1962 when he insisted that his actions were inspired by his father’s dreams that his son take his rightful place in a state that afforded all its citizens equal opportunity and by Meredith’s own goal to secure a good education not only for himself but for his son and future generations. Second, Meredith stayed home because he did not assign as much significance to the Ole Miss debate as did white officials. To him, what he had done was to win a battle, not the war against white supremacy. In his mind 1962 represented an opening campaign not a decisive victory. While he applauded the strides that had been made, he was not ready to celebrate.

Six weeks after the debate at Ole Miss, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. Many factors explain his victory: an unpopular war, a financial and economic meltdown, a faltering Republican administration, etc. But, to those across the country who remembered watching the televised reports of the battle of Ole Miss in 1962, his election seemed to be nothing short of the winning of a war. It was the culmination of a long and painful struggle for equal opportunity fought by pathfinders like James Meredith whose courage made Obama’s election possible and gave Meredith a moment to celebrate.

(source: History News Network)

Share It


Click here to return to the US Slave Home Page