The Riot at Ole' Miss
When James Meredith set his sights on integrating The University of Mississippi he intentionally targeted what was perhaps the most hallowed symbol of white prestige in Mississippi. No African American had ever been knowingly admitted (at least one, brief instance is known of a light-skinned man passing as white in the 1940s). Plantation owners and the rest of the Mississippi gentry sent their children to what they called affectionately Ole’ Miss for the finest education the state could offer. Meredith had started drawing up his plan of attack years earlier, while serving in the Air Force in Japan. He was captivated by news reports about the 1957 public school integration crisis at Little Rock, Arkansas. During his years in the service, and then as a civilian, Meredith prepared himself to qualify for acceptance to the University of Mississippi. He took college classes in northern states and at all-black Jackson State University in Mississippi.
By most accounts, Meredith had an extraordinary vision of himself as a man to be reckoned with in the civil rights struggle. In interviews over recent years, Meredith’s iconoclastic politics and dramatic rhetoric have complicated his reputation. But to those who knew him in 1962, including NAACP lawyer Constance Baker Motley, Meredith was a focused and deliberate man. “James Meredith had planned to be the [black] Mississippian who would knock first on the door of the University of Mississippi,” Motley recalled in an interview. “A lot of Mississippians thought that [the NAACP] sought out James Meredith and paid him to do this, but that’s not true at all. It was his idea, and his own preparation of himself, which gave him the individual strength and the endurance to see the thing through.”
James Meredith was not the first black war veteran to take on the segregated educational fortresses of Mississippi. Several others had tried getting admitted to other all-white universities in the state. None succeeded. Clyde Kennard was one of them. A former paratrooper in Korea and Germany, Kennard attended the University of Chicago for three years after leaving the service. He returned to his native Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in the late 1950s to help his widowed mother run her chicken farm. In 1959, Kennard was denied admission to Mississippi Southern College (now the University of Southern Mississippi). According to historian James Silver, Kennard’s 15-minute interview at the university was attended by the chief investigator for the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission.After leaving the campus, Kennard was arrested for speeding and for possession of liquor that was probably planted in his car. Before long, Kennard was sentenced to seven years in Parchman Penitentiary on charges of stealing $25 worth of chicken feed. Kennard developed cancer and died shortly after being released from prison.
When Meredith applied to Ole’ Miss in January 1961, he wrote at the bottom of the application: “I sincerely hope that your attitude toward me as a potential member of your student body…will not change upon learning that I am not a white applicant.” He was promptly rejected. On the advice of Medgar Evers, Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, Meredith enlisted the help of the organization’s central office in New York and challenged the university in court. Meredith fought the decision in state and federal courts. Finally, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black ordered Ole’ Miss to admit Meredith in September 1962. Segregationist Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett vowed to keep Meredith out.
One of the most successful trial lawyers in the state, Ross Barnett rode the segregation issue into office in 1960. Barnett was a demagogue of the first order. He used the microphone and the TV camera to appeal to the resentments and fears of white Mississippi. In the Ole’ Miss uproar, Barnett employed the dog-eared theory of “interposition,” the antebellum notion that a sovereign state could block the federal government from enforcing a noxious law on its people. Few legal authorities inside or outside the Deep South took interposition seriously, but for some Mississippi whites it was a stirring echo of the civil war battlefield’s “rebel yell.”
On September 13, 1962, Barnett rallied his people on statewide television and radio. “I speak to you now in the moment of our greatest crisis since the War Between the States,” Barnett declared. “We must either submit to the unlawful dictates of the federal government or stand up like men and tell them, never! I submit to you tonight, no school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your governor!”
The Kennedy administration pledged to enforce the law. While making a public show of defiance, Barnett was secretly negotiating with Washington. He wanted the Kennedys to let him stage a faux resistance before standing aside to let the inevitable happen – Meredith enrolling. Though United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy dismissed Ross Barnett as a “loony,” the governor nonetheless drew the administration into an increasingly absurd series of negotiations to avoid violence at Ole’ Miss, which was located in the town of Oxford. Barnett knew that his secret phone calls with Washington could end his political career if they became known in Mississippi. What Barnett did not know was that President Kennedy was taping them.
Also working behind the scenes of the mounting crisis at Ole’ Miss was Citizens’ Council chief William Simmons. Few men were politically closer to Barnett than Simmons, and he argued that a strategy of simply ignoring federal orders to desegregate had worked so far and ought to keep working. Simmons kept Barnett’s spine stiff when it came to segregation, especially as the federal government bore down. But the Simmons plan would backfire. The debacle at Oxford started an erosion of support for the Citizens’ Council among Mississippi business and political leaders.
The Citizens’ Council – along with the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission -- had been busy enforcing political orthodoxy at Ole’ Miss for years. Liberal and moderate faculty members were pressured to conform. In 1961, a student named Billy Barton was blocked in his bid to edit the campus newspaper by a Council-backed smear campaign. A confidential report was sent to the university accusing Barton of being a “dangerous” integrationist who had joined civil rights protests in Georgia. The ploy failed when it became public.
University of Mississippi historian James Silver documented the pressure on Mississippi college professors, and other voices of moderation, in his 1963 book, Mississippi: The Closed Society. For example, the Oxford Citizens’ Council distributed a list of university faculty to be hectored with anonymous phone calls. “The voice of reason is stilled and the moderate either goes along or is eliminated,” Silver wrote.
On Sunday, September 30, Meredith arrived at the campus in Oxford with an escort of federal officials. Southern radio stations broadcast a call to arms and carloads of people rolled into town to defend Ole’ Miss against what they called an invasion by Meredith and the feds. That evening, Ross Barnett went on state television and President Kennedy made a national broadcast to address the situation. A mob started pelting federal marshals with rocks, bottles and bricks. The phalanx of marshals responded with tear gas. Two people were killed and more wounded. Kennedy wound up sending 30,000 army troops to Oxford and the next morning Meredith walked across the debris-strewn campus to register. None of the rioters were ever prosecuted. Federal marshals protected Meredith during his time at Ole’ Miss.
In the wake of the Oxford riot, moderate segregationists began speaking out against extremism. A group of Jackson businessmen took out a full-page newspaper ad to urge Mississippi to reject lawlessness. Historian Joseph Crespino writes that a significant number of white business leaders in the state worried that events like Oxford threatened the state’s economic future. In January 1963, a group of Methodist clergy signed a statement that the church and the white community had failed in the Oxford crisis.
The hard-liners fought back. A number of Methodist ministers lost their jobs soon after signing the statement. James Silver said that more than 50 moderate or liberal professors left the University of Mississippi, many of them “literally forced from the state.” Ross Barnett was prevented under the state constitution from seeking a consecutive term in 1964. But he was succeeded by Lt. Governor Paul Johnson, who capitalized on his own resistance to the feds at Oxford with the campaign theme, “Stand Tall with Paul.”
The September 1962 riot at the University of Mississippi in Oxford is an unusually revealing moment in the history of whites and civil rights in the state. It is widely regarded as one of the most significant events in the national history of civil rights. It was a moment of extraordinary importance to Mississippi. The Oxford crisis was the most ferocious conflict between the federal government and a Southern state since the Civil War. It was also the high water mark for political influence of the Citizens’ Council. After the tear gas lifted from the Ole’ Miss campus, Mississippi whites increasingly saw the effort to save segregation as futile and self-destructive.
Some realized it was wrong. But there was even more violence in Mississippi to come.
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