Bloodshed On Campus — And The Scars That Still Divide America
By Nick BryantSeptember 27, 2012
Fifty years ago this weekend, an insurrection unfolded on American soil. At issue was the admission of a black student, James Meredith, at the University of Mississippi. At stake was the authority of the federal government and the credibility of the Kennedy brothers. The events of that dramatic night still resonate today.
The violence came in waves. First it was eggs and small stones that were hurled. Then soda bottles filled with lighter fluid. Next came bricks and pipes. Then Molotov cocktails, filled with acid stolen from nearby chemistry laboratories. Finally, as rebel songs blared from car transistor radios, it was gunfire. With its columned porticos and Greek Revival architecture, the Oxford campus of the University of Mississippi was one of the south's more elegant bastions of white supremacy. But on the weekend of September 30th, 1962, it resembled a battlefield: the site of what the historian William Doyle has rightly labelled an "American insurrection".
Holed up inside the main building, the Lyceum, was a small contingent of white-helmeted US marshals, many nursing gunshot wounds, who were targeted by snipers whenever they appeared at the windows. Outside, a howling mob of segregationists, some well-known Klansmen, amassed on a magnolia-studded patch of grass known as The Circle, many dressed in the distinctive grey tunics of the Confederate army. The other men in uniform, the members of the local police, did nothing to prevent the bloodshed. If anything, they egged the mob on. When a local pastor pleaded for sense to prevail, he was beaten up.
Hidden away in a dormitory close to the Lyceum, with two dozen marshals to prevent him from being lynched, was James Meredith, a 29-year-old former Air Force man who had fought a year-long legal battle to become the first black student to enrol at Ole Miss in its 116-year history. When in 1958 a black man had first tried to gain entry, he was admitted to a mental asylum for 12 days. Any "nigger" crazy enough to apply, went the joke, must be insane, even though 42 per cent of Mississippians were black. At least Meredith now had the courts on his side. So confident was he of gaining entry, in fact, that he planned to drive to the registration building at the wheel of a gold Thunderbird. As it was, he had to be brought onto campus through a back entrance in a convoy of Jeeps.
With the Mississippi state authorities determined to defy the federal court order demanding Meredith's admission, The New York Times warned of "the most serious federal-state controversy since the Civil War". Ross Barnett, Mississippi's white supremacist governor, had vowed to carry on a campaign of massive resistance, telling his fellow Mississippians: "We will not drink from the cup of genocide."
Shocked by the violence unfolding before him, Paul Guihard, a 30-year-old European journalist with Agence France-Presse, wrote that the "the Civil War has never ended". It turned out to be his final dispatch. His dead body was later found near the Lyceum, with a bullet in his back indicating an execution-style killing.
The Kennedy brothers monitored the violence from the White House, where they received ever-more-dire situation reports from a Justice Department point man inside the Lyceum, who was dropping dimes into a payphone. For weeks, the Attorney General Robert Kennedy had been trying to negotiate with state authorities to secure Meredith's peaceful entry, but had been thwarted repeatedly by their intransigence. In secret negotiations, Ross Barnett had agreed more than once to relent. But each time, he reneged on the deal. Such was his unreliability that Robert Kennedy thought he was "genuinely loony".
So that weekend, with the Kennedy administration being made to look impotent and ridiculous, the President decided to lobby Barnett directly in the hope of achieving a breakthrough. "Well, now here's my problem, Governor," said JFK, adopting a friendly tone when they spoke by phone. "I didn't put him in the University, but on the other hand, under the Constitution, I have to carry out the order and I don't want to do it in any way that causes difficulty to you or to anyone else. But I've got to do it." Barnett again agreed to a covert plan allowing for Meredith's enrolment. Then, a few hours later, he changed his mind. The turning point came at an Ole Miss Rebels football match, where a gigantic Confederate flag was unfurled on the field during the half-time break to wild screams of "We Want Ross! We Want Ross!" Barnett took the field, his clenched fist jutting defiantly into the air. "I love Mississippi," he barked into a microphone placed at the 50-yard line. "I love her people. Our customs. I love and respect our heritage." From that moment, the secret deal was off.
When Kennedy learnt of Barnett's treachery he was livid. "Why that goddamn son-of-a-bitch," he exclaimed. One of his few black aides said he had never seen the President so angry. So now he prepared for the climactic showdown in Oxford. To help cope with the pressure, he summoned his personal physician, Dr. Max "Feelgood" Jacobson, from New York to administer energy-boosting cortisone injections. As JFK told his doctor, the Mississippi crisis was a real "ball-breaker".
In the romanticised version of the Kennedy presidency, the Ole Miss crisis has been portrayed as a watershed: the moment when JFK became a champion of the struggle for black equality, and brought the full weight of his office behind the civil rights movement. But the young President had never set out to dramatically overhaul race relations in the American south, and he saw Meredith's fight primarily as a political problem to manage rather than a cause for which to campaign. His aim during the crisis, as it had been throughout his presidency, was to prevent the Democratic party, then an improbable amalgam of liberals and segregationists, from splintering. Up until Mississippi, he had never delivered a presidential speech on civil rights. That Sunday evening, however, Kennedy decided he had no other choice but to address the nation, if only to appeal for calm.
"Our nation is founded on the principle that observance of the law is the eternal safeguard of liberty," intoned the President in his Oval Office address, in a speech emphasising law and order over racial justice. "Americans are free to disagree with the law, but not to disobey it." Alas, his appeal to the lawfulness of Mississippians fell on deaf ears. Some Mississippi Highway Patrol men even considered joining the rioters and overrunning the Lyceum. Inside, a line of injured marshals was slumped along a wall, and they were also running out of tear gas. In the growing din, rumours circulated that Meredith's dormitory had been ransacked, and that he was about to be dragged out and killed. In Washington, the President toyed with the idea of flying in a government helicopter to airlift him to safety, but there was nowhere the chopper could safely land. Instead, he telephoned Barnett to plead with him to maintain order. By now, the Governor was unable to stop the violent shaking in his hands, and his daughter had to physically hand him the phone. Barnett was no longer in control of his body, still less the situation in Oxford.
With the marshals fearing they were about to be overrun, Kennedy made one of the most momentous decisions of his presidency. He walked from the Cabinet Room, where his crisis team had gathered, and returned to his mahogany desk in the Oval Office. Then, he picked up the phone and was put through to the Pentagon. To prevent further bloodshed, he had reluctantly decided to send in troops, as his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had done in 1957 to bring about the integration of Little Rock Central High. Federal troops would once again bear arms on southern soil.
There was chaos that night at the Pentagon. Troops meant to be on stand-by in Memphis were nowhere near ready to move. Moreover, they were armed only with night-sticks, and had to wait for rifles and ammunition to arrive. "Where's the Army?" the President shouted down the phone. "Where are they? Why aren't they moving?" Initially, the Pentagon predicted it would take the army two hours to reach the campus. In the end, it took five.
"Damn Army!" shouted the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy. "They always give you their bullshit about their instant reaction and their split-second timing," said his brother, "but it never works out. No wonder it's so hard to win a war."
Finally, after midnight, the first helicopter touched down at Oxford airport, carrying members of a military police battalion dressed in full combat fatigues. An hour later, they finally arrived on the edge of the campus. "They're here, Mr. President," said the Justice Department point man, with grateful relief. Soon after, units from the Mississippi Army National Guard, whose commanders had reluctantly obeyed the presidential decree that placed them under Washington's command, joined the troops. At 5.30 in the morning, with the riot finally quelled, the President retired to bed.
A few hours later, with clouds of tear gas hanging still in the morning air, James Meredith was driven to the Lyceum, where he registered as a student at Ole Miss. On The Circle outside, crowds of students gathered in protest, but were held back by a small army of combat troops. All they could do was hurl obscenities — "Black Bastard! Black Nigger!" — as Meredith was led away for his first class, a lecture in American history. In Oxford, a new chapter had just been written: the Battle of Ole Miss had ended in defeat for the forces of segregation.
IN CONSIDERING THE IMPACT of the historical on the contemporary, it has become almost mandatory to quote William Faulkner's famous dictum: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." In the context of this historic event it seems particularly germane. Faulkner, the 1949 Nobel laureate, was a resident of Oxford, Mississippi, and a graduate of Ole Miss. Though he died a few months before Meredith's entry, he had issued dire warnings that the south had reached the point of open revolt. "If we are pushed by the government we shall become an underdog people fighting back because we can do nothing else," he told a visiting British journalist in 1956, in the bitter aftermath of the Supreme Court's Brown ruling calling for the integration of southern schools. "The South is armed for revolt… I know people who never fired a gun in their lives but who've bought rifles and ammunition." He urged the federal government to "go slow" on civil rights, lest it spark another civil war.
What Faulkner was enunciating, more elegantly than most of his fellow Southerners, was the language of white resentment that transformed American politics in the 1960s. In it are found the origins of the modern-day conservative movement, and also the "Southernisation" of the Republican party.
Indeed, the politics of rage, fuelled by events such as the Battle of Ole Miss, completely upended the political map of America in ways that are felt powerfully today. In the early 1960s, it was possible still to talk of the "Solid Democratic South". After all, the Republicans were viewed suspiciously as the party of Abraham Lincoln, "the Great Emancipator". However, the humiliations of the civil rights era led segregationists to desert their beloved Democratic party, and search out a new political home in the GOP. As the region eyed the 1964 presidential election, a bumper sticker popular throughout the south neatly captured the mood of revolt: "Kennedy for King, Goldwater for President".
Today, the states of the Old Confederacy are reliably Republican in presidential elections. Mississippi is a case in point. Since the Battle of Ole Miss it has voted Democratic just once in a presidential election — for Jimmy Carter in 1976. Prior to 1962, it had voted Democratic in all but one of the previous 20 elections — in 1948, for the segregationist Dixiecrat nominee, Strom Thurmond, whose 1964 defection from the Democrats to the Republicans personified the region's political realignment.
In a spectacular historical reversal, the south is now the GOP's spiritual and ideological home. The party's anti-Washington message resonates strongly in the region, because it taps into feelings of deep-seated resentment that stretch back to the civil war. So, too, its newfound emphasis on God and guns. This helps explain why Mitt Romney is struggling so badly. He has no natural affinity for a corner of the country that has become his party's new stronghold. By instinct, he is a moderate Rockefeller Republican trying unsuccessfully to lead a radicalised Goldwater party.
Is it also possible to trace a line from the protesters at Ole Miss to the modern-day Tea Party movement? Certainly, elements within the Tea Party display the same bitter-minded resistance to federal encroachment, and a similar insurgent spirit. Nowhere is this truer than Mississippi. When in June the Supreme Court ruled in favour of President Obama's Affordable Care Act — "Obamacare" — Roy Nicholson, the chairman of the Mississippi Tea Party, posted a statement whose incendiary language could have come straight from 1962. "When a gang of criminals subvert legitimate government offices and seize all power to themselves without the real consent of the governed their every act and edict is of itself illegal and is outside the bounds of the Rule of Law," he said. "In such cases submission is treason." Then he raised the spectre of an Ole Miss-style uprising: "To resist by all means that are right in the eyes of God is not rebellion or insurrection, it is patriotic resistance to invasion."
Harder to gauge is the extent to which Tea Party activists reflect the racial bigotry of that Mississippi mob. The movement unquestionably harbours a racist fringe, as evidenced by the grotesque placards displayed at Tea Party rallies depicting Barack Obama as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose. Polls have also suggested that Tea Partiers are more likely to be racially aggrieved and racially hostile. One of the more detailed studies, from the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race & Sexuality, also found that "people who are Tea Party supporters have a higher probability of being racially resentful than those who are not Tea Party supporters". To be precise, a 25 per cent higher probability.
But casting Tea Party activists as neo-Klansmen obviously carries the danger of libelous caricature. When activists converged on the capital for a huge protest rally in September 2010, the cameras naturally focused on the racist slogans. But when reporters from the Washington Post carried out a survey of the placards they discovered that 5 per cent touched upon the President's race and just 1 per cent on his citizenship. It is also worth remembering that Herman Cain, the black takeaway pizza executive who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination, was also a Tea Party favourite and one-time frontrunner in the polls.
On the other side of the political divide, can Barack Obama be seen as an heir of James Meredith? Certainly, it was tempting to link these two racial trailblazers when the then Illinois Senator faced off against John McCain in their first presidential debate in 2008, which was held on campus at Ole Miss. But Obama had won the Democratic presidential nomination precisely by downplaying his race, and by refusing to associate his candidacy with the tumultuous decade, the 1960s, into which he was born.
As I wrote in 2008, to become a history-defying figure he had to become a history-denying figure. So whereas Jesse Jackson had portrayed his candidacy as the natural extension of the civil rights movement, Obama's great skill was to detach himself from that tradition of protest. Even on the night that he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination, which by some strange historical fluke happened to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech, he did not refer to Martin Luther King Jr by name, but referred to him instead as the "young preacher from Georgia". (Surely he did not fear a bumper sticker reading: "Obama for King, McCain for President.")
In doing so, Obama acknowledged tacitly that he understood one of the great paradoxes of the civil rights era: that it had actually made it harder for a Senator of his background to win the presidency. Not because of his race per se, but because he was a northern Democrat. It is no coincidence that, up until Obama, every Democratic president since the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act hailed from the south: Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton (Democrat diehards would also contend, Al Gore). Nor is it accidental that the successful GOP candidates have run as Sunbelt Republicans: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush, and his son, George W. It serves as another reminder how the civil rights era, and battles like Ole Miss, shifted the centre of America's political gravity.
Yet another historical irony is that Obama has adopted a similar approach to racial matters to that of John F. Kennedy. For so much of his presidency, Kennedy remained a bystander to the great social revolution of his age. Indeed, the reason that James Meredith had applied to Ole Miss in the first place was because he was infuriated that JFK's inaugural address made only an oblique and mealy-mouthed reference to the struggle for black equality. Though the Obama presidency offers its own unspoken statement, he himself has mainly shied away from racial topics. Only twice, during the Henry Louis Gates and Trayvon Martin controversies, has he inserted himself into a racial debate.
Kennedy's inaction on civil rights at the start of his presidency was to have immense consequences, and the Battle of Ole Miss indicated what they were. White supremacists, like Ross Barnett, were encouraged to believe that they could go on defending racial apartheid almost indefinitely. Black activists, like James Meredith, decided to adopt increasingly militant tactics as a result.
Inadvertently, Kennedy had helped nourish a climate in which racial extremists on both sides grew in stature, and black demands for further and more rapid reform, like reparations and affirmative action, became harder to fulfill. Destructive forces had been unleashed that still shape the contours of America. They made the country more polarised. They made the politics more hateful. Bipartisanship, which had been commonplace in the 1950s and early 1960s, became a dirty word. Consensus became near impossible to reach, not only on racial matters but also across a range of social and economic issues. Fifty years on, Americans are still battling over their far-from-perfect union.
Nick Bryant is the author of The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality.
Read more of Nick's writing on The Global Mail; from the dangers of an Americanised Canberra to the problem with career politicians, and why Australia needs to abandon the culture wars and start telling a more cohesive and coherent national narrative.