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Thoughts and recollections of Ole Miss
Fall of 1962
by Chuck Nelms
February 4, 1991
Transcribed February 4-6, 1991 Henry J. Ledet
This is Chuck Nelms. A few weeks ago, Dr. Russell Burns asked me if I would give my thoughts and ideas and recollections on what went on at Ole Miss during the fall of 1962. He and I had attended a party and at that party we had brought up the subject of integration, segregation and what happened in the last 30 years in Mississippi. And I mentioned to Dr. Burns that I still had a very clear and vivid memory of what went on at Oxford and at Ole Miss during that night in September of 1962. Dr. Burns is on the Board of [Trustees] and is very active at the public library and asked me if I would for posterity to get this tape and do my best to put into words what I saw and what actions were taken at Ole Miss during that time period. That was the beginning of my freshman year some 28 years ago, going on 29 now, and I'll do the best I can to honor his request.
1962 and even the years prior to that were extremely volatile years at Ole Miss and Mississippi State and Southern. They were all three totally segregated universities. We had black universities in Mississippi and we had white universities and all of the junior colleges we had were segregated. At no time did students cross the color barrier, white to black or black to white like is going on in our schools today. The courts had ordered us, the federal courts in Mississippi and throughout the South to desegregate our public schools starting with our institutions of higher learning and going on down to our high schools and junior colleges and elementary schools. So Mississippi was caught with laws on the books that said that certain schools were to be all white, certain schools were to be all black. We had de facto segregation and we had de jure segregation. So Mississippi was faced with the dilemma of having to repeal or not enforce its own laws to adhere to the laws of the federal court dictates; the ruling of the federal courts. And they appealed and appealed and appealed and just lost every case based upon the interpretation of equal protection of the law in the Constitution. The president of the United States at that time was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. His brother was Bobby Kennedy, Attorney General, and the two of them were very involved, or very much keen toward the positive conclusion of the civil rights movement in favor of the minorities. There was not a rush to confrontation but there was a steady narrowing of the escape potential of the southern states. Mississippi was known as a very hard-fast segregationist state, our governor was Governor Ross Barnett, he made the famous comment, "Segregation today, tomorrow..." stuff like that; he was really a staunch segregationist. Therefore, our state was kind of a mirror image of him and that's what the rest of this country looked at was Governor Barnett and Mississippi as a very racist, segregated state controlled by whites, blacks were without any voting powers, they were without elected offices, a great deal of concern of the condition expressed by the attorney general and his office.
But as time went on, what happened in our state was that our news media here was very defensive of Mississippi's laws, of Mississippi's customs and the tradition of a segregated society. So they were always writing editorials and had news articles almost in heated confrontation with the federal government's position that all the citizens had equal rights and equal opportunities. So in the summer and in the fall we seemed to be grinding toward some type of collision. The appeals had been exhausted. Mr. Meredith was ordered to be admitted. The state was still resisting. It was a time of a lot of passion, a lot of heated rhetoric on the part of state legislators and state government people. It was a very difficult time.
That particular summer I attended Ole Miss for what it called pre-college the same week that the great Mississippian had died, William Faulkner. William Faulkner had written so many books and won the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, was a very gifted man who lived in Oxford. When I got there, to the school, the only two topics anybody wanted to talk about....[break]
There was a great deal of what might be called cheer-leading going on, people hollering, chanting, and so and so, kind of a pep rally for a football game, actually. I don't think there was a great deal of animosity. Everyone was very excited, everyone felt a great deal of excitement about the events. The news media had played it up for all it was worth, the Jackson newspapers and Jackson television stations. The governor had gone on television a number of times to extol the virtues of segregation, extol the virtues of states rights. Our parents along with all of us had grown up in a state where, or an area of the country where segregation was a way of life, where segregation was something that we took for the way life was. I don't think anybody really looked at the constitutionality of it or anything of that type, they just looked at it as the way we all had been doing business, so to speak, for all our lives. But the Supreme Court decision had changed a great deal of that. The Supreme Court had ruled that our schools were in violation of the law and they were beginning to enforce that throughout the South. I think most of us remember when the Central High School of Little Rock Arkansas was integrated, by a number of students were enrolled during the Eisenhower administration so this was a kind of a rolling event, you might say.
So what happened in Oxford kind of got out of hand because no one anticipated the amount of potential danger. My personal opinion is the federal government made a grievous mistake in not bringing James Meredith on to the Ole Miss campus during the daytime while we were all in classes. He potentially could have been brought in on a Monday or Tuesday, enrolled in his classes and all, and began without having any type of massive show of force. The show of force was a kind of focal point for all the agitation and all the excitement and all the rallying around our cherished ideals. So when the federal marshals ringed the Lyceum building--the Lyceum building being the administration building--it was kind of a focal point for all confrontation we had building up for several months.
It was twilight when I got to Ole Miss, about 4:30 in the afternoon in September, that was before we had daylight savings time. And the students that were there were kind of milling around and chanting and talking and everybody was in a very excited state, a lot of 18, 19, 20 year old people without really any awareness of the potential for danger and of the brewing confrontation that was almost assuredly to follow when nightfall came. I was there with a good friend of mine named Judy Penn. Judy Penn is from an old Brookhaven family, one of four sisters. Her father had been the Lincoln Mercury dealer in Brookhaven years and years before then. My dad had bought her father's dealership after he passed away. So we had a long and enduring friendship.
As the afternoon wore on everything got a little uglier and uglier and uglier. The Highway Patrol was there. They were over by, not far from the Engineering Building, between the Pharmacy Building and the Engineering Building, just parked in some cars, probably a dozen cars and maybe 15, 18 patrolmen all wearing their dark blue winter jackets, had on their hats and they just sat and just watched everything. And occasionally the crowd would get--if you're familiar with the grove, if you're familiar with the Lyceum Building there's a driveway, kind of a looped circular drive that goes all the way around the two groves, we have a main grove and then a grove in front of the Lyceum Building and there was kind of a curve that goes around it and most everyone was standing at least on the curve or behind the curve on the grove side the patrol was over to the south side and the federal marshals were all on the other side of the street on the curve in front of the Lyceum Building. They had their men going in and out, making phone calls, I think they were in touch with the justice department in the White House at the time. As it got dark, some chants went out--I don't mean really dark, just kind of twilight, kind of a light dark--people started talking about "it's my right to do this" and so and so. And General Walker was rumored to be coming on campus. General Edwin Walker, a states rights advocate, retired military man, had come on campus and was supposed to be somewhere, no one had seen him but they heard that he was there. And someone was throwing little pebbles, these were not rocks--yet--they were just little pieces of pea gravel, you might say, that were used up there by the Lyceum Building and people were throwing that at the trucks that were parked out front. There were a couple or two or three army two ton canvas backed trucks. No one was injured, no one was hurt. On a number of occasions, maybe two or three occasions the federal marshals asked the patrol to come move us back. We all responded respectfully and moved immediately back 10, 15 feet. But as crowds do they just kept inching forward back up to where they were again on the edge of the curb. Finally somebody threw a book of matches up on top of one of these trucks. Well, it was a canvas truck and virtually impossible to catch on fire but the troops, pardon me, the federal marshal, climbed up there, got them off, everybody was cheering, yelling, hollering all kinds of chants and all, things that at that time were very popular: "two four six eight we don't want to integrate" and so and so. And somehow there was a miscalculation, in my opinion, of the intent of the crowd and of crowd control by the federal marshals. I don't think any of them were as well versed in crowd control as they are today. They confronted us as an invading group of people you might say and the reaction was almost a foregone conclusion. I understand now that there were a number of telephone conversations between Governor Barnett, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and President John Kennedy concerning the Ole Miss situation, the serious confrontation, potentially, between the opposing groups of people. Governor Barnett was trying to get them not to have Mr. Meredith brought on campus on that night. The Kennedy brothers were certain it was their responsibility to make sure he did get on campus that night. So what's that old expression about an unstoppable force meeting an impregnable force or something of that type?
As things went on, they got uglier and uglier and uglier in the mood of everybody, both sides. And then without a whole lot of provocation, I don't remember exactly what it was because I was honestly standing on the front, I had kind of wormed my way up to the very front. And I had gotten up there and I was thinking I could see everything going on--I was one of the shortest people there but I could see whatever was going on. About the third time we were moved back by the Highway Patrol after they got out of the way someone threw something and it was not a molotov cocktail or anything, it was simply a rock or something like that or some pea gravel as I said earlier. So someone in the federal marshal side decided to fire a tear gas canister. Well, I don't know if any of you have ever been around tear gas. Tear gas is a gas, a cloud of smoke that burns your eyes, burns your skin, and burns you where you have any type of moisture, so it burns your lips, in your nose, your eyes. Well they started firing it and all hell broke loose then. A big cloud of tear gas went up and it was headed back toward the grove and people were running, falling down over each other. And there was ample provocation for some type of response from the federal marshals, but it was not tear gas. I think coming out with a bull horn and maybe coming out with Chancellor Williams and coming out with maybe Chief Tatum, who was head of security for Ole Miss, and maybe even John Vault or some other people highly visible, highly recognizable people asking for peace and quiet, tolerance and for calm, that type thing would have had a tremendously quieting effect on everybody. But when no one was there showing no leadership in this situation all hell broke loose. In my opinion it was avoidable if there had been proper steps taken by the people in authority to prevent confrontation rather than to accept its inevitability. So as the night gets darker again I'm not justifying anything that was going on but in the cover of darkness things happen that would not happen in the light of day. People broke up park benches and seats and things which were made out of concrete, broke them up, then they began throwing them. It became, instead of just a spirited group of people, it became a mob, a mob in every sense of the word. There weren't any guns--handguns, or shotguns, or things of that type--being used at all at that time. Later on during the night as the riot went on and on and on and on there were people that resorted to that. They weren't trying, I don't think, trying to shoot at a person. I don't think many people had that much animosity or vindictiveness or even violence in their life. What they were doing was just firing at an institution, firing at a symbol of what they thought was tyranny, however ill defined that term might have been at that time. Things happened during the night that were totally at a loss for any type of rationale. We hurt our university, our buildings, the federal marshals fired tear gas into a girls dormitory--a very dumb thing to do. People were hit over the head with billy clubs. Cars were burned. A couple of people, I think one particular person, a lady, got killed, regretfully so. Ole Miss and Mississippi became a symbol of things that people thought were wrong with our society. There was almost a pariah type of symbolism that was applied to Mississippi people. People used to make jokes about when you drove through Mississippi at night what an eerie feeling it was. Of course it's ridiculous. But people believe that, I've visited in places like New York and Boston and places like that over the years and if you tell someone you're from Mississippi they look at you with almost a novel look, like, what's odd about you, you're from Mississippi. Well I'll get into that a little later on. But Ole Miss was a very troubled school that night. Chancellor J.D. Williams showed less leadership then than we needed in a crisis. I don't fault him, but I give him very low marks for taking control of his university. After all, he was the chancellor. I give Governor Barnett very low marks for not addressing the potential for violence and having adequate security people there that were not necessarily to represent our point of view, but to keep quiet and keep calm on our campus. Of course I blame a lot of it on the attitude, the state rights attitude, that was being flamed by every editorial in newspapers and television. That we were going to lose our identities, that there was going to be a black take-over of Mississippi. Our poor school children were going to be forced to integrate with black school children and out of that there was going to be mixed marriages and all sorts of dire consequences. Well, some of that maybe has come to pass, but some of it hasn't.
But that night, there were probably four or five times when I was very concerned about real serious problems. One time someone got the school fire truck, Somebody got it cranked up and they were going to charge the Lyceum building. Thank God the tear gas and some trees got in their way and they were blocked from ever getting up there. Somebody knew how to get a tractor, a caterpillar going and they were going to charge up the steps of the Lyceum building with the caterpillar and the tear gas beat them back and finally it was disabled and they were unable to move it. There were a number of cars that were burned, I think three or four cars, I don't remember who they belonged to. I did not participate in any of the car burning although I did throw a lot of rocks and things and busted out some car windows which today I'm not at all proud of, but back then I was as actively involved as my next fellow student. There was a good deal of ignorance of the law, there was a good deal of ignorance of personal responsibility. There was a good deal of exuberance and enthusiasm about defending what we thought was our natural right of states rights. Looking back, I doubt whether we would have done that in normal situations--or defied Chancellor Williams or defied Coach Vaught or defied Governor Barnett. I think that with the approach of those individuals and asking us for understanding and tolerance and patience and staying calm we would have had a very positive effect on our school, we could have avoided this tremendous tragedy, loss of life, loss of property and a tremendous set back in Mississippi's ability to recruit and keep qualified people within the borders of the state. We've had an exodus over the last 25 or 30 years of people who've left Mississippi because of all sorts of images they wanted to avoid being stereotyped in.
But that night, tear gas blowing everywhere, people coming on campus from Oxford, from Mississippi State, from a number of different adjacent areas to participate in this wild chaotic night of rock throwing. They mobilized the national guards from the different counties and a number of them went to Ole Miss as federalized troops. There were a number of troops flown in from different Army bases, landing at the Oxford University airport. All this went on all night long and finally after midnight there were a number of people who just wanted to go to bed or rest so the crowd sort of thinned out some and that's when the gunfire started. There were people who had guns from Oxford or somewhere that had been brought in and they were firing at the lights on the Lyceum building, big search lights. We saw the next day the tear gas canisters and some empty shells scattered around and the bullet holes in those white columns that were on the front of the Lyceum building. Very distressing, very distressing.
There were a number of people who were concerned about the after effects but right then they were so swept up in the emotional things that their sense of reality never did take hold until the next day. I went to bed about two or three o'clock in the morning. I tried to call home but the lines were all tied up. I got up the next morning and found that my car was gone. I remembered I let some friends borrow my car to go off campus to get some breakfast at two or three o'clock so I tried to find them and they were nowhere to be found. So I went over to the Lyceum building and had to go through a long, very long search line, [they] searched my clothing and all for all types of hidden guns or explosives I would guess. When I finally got inside I did meet the man I'd seen on television a number of times, it was a federal marshal McShain and there was the Assistant Attorney General named Katzenbach [sp?] my mother used to call him Katzenjammer. So I talked to both of them, told them who I was, that I had a car here and couldn't find it and that I wondered if they knew where it was. Well, they checked an inventory of seized items and found yes there was a 1961 model red Mercury, they had the keys to it and they made me sign for it, gave me the key. They were very courteous, I admit that. They were all tired and worn out from the night before. So I thanked them and left, found my car and there was a piece of molding off of it that I bumped it back on. I didn't find out until the afternoon that they had arrested my two good friends and had put them below in the basement of the Lyceum, they have some storage rooms, and locked them in there for eight to ten hours. Finally they let the guys out, got them something to eat and finally realized they weren't terrorists so they let them go too.
The next day...first let's go back to that night....
If any of you know where the fine arts building is at Fourth and Chapel, Cook and Chapel, there are some high steps going up there and a real high ledge from those steps. Well I sat up on those steps, it has about a 45 degree angle from the Lyceum building and I watched for maybe two hours all this rushing back and forth, back and forth between tear gas and rock throwers and all. I remember to this day the names of some of the people that were involved in it. I think they probably want their name left off of that list so I won't put their names on there, but I know them, they're good people, they really are. They were confused, and swept up in that night of activity and to this day I think they look back on it as a mistake by all parties involved, but as a response to defend something that they thought, and a lot of us thought, was really ours: a way of life, a way of life. But our way of life, as I've called it that, was a way of life that was one that we grew up with and were accustomed to: segregated schools, segregated eating facilities, segregated athletics, segregated rest rooms and I could go on and on and on. But with changing times, and all, we have dislocations, confusion and sometimes chaos, sometimes anger and frustration. And I think that was an underlying part of the problem at Ole Miss. We were going from one era in our country's history to a different era. I think John and Robert Kennedy were determined that civil rights be a large portion of what they wanted the Democratic party to stand for, although the majority of the people in the Democratic party were reluctant to be as forceful in the application of federal force, lets just say, as the Kennedys were. We were all entering a new era of Supreme Court decisions being handed down and then followed up on by the Justice Department. So it was a changing time. And it met with a great deal of resistance not only in Mississippi but in Massachusetts and in Kentucky and the north later on, Chicago, Detroit, Watts in California. So Mississippi was not the only state that was going through a transition from being segregated whether it be de facto or de jure to a system that was open for all people for public housing. Public housing laws had not been passed yet. Voter registration laws had not been passed. There was a great deal of integration yet to come, or desegregation yet to come. Mississippi was the one that had the full force of the federal government applied to its particular problem and it was at Oxford. As I said before, I do think that there was a great deal of a vacuum created when no one stepped in like for instance our state leaders, Governor Barnett, Chancellor Williams and others, Lieutenant Governor Paul Johnson, or any of the federal officials that could have possibly calmed the crowd that night. I think we learned an awful lot about how not to do something in Oxford, Mississippi in September of 1962.
That night there was probably the largest crowd that was possible any day of the week. So looking back on it, even the night was a bad night. It should have been on a Monday or a Tuesday. It should have been during classes, it should have been done with as little show of federal force as possible. If people would have arrived with three or four federal marshals or whatever and escorted him to class, there would have been some controversy but there would not have been a major loss of life, loss of property and a great deal of damage done to a state that was and still is the poorest of all 50 states. There was a tremendous backlash... [end of side one] throughout the. . . .country. [break]
Our elected officials, our state was not one where industrialization came at the same pace it came to the Carolinas, Tennessee, Florida and other states that had the same laws of segregation that Mississippi had. But because of the difficulties we had with the news media, Mississippi became kind of a joke for comedians to make fun of us and we became very defensive, we became passionately defensive of our southern culture and with that it took us longer to realize that our state had to do a great deal of soul searching, looking into self reappraising its potential for growth and for having a sense of cooperation between blacks and whites. That night was a tremendous explosion of tempers and frustration of southern people in Mississippi. I think we saw lots of others in the North, in Charleston, in Massachusetts, I think they call it Charlestown in Massachusetts against forced bussing, forced integration of that type. But the basic problem in Oxford that night in my opinion was that we were egged on by General Edwin Walker who said we had a right to do what we were doing. Governor Barnett was absolutely silent, we never heard from him in Oxford whatsoever that I know of. John and Bobby Kennedy were determined that whatever forces were needed to carry out what they thought the law was had to be done. I think that both people, Governor Barnett and President Kennedy should have realized the potential for danger, the potential for loss of life is really not worth escorting him on the campus with all those federal marshals. I think Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday of the next week, quietly done, would have been, it would have achieved the integration of Ole Miss and it would have achieved his being enrolled as a student and it would have probably, hopefully have eliminated the bloodshed that came about and a decade or two decades or three decades of Mississippi having to pull itself out of the closet, so to speak, being placed there by the other 49 states.
That night, Sunday night, the phones were of course impossible to call home, you couldn't find a phone line open anywhere, all the long distance lines were tied up. Parents were absolutely frantic trying to find their children, what was their condition, how were they doing. I tried calling home that night late and decided mother and daddy had probably gone to bed, asleep, and I called the next morning. My mother just went to pieces on the phone wanting to make sure I'm O.K. I said, "Mom, I'm doing just fine, I'm doing fine," you know, I made sure I told my dad the car was O.K. too. There were a number of students who left Ole Miss, who withdrew from school. Enrollment dropped probably 15, 20 per cent. Parents did not want their children subjected to integration although it was rather small--just one person. There were those that didn't want their children to be at Ole Miss at a time of almost occupation.
And if there's one word I can say that would probably sum up what happened in the next several months Oxford Mississippi, LaFayette County and Ole Miss was occupied by the United States Army. To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, if you were at the middle of the campus, lets say at the old student union building and you wanted to go up to the top of the hill to the laundry, you went by around 4 or 5 or 6, somewhere in that general number, checkpoints and your laundry bag was searched, you were physically searched, you had to show your ID card, you had to have your picture, of course, on your ID card, you were subjected to your car being searched at any checkpoint all day long, all night long where ever you were on or off the school campus. This lasted most of the fall, in fact it lasted all of the fall and the winter months and up into the spring. As the potential for, I guess, violence or the potential for harm to come to Mr. Meredith diminished significantly they would reduce the amount of things that they were doing to search and stop people.
The first week or two that he was there, his dormitory was on the inside of his building, he was on the second floor on the inside of his building. His building faced the street and then it faced the inside. My room was in Girard dorm, he was in Baxter, my room was in Girard and Girard was parallel to Baxter. There were four dorms: Baxter and Lester and Sam and Girard. Those were up on the top of the hill up there by what's now the athletic dormitory and the school laundry. And my room was on the inside and his room was on the inside and I could look across every single night and see him walking around in his room. He had two roommates--two federal marshals stayed with him, lived with him for the entire year. They went to class with him, they waited outside the class, took him to and from class. I think the code word, if I remember correctly, was Peanuts. He was called Peanuts. And they made sure peanuts got picked up and got where ever he had to go. But every night I saw him. Maybe the first month or so there was an armed jeep that was parked in the kind of square area, there was this grassy square with sidewalks, connecting sidewalks to the buildings, between his dormitory and mine with a 50 caliber machine gun. It was loaded. You could walk by and see the ammunition, the belt of ammunition going into the machine gun. It was manned 24 hours a day. And there was a large generator outside with a large light. The light in the quadrangle area, the little square was on all night long. It was lit up and they had three or four of them. So anything moving around his room anywhere close to or approaching his dormitory was well lighted all night long and there were troops all night long there.
This went on the fall--October, November, December--I'll have to say that the troops that were there were just as tired of being there and just as tired of being subjected to the cold weather, living in tents; they actually slept in tents right across the street from my dormitory in what was an intramural football field, baseball field for four or five months. There were some stationed out at the airport, some stationed up at Sardis, there were some that were stationed, I said stationed, they were bivouacked, they were housed (if you want to call it housing in a tent) they took meals out of a regular C-ration can and they had a very difficult time. It was cold and rainy that time of year up there. The soldiers were just as tired of looking at us as we were of looking at them. There was not a incident I know of or can remember that was anything at all to protect Mr. Meredith from harm, or any jeopardy. There were a great deal of people who just ignored him, there were those who taunted and chanted at him all the time, there were those when he walked into a room they would kind of tap their feet to the pace that he was walking, there were those that would tap their tea glasses, or their ice and water glasses when he went into the cafeteria to eat. There was what you might call civil disobedience there about his presence. People felt very strongly that Mississippi did not decide to integrate but that the federal government decided to integrate us. People resisted that. I don't know whether it's human nature or that was the idea that if we did it long enough, hard enough it would all go away. But of course, it didn't. The federal government's mandates were expanded, actually. They went from the universities to high schools to kindergartens and so forth and integration became the policy of the land as far as the education of our children. Forced bussing--large movements of one part of town to the other, I thing historians will write that it was just social tinkering. Federal Judges felt that they were entitled to do all sorts of things to change or to remedy what was described to them as a great evil in our society whether it actually was or not. We've seen a reversal of that in a good many of the northern and midwestern schools who have gone back to what they call the neighborhood schools concept. Of course that particular logic is not being allowed to be applied to the south because we're under federal mandate and the civil rights law specifically stated which states and counties that were to be involved and have their desegregation, voting rights and all sorts of plans cleared by the federal government before any changes could be made.
But that night, and for the next several months the federal government through the use of the military and the federal courts virtually ran Ole Miss and a good portion of the things that went on at Ole Miss were pre-cleared by the justice department and by the military that was there. We became, I think, fairly peaceful during that time period when it came to relationship with the troops. They got to know us and we got to know them and they spoke to us and a lot of them were from New Jersey, Fort Dix, New Jersey had a contingent there and they did talk to us a great deal.
On the weekends most of us went home, or went to stay somewhere else. Everybody wanted to know, "What's it like? What's it like?" But of course they did not allow anybody on campus that was not a student or teacher or employee of the school, so. . .they let the reporters in, of course, they're always there to report things. Television cameras and crews were there occasionally to film whatever, but there was not really anything going on. There were not any demonstrations, there were not any activities that were going on that would cause any problems. We simply went back to school, cleaned up the tear gas and cleaned up the trash and went back, trying to restore some type of normalcy to going to Ole Miss. We lost a lot of good students, Mississippi lost a lot of good people that left Mississippi and went somewhere else to work and to live after this unfortunate and very tragic event took place. We became a state that wasn't looked upon very favorably for relocation for industry or for insurance companies or banks or whatever when people were looking for employment. Tennessee got a lot of people, got a real boost in the Memphis area because people moved north; Louisiana, Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Monroe; Alabama, Mobile and Birmingham. Our neighbor states' population grew, their work force grew because people left Mississippi.
Several times during that year we'd be told that the troops were being sent home, and they'd make a big fanfare about it: 5,000 would go home and 2,000 or 6,000, it came down to just a few hundred troops toward the very end of the spring semester. With that, no one resumed any type of physical threat at all to him. They did things like putting a firecracker, or cherry bomb, or whatever you call those big firecrackers down in the toilets and flush the toilet and you'd hear, "Boom" all over everywhere. They would bounce golf balls on the floor above him which would bother everybody. After a while, that type of harassment became fewer and fewer and people looked upon that as kind of childish. I think people realized that the law prevailed, that the law of the land, the federal law prevailed, Mississippi's law had to yield and that our integration of our university was a fact of life and we had to live with that. I went to Ole Miss for four more years and graduated, and there were blacks, orientals, people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, people from all sorts of other parts of the world, foreign exchange students went to Ole Miss. The color of their skin sometimes was very dark. But we accepted them, I think with a lot more hospitality than was expected. Mississippi is basically a very friendly state, it had a chapter in its history that was portrayed as a characteristic of all the people and I don't believe that that's true. I believe that Mississippi is very warm and gregarious and very hospitable. I think we're innately kind to each other. Hospitality is a word Mississippi has had applied to it for decades and I think that was a word that was applied when we had big magnolia trees and antebellum homes and all but that's an attitude that people generally have about the state. I've lived here most of my life and I can say that that's probably the one characteristic that I would say has been a constant about Mississippi--there is a great deal of hospitality.
But as the weeks and months went by at Oxford, they put troops in downtown Oxford, on the square they had armored personnel carriers they had vehicles with mounted heavy machine guns on them and they patrolled Oxford. They directed traffic--we were occupied. I think it was a tremendously wasteful show of force and an avoidable incident. As I said earlier, it's one that not only could be avoided but when it happened there were so many lessons learned by that that it didn't happen in that magnitude ever again.
I can remember during that night that some people would walk by me and they'd be just crazy with energy, they were all hyper. Someone would walk by rather subdued and they would talk about, "Think about what will happen tomorrow. Think about what's going to happen to our school. Think about what's happening to us." And I wish those thoughts would have been expressed before nightfall by someone of authority, someone in a position of respect. I think it could have saved a great deal of destruction, saved a great deal of bloodshed, it could have saved the life of a lady and it could have been something Ole Miss could have avoided, and Mississippi could have avoided.
But the troops left, we were returned to normal, Meredith went to summer school, I think he graduated, received a diploma, I don't know whether he ever really graduated or not.
I think in retrospect, looking back at what happened all the National Guard units that got called up, the one here in Brookhaven got called up, the dislocation of so many lives, the destruction of property, the loss of life at Oxford, the stationing of combat troops on the campus of the University of Mississippi, the world focus on the problem of integration and desegregation that we had in Mississippi during that time period, it was a bad time. It was a different time. It was a very trying time for students and for teachers at Ole Miss. Those of us that were there, that witnessed all of the activities of that night and the next several months to follow, know of the confusion and chaos and uncertainty and distraction and all the things that go when you have a major upheaval of this type. The Brookhaven National Guard unit returned home and I think all the Mississippi Guard units were sent back after several weeks of living in the uncomfortable conditions. I, for one, look back on those times as remarkable, as just a remarkable times. The idea that a state could by sheer force of will win a contest with the federal government was very prevalent throughout a lot of states. States rights were defined rather broadly, the federal government at that time had not asserted itself through so many different court decisions. But as that came about we were forced to acquiesce on a number of issues about the implementation of [de]segregation, the pace of [de]segregation, how to go about it. The federal government almost took total control of all the school systems in a number of states, not just ours. But it all began that night in September, 1962 and it ended in tragedy but I feel that as I said earlier in this tape, I feel very strongly that effective leadership by the people that were overseeing, and by John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy could have avoided this major conflict. I think that the integration of Ole Miss could have been handled a number of different ways, which I've already alluded to. I think in the past we felt that if we just were a stonewall against something that it would go away, that they would just quit. This time they didn't, we were too committed to a certain path and those things that went on up there,they were all avoidable, almost all of them.
I hope that this last little bit that we talked about here, about the school and the troops that were there and the things that went on were not too boring. I've remembered an awful lot that I probably didn't say here on this tape, but Ole Miss is a very special place for me. Not only did I receive my degree from Ole Miss, but I was there in a very difficult time when it was really, really a difficult time to be a student at Ole Miss. The rebel flag meant an awful lot about the spirit and about defiance, it meant a lot about just what southern people thought of themselves. It's not quite that way now, we have an integrated school, we have black cheerleaders, we have black football players, almost an entire black basketball team, we have a school system now that encourages blacks to come to Ole Miss and receive their education there. If I'm not mistaken, a black young man from Cold Water, Mississippi won a Rhodes scholarship to study in Oxford, England. That says something about the progress that has been made.
I was proud to be a student at Ole Miss during that difficult time, I'm proud to be an Alumnus of Ole Miss now. I wish that those days had not occurred, that we would have had a peaceable integration, but it happened, it happened violently, but it was unavoidable, I think, under the conditions. No one stepped forward to do anything so we had a collision course, and the results were as we discussed. I hope in the future a greater degree of cooperation and conciliation can be at the forefront of our disagreements with the policies of the federal government, and there will be others. There will be other states that will have other disagreements. What happened at Oxford will be a great lesson, what happened at Ole Miss will be a great lesson.
In conclusion, I want to thank Dr. Burns for asking me to do this. I want to thank Dr. Burns for the patience that he's shown because I've taken several weeks or months longer than I at first had told him that I would take. But it's been a real pleasure for me to have re-lived this. I don't mean that in a perverse way at all. It's a pleasure to re-live some of my youth. It's a pleasure to re-live and look back at some of the actions that I did, that I had at that time and how today they probably wouldn't be things that I would readily do. A number of people have probably done the same thing I've done. I hope this will be something that the Brookhaven Library and the people that might want to listen to this tape might enjoy. I've enjoyed making it, I hope that it will be something that could be kept and reviewed periodically to see how far we went down and how far up we've come. Mississippi is a great place to live, it was then and it is now. Thank you very much.
c2003 Lincoln-Lawrence-Franklin Regional Library
Brookhaven, MS 39601