By Will Dabbs, MD
The man who walked into my clinic for some medical problem or other was an older gentleman right out of central casting. He enjoyed one of those beautiful antebellum Southern drawls. That distinctive accent is, lamentably, a dinosaur these days. Television has served to make American diction much more homogenous than was previously the case. That’s a shame. These old guys all sound like Shelby Foote. They typically tell a mean story.
This man showed up packing a blue Walmart bag tied in a knot. He said he had picked this up on the Ole Miss campus back in 1962 and thought I might want it. I teased the sack open to find an expended CS gas grenade.
In late September 1962, the University of Mississippi was as white as Nome in January. The War Between the States abolished slavery, but the institution had not died gracefully. The 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v Board of Education decreed that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. This decision opened the door to integration at the University of Mississippi. It took seven years to work out the details at Ole Miss.
James Meredith was the test case. Regardless of your take on the storied traditions of the Deep South, that guy had some balls. A nine-year veteran of the US Air Force, Meredith applied to Ole Miss but was rejected twice. Here’s an excerpt from his admission application—
“Nobody handpicked me…I believed, and believe now, that I have a Divine Responsibility…I am familiar with the probable difficulties involved in such a move as I am undertaking and I am fully prepared to pursue it all the way to a degree from the University of Mississippi.”
My mom and dad were both at Ole Miss at the time. Mom wisely avoided the event. Dad watched the proceedings from a distance. He said most of the students had gathered out of curiosity, though there were a great many folks from out of town who were clearly bent on mischief.
There were about 2,500 people milling about the Lyceum, the school administration building. Wikipedia says they were throwing Molotov cocktails and overturning cars. Dad says they were peaceful…at the beginning. Dad said he heard the marshals yell, “Gas! Gas! Gas!” and one of them center-punched a coed with a tear gas round. That’s when the mob went absolutely berserk. Mom immediately got out of town. Dad hunkered down in the athletic dorm.
Robert Kennedy ordered the marshals not to unlimber their firearms unless Meredith’s life was in imminent danger. They did later fire fourteen rounds to disable a commandeered fire truck but otherwise obeyed orders. Five cars were burned as was a mobile television vehicle. Twenty-seven marshals were injured. Two civilians died.
The rioting began the evening of 30 September. The first federal troops landed at the Oxford airport at 0200 the following morning. Dad said those big cargo planes landing was the sweetest sound he had ever heard. Legit anarchy up close is apparently fairly unsettling. 31,000 troops were eventually deployed. Discounting the Civil War, this was the largest military intervention on American soil in US history.
That’s the thing about history—Wikipedia says one thing; my dad, who was there and whom I trust, says another. It’s about an hour by C-130 from Fort Campbell to Oxford. Somebody clearly saw this coming and was ready.
The Rest of the Story
20,000 troops from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions spent the following semester bivouacked on campus. James Meredith did indeed graduate from Ole Miss with a degree in political science. He later earned a law degree from Columbia. He was shot in the summer of 1966 by a POS named Aubrey James Norvell while marching from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi, but recovered. Norvell pled guilty and spent 18 months in prison before dissolving into obscurity. Meredith is 90 years old and lives with his wife in Jackson today.
Nowadays, Oxford, Mississippi, is one of the nicest places in the world to live. Because of its natural charm, our big little town can be crowded at times. However, the place just oozes southern gentility and warmth. As near as I can tell, there isn’t a gram of racial strife in the entire place. Churches, civic events, sporting venues, and artistic productions are all peacefully heterogeneous. However, as I peered into that Walmart bag I came to realize that was not always the case. This place has a history.