Ole Miss riot of 1962

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Chief U.S. Marshal James McShane (left) and Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, John Doar (right) of the Justice Department, escorting James Meredith to class at Ole Miss.
Civil Rights Monument (statue of James Meredith) on the Ole Miss campus.

The Ole Miss Riot of 1962 was fought between Southern segregationist civilians and federal and state forces beginning the night of September 29, 1962; segregationists were protesting the enrollment of James Meredith, a black US military veteran, at the University of Mississippi (known affectionately as Ole Miss) at Oxford, Mississippi. Two civilians were killed execution style during the first night, including a French journalist, and nearly 70 people were wounded. By the end of the conflict, one third of the US Marshals assigned to the campus had been wounded.

In 1954 the US Supreme Court had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. Meredith applied as a legitimate student with strong experience as an Air Force veteran and good grades in completed coursework at Jackson State University. The administration of President John F. Kennedy had extensive discussions with Governor Ross Barnett and his staff about protecting Meredith, but Barnett publicly vowed to keep the university segregated. State and federal officials traded accusations and defenses in the weeks after the riot had been suppressed.

Events[edit]

On September 30, 1962, James H. Meredith became the first African-American student to be enrolled at the University of Mississippi.[1] His entrance had earlier been barred by segregationist Governor Ross Barnett, despite back door discussions with the administration in which he had committed to protect Meredith.

White students, locals and agitators gathered from around the state broke out in a riot on the Oxford campus, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered in 500 U.S. Marshals to suppress it. Highway State Police were withdrawn before the US Marshals took control, leading to confrontations after the event as to whose fault it was. They were reinforced by President John F. Kennedy's ordering in U.S. Army military police from the 503rd Military Police Battalion, and ultimately thousands of troops, including the U.S. Border Patrol and the federalized Mississippi National Guard. U.S. Navy medical personnel (physicians and hospital corpsmen) attached to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Millington, Tennessee, were also sent to the university.

The President and Attorney General Robert Kennedy had avoided using federal forces for several reasons. Robert Kennedy had hoped that legal means, along with the escort of U.S. Marshals, would be enough to force the Governor to comply.[2] He also was very concerned there might be a "mini-civil war" between the U.S. Army troops and armed protesters.[2] These leaders reluctantly decided to involve federal forces after the protests turned violent.[3]

Two men were murdered during the first night of the riots: French journalist Paul Guihard,[4] on assignment for the London Daily Sketch, who was found behind the Lyceum building with a gunshot wound to the back of the head; and 23-year-old Ray Gunter, a white jukebox repairman who had visited the campus out of curiosity. Gunter was found with a bullet wound in his forehead. Law enforcement officials described these as execution-style killings.[5]

Governor Barnett was fined $10,000 and sentenced to jail for contempt. The charges were later dismissed by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Bob Dylan wrote and sang about events in his "Oxford Town". Meredith's actions are regarded as a pivotal moment in the history of civil rights in the United States. The Air Force veteran graduated from the university on August 18, 1963 with a degree in political science.[6]

Charles W. Eagle described Meredith's achievement by the following:

"In a major victory against white supremacy, he had inflicted a devastating blow to white massive resistance to the civil rights movement and had goaded the national government into using its overpowering force in support of the black freedom struggle."[7]

Representation in other media[edit]

Sports journalist Wright Thompson wrote an article "Ghosts of Mississippi," (2010),[8] that described the riot and the football team's season that year. It was adapted as a documentary film for the ESPN 30 for 30 series, entitled The Ghosts of Ole Miss (2012), about the 1962 football team's perfect season and the early violence in the fall over integration of the historic university.[9]

Legacy[edit]

  • Because of the civil rights significance of Meredith's admission, the Lyceum-The Circle Historic District where the riot took place has been designated as a National Historic Landmark and state historic district.
  • A statue of Meredith has been erected on the campus to commemorate his historic role.
  • The university conducted a series of programs for a year beginning in 2002 to mark the 40th anniversary of its integration. In 2012, it initiated a yearlong series of programs to mark its 50th anniversary of integration.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ "1962: Mississippi race riots over first black student". BBC News - On this day. October 1, 1962. Retrieved 2007-10-02. 
  2. ^ a b Schlesinger (2002), 317-320.
  3. ^ Bryant 2006, 71.
  4. ^ "Though the Heavens Fall (5 of 7)". TIME. October 12, 1962. Retrieved 2007-10-03. 
  5. ^ Bryant (2006), 70-71.
  6. ^ Leslie M. Alexander; Walter C. Rucker (2010). Encyclopedia of African American History, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO. p. 890. 
  7. ^ Eagles, Charles W. (Spring 2009). "'The Fight for Men's Minds': The Aftermath of the Ole Miss Riot of 1962". The Journal of Mississippi History 71 (1): 1–53. , reprinted at Mississippi Department of Archives and History website, accessed 1 August 2014
  8. ^ Thompson, Wright (February 2010). "Ghosts of Mississippi". Outside the Lines. ESPN. Retrieved November 3, 2012. 
  9. ^ Thompson, Wright (October 30, 2012). "'Ghosts' a story of family, home". ESPN Films. ESPN.com. Retrieved November 3, 2012. 

References[edit]