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Tension Over Desegregation Reached Its Peak During the Ole Miss Riot

President John F. Kennedy and the state of Mississippi were locked in a fierce battle over civil rights.

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  • James Meredith walks to class flanked by U.S. marshals, 1962.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In 1961, James Meredith, a 29-year-old African American student, applied for enrollment at the University of Mississippi, commonly regarded as “Ole Miss”. Meredith fully qualified for acceptance, considering his service in the Air Force and 60 plus hours of transfer credits. However, upon discovering his racial background, the university continually stalled his enrollment. 

In the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Meredith was not the first African American to seek desegregation in Mississippi. For up to eight years after the Supreme Court’s federal decision, Ole Miss and several other public institutions thwarted attempts to bring about racial integration in education. 

In late 1961, after several months of delayed enrollment, Meredith sued the University of Mississippi. After months of obstruction by Mississippi’s Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Meredith appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, where it was decided that Meredith must be admitted for the fall semester. 

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As you would imagine, things did not end here. Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett remained insubordinate to the federal court, and went to the lengths of jailing Meredith under a new law stating that anyone charged with “moral turpitude” would be barred from enrollment into any university. Meredith was jailed for mistakenly writing “1960” instead of “1961” on a voter registration form, charged with “moral turpitude”, and barred from enrollment.

At this point, Meredith’s case had escalated into a battle between the state of Mississippi and the federal government. President John F. Kennedy hoped to avoid the use of federal troops by directly contacting Governor Barnett over the phone. However, after considerable dialogue between the Governor and the President, this proved unsuccessful, and Governor Barnett was charged in contempt of the court. President Kennedy then federalized the Mississippi National Guard, and nearly 200 journalists traveled to Oxford, Mississippi, correctly sensing that chaos was on the horizon.

On September 30th, 1962, 20 days after the Supreme Court’s decision, Meredith was escorted onto campus by U.S marshals on the orders of Attorney General Robert Kennedy. A roaring mob stood present, awaiting Meredith’s arrival, and eventually erupted into terrible violence that would last until early the next morning. Governor Barnett encouraged the violence, stating over the radio, "We will never surrender!"

The riot only ended when more than 30,000 troops were mobilized to put an end to the upheaval. The horrific pandemonium led to the death of two victims: Paul Guihard, a French journalist, and Ray Gunter, a repairman. Not only that, but hundreds of participants and bystanders were injured. Historian William Doyle states, “It was a sheer miracle that scores, if not hundreds, of Americans were not slaughtered that night."

The Ole Miss Riot, also known as the Battle of Oxford, is regarded as a notable turning point of the United States Civil Rights Movement. Under the leadership of the Kennedy brothers, the federal government displayed zero tolerance for Mississippi's insubordination to the Constitution and defended the principle of desegregation. It is no surprise then, that author and historian Walter Lord would choose the Ole Miss Riot as the focus of his 1965 book, The Past That Would Not Die. 

Some of Lord’s most famous work includes A Night to Remember (1955), with original reporting on the sinking of the Titanic, and Day of Infamy (1957), about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Past That Would Not Die, written only three years after the Ole Miss Riot, consists of detailed eyewitness accounts, descriptions, and a thorough exploration into the societal context within which this devastating event occurred. 

Read a passage from The Past That Would Not Die below, then download the book.




The Past That Would Not Die

By Walter Lord

Bricks, stones, bottles were now flying—the rest of the truck tires slashed. A rock clipped Marshal Ed Bartholomew on the thigh—“Next time we’ll get you in the head,” a voice shouted from the dark. A pop bottle, several stones and a piece of brick rained down on Marshal Dan Pursglove, and a dose of acid caught Marshal Stan Spofford—strong enough to burn holes in his clothes. A fiery Coke bottle landed by Marshal Robert Erwin, spewed burning gasoline around his feet...another bottle bowled over the man three down from him. Around 7:45 Marshal Cameron urged gas...McShane at first said no...then as more rocks cascaded down, he ordered the gas guns “at ready.”

At this moment Senator Yarbrough suddenly appeared on the Lyceum steps. Overruled on his decision to withdraw the Highway Patrol, he had volunteered to come out and try to calm the crowd. Seeing the marshals put on their gas masks, he rushed up to McShane and begged him to cancel the order. This was done, and as the marshals took off their masks, Yarbrough plunged into the crowd. Again and again he shouted that he was the Governor’s representative, that all would be well, that they should calm down.

At the same time, a number of Highway Patrolmen suddenly reappeared—apparently not all, but enough to convince some Justice men that the Governor’s orders had filtered through. The storm of missiles seemed to let up.

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Then from the rear came a new cascade, and someone threw a burning newspaper on the canvas top of one of the trucks. Again the crowd surged forward; again the marshals put on their masks; again the crowd pulled back. The Highway Patrolmen seemed to be making some progress, particularly to the left, and the marshals once more took off their masks.

In the Lyceum Ed Guthman reported to Kennedy that it looked like they might use gas. The Attorney General said he hoped it wouldn’t come to that and asked to talk to Colonel Birdsong. When Guthman brought the Colonel to the phone, Yarbrough came in too and got on the line first. He told Kennedy he wanted Barnett to fly up and talk to the students. Kennedy thought this was a dreadful idea.

Outside the storm had burst again. Professor Herndon was amazed to see a boy race by, literally frothing at the mouth. Bricks and bottles rained on the marshals; then a two-foot length of lead pipe crashed down on one man’s helmet, sending him sprawling.

This last was enough for McShane. At 7:58 he gave the command to fire.

ole miss riot 1962
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  • President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy confer outside the White House, 1962.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The center of the marshals’ line erupted with a series of muffled blasts. Catching the sound, the rest of the line swung into action too. Firing spread up and down the line and around the building—including those spots where the Highway Patrolmen were trying to push the crowd back.

The troopers were caught squarely in the middle, with their backs to the marshals. The guns fired raw gas, not projectiles as later claimed by irate Mississippians, but the effect was bad enough. The wax wadding that packed in the gas could give a man a mean crack and, of course, the Border Patrolmen (lacking guns) began hurling grenades as hard as they could.

Highway Patrolman Welby Brunt—hit by either wadding or a grenade—fell stunned to the ground. As he struggled to his feet gasping for breath, he got a big dose of gas at point-blank range and fell back again unconscious. A county sheriff raced to his rescue—and none too soon. Brunt’s life was barely saved.

Other patrolmen staggered away cursing and crying, and Chief Tatum caught a bad dose too. “That’s the dirtiest trick I’ve ever seen,” exploded Officer Gwin Cole, as he groped his way into the Lyceum, tears streaming down his face.

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The people in the building already knew what had happened—there was no mistaking those muffled pops. Colonel Birdsong had just taken the phone to discuss with Robert Kennedy what more might be done to forestall a riot; now it was all so clearly too late. Katzenbach raced in, grabbed the line: “Bob, I’m very sorry to report we’ve had to fire tear gas...we had no choice.”

In the White House it was 9:59—just one minute before the President was due on the air with his calm reassurance that Meredith was safely in. JFK was already in his office, seated at his desk before a battery of microphones and cameras. Robert Kennedy and Burke Marshall were next door in the Cabinet Room, where most of the telephoning was done. When the flash came, Burke Marshall rushed to alert the President, but found his way blocked by a jungle of wires and cables. Stumbling over and around them, he reached the President’s door just as Kennedy began, “Good evening, my fellow citizens.”

In the Lyceum a furious Colonel Birdsong tore into Nick Katzenbach for gassing his men. Badly needing the Highway Patrol to stay on the job, Katzenbach did his best to patch things up. He poured out apologies: he was terribly sorry...it was most unfortunate that the troopers were hit...the marshals weren’t meant to fire right where they were standing.

Mississippi later magnified the apology into a confession of guilt for the whole affair—something he certainly never intended. But the open-fire order would remain controversial. State leaders still argue that it wasn’t necessary, nor was there adequate warning. The federal officials disagree—and they are backed up by many of the University people and nearly all of the newsmen present. One student leader has privately remarked, “Actually, they waited too long.”

Certainly the marshals had taken merciless abuse for an hour and a bad beating for the last 30 minutes. At least eight were injured by flying missiles. While some Highway Patrolmen were back in action at the end, and while they were indeed having some luck holding back the crowd—especially on the northeast corner of the Lyceum—the situation as a whole was getting worse, not better.

Nor did the crowd need greater warning. The sight of the masks—nearly ten minutes before gas—was enough. The students knew what this meant, and most easily scampered to safety. The real victims, ironically, were those Highway Patrolmen who were doing something to help. With their backs to the marshals as they pushed against the crowd, they couldn’t see the preparations and were caught unaware. Here loudspeakers would again have helped, and the failure to have any handy remains perhaps the most serious mistake made by the federal government.

But charges, countercharges and post-mortems would all come later. At the time there was only wild confusion. Smoke billowed out from the Lyceum as the marshals continued pumping tear gas into the night. Shadowy figures in T-shirts raced about the circle in front, pausing occasionally to hurl rocks and bottles at the federal lines. This circle quickly became the main battlefield—the first 80 yards served as no-man’s land...the flagpole in the center was the rioters’ front line...and the Confederate monument on the far side became an appropriate rallying point. The trees that studded this area—and the comfortable brick buildings surrounding it—gave generous opportunity for cover and strategy. Finally, the new Science Center under construction nearby offered an arsenal of bricks and stone that exceeded the dreams of the most bloodthirsty rioter.

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Yells and howls filled the murky night. It was a setting made for rumor, and the story soon spread that the federals had killed Colonel Birdsong. The troopers, now completely out of action and collecting by the gym, clamored for revenge. They were unarmed, but their guns were handy in the patrol cars. A quick-thinking Senator Yarbrough hustled the Colonel, alive and unharmed, to the spot.

Another story couldn’t be stopped so easily: the rumor that a coed had also been killed by the opening blast. Nothing could better fit the popular notion of brave Southern womanhood and federal bestiality; the students struck at the line of marshals with new fury.

“Even among law-abiding men few laws are universally loved. But they are uniformly respected and not resisted,” the President’s calm voice came over a small radio in the YMCA building on the circle. To the little group listening his patient tone seemed utterly incongruous against the background of mounting explosions and breaking glass. Jeers and howls split the night; somewhere, someone was pounding on metal. And still the quiet voice talked on, now addressing the students themselves: “You have a new opportunity to show that you are men of patriotism and integrity. For the most effective means of upholding the law is not the state policeman, or the marshals, or the National Guard. It is you...”

ole miss riot 1962
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  • U.S. marshals on the Ole Miss campus, 1962.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

“Oh, hell, the story’s all over,” remarked French newsman Paul Guihard to his photographer companion, Sammy Schulman, as their car entered Oxford, heading for the University. They were covering the crisis for Agence France-Presse, but now the President’s speech suggested everything was settled. Still, they might as well wind it up; so they parked just inside the campus and Guihard plunged into the night. Nobody knows what happened next, but within minutes he apparently met someone who didn’t like foreigners at a family affair. When they found his body half an hour later, it was lying near a dorm hundreds of yards from the rioting, shot from behind at a range of less than a foot.

“Nauseating, nauseating,” muttered another man in Oxford, also listening to the President’s speech. General Walker had interrupted his dinner at the Mansion House Restaurant, a mile from the campus, to hear it on somebody’s portable. Now he returned to his table expressing his feelings about Kennedy’s whole point of view.

As he paid his check, a man rushed up: “There is trouble going on, on the campus.” Getting into his car, Walker told the news to his companion, Louis Leman, then suggested, “Let’s drive on out there.”

In the circle by the Lyceum, two young clergymen were still trying to restore peace to this fierce Sabbath night. Senator Yarbrough, Chancellor Williams, all the other peacemakers had failed and gone; but Duncan Gray, the young balding rector of St. Peter’s Church, and the University’s Episcopal chaplain Wofford Smith just wouldn’t give up. They were both gentle individuals and were amazed at the power they often had in getting wild-eyed boys to drop their bricks and bottles. These the two ministers carefully collected and trundled off to the YMCA, where they placed them in a neat pile inside the doorway. 

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It was like bailing out the ocean. Soon the uproar grew still louder, as a line of automobiles entered the campus. It was a convoy of 17 Border Patrol sedans bringing 102 more marshals hurriedly summoned from the airport by Lou Oberdorfer. As the cars reached the driveway that ringed the circle, the students bombarded them with bricks and bottles. The marshals huddled low beneath a shower of breaking windshields. Somehow they all got through.

The riot raged on—a steady hail of missiles crashing into the embattled line of marshals, who kept mechanically pumping gas into the night. It did little good, for the wind was blowing the wrong way. Besides, the boys seemed to thrive on the danger and excitement; soon they were even picking up the sputtering grenades and tossing them back at the marshals. Carried away, they compared themselves to the patriots of ’76, or (and this they especially liked) to a band of Hungarian Freedom Fighters.

“We’ve got a leader! We’ve got a leader now!” Suddenly the cry rose above the general tumult. Duncan Gray glanced across the circle, and there in the glow of some lights he saw a small cluster of people around a tall man in a dark suit, wearing a white Texan hat. General Walker had reached the campus shortly before 9:00 P.M., striding in by the University Avenue entrance, trailed by Louis Leman and a few other friends picked up along the street. Halting under a lamp post at the entrance to the circle, he was quickly spotted, and there followed a brief, bizarre reception as well-wishers moved up to shake hands, request his autograph, ask for his views on subjects like Cuba and the Constitution while the riot raged on in the murky darkness.

Want to keep reading? Download The Past That Would Not Die today!

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