by Robert Hamblin
It’s always a useful exercise for any individual to examine strongly held beliefs to seek to understand how he came to hold them. And for some of us it’s equally important to attempt to record this process of self-discovery in writing. That’s what I seek to do in this essay with regard to my retrospective impressions of two events from my graduate school days at Ole Miss: the riot that accompanied the admission of James Meredith to the university in 1962 and the near-riot that occurred when a biracial delegation from Tougaloo College attended the Southern Literary Festival at Ole Miss in 1965.
In September 1962 I enrolled as a first-year graduate student at the University of Mississippi. As coincidence would have it, that was also the month and year that James Meredith succeeded in becoming the first African-American student in the school’s history. Meredith, a 29-year-old Air Force veteran who had completed three years of college, had first sought admission to Ole Miss in January 1961, but was denied entrance, as the U.S. Court of Appeals later concluded, “solely because he was a Negro.” Only after an eighteen-month court battle which led to contempt citations against a number of state officials and university administrators was Meredith allowed to enroll at Ole Miss.
Along with other Ole Miss students, I followed the developments in the Meredith case throughout that fateful September as day after day Meredith, accompanied by lawyers and a host of federal marshals, sought to register for classes, only to be turned away time and again. Hoping to avoid the use of force that had characterized the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957, President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy attempted to effect a peaceful settlement of the crisis through behind-the-scenes negotiations with Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett; but the governor resisted all such overtures, continuing to ignore federal court orders and to proclaim that no school in Mississippi would be integrated while he was governor. We now know from historians’ reconstruction of these events (and from the tape recordings you can listen to in the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis) that Barnett, in his telephone discussions with the attorney general, was engaging in a political crap shoot, recognizing that the only way he could save face with his segregationist supporters would be to push the federal government into imposing its will upon Mississippi through the exercise of overwhelming physical force. In this regard Barnett won his personal showdown with the Kennedys, in the process elevating himself to the role of a folk hero who was given standing ovations at football games and celebrated in songs such as “The Ballad of Ole Miss,” a segregationist’s perspective on Meredith’s being turned away from the university; but Barnett’s selfish and ultimately self-destructive political actions would prove exceedingly tragic for the institution, the state, and the nation.
Three weeks into the semester, to my great distress, my relation to these events changed from that of a mere spectator to that of minor participant. Early Sunday morning, September 30, I opened the door of my apartment in the Ole Miss married-student housing complex, picked up my copy of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and learned from the banner headline that the Mississippi National Guard, of which I was a member, had been federalized by President Kennedy. Later that morning I received the phone call ordering me to report immediately to my local unit in Baldwyn, some 60 miles away. By 11 a.m. most of our unit had reported in, and we spent the rest of the day receiving instructions in riot control maneuvers and listening to radio reports of the worsening conditions on the Ole Miss campus.
By mid-afternoon the crowd of segregationists, many of whom had been pouring into Oxford for days from places as far away as Texas and Georgia–a crowd that would eventually grow to more than two thousand strong–had faced off with the three hundred federal marshals that surrounded the Lyceum building, where Meredith’s registration was scheduled to take place. Actually, alternate arrangements had been made between the Justice Department and university officials, calling for Meredith to arrive on campus under protective custody late Sunday afternoon, stay overnight in a dormitory located in a secluded part of the campus, and register the following morning. Neither the mob nor the federal marshals, however, knew of these secret arrangements.
For most of that fateful Sunday the situation at the Lyceum remained relatively peaceful, with the crowd’s actions being limited to shouting segregationist slogans and hurling verbal insults at the marshals. In fact, military reports from the campus were so favorable that the commander of our Baldwyn unit released us about 4 p.m. to return to our homes, but with orders to stand at alert and stay tuned to the radio for instructions to reassemble immediately if conditions warranted. Concerned with the safety of my wife Kaye, whom I had left behind in our apartment, I headed back to Oxford, but I had driven only a few miles when I heard the announcement that the confrontation between the federal marshals and the crowd had escalated, and the marshals were using tear gas in an attempt to control the situation. Later we would learn that the heightened aggression of the crowd occurred after Edwin Walker of Texas, a former major general in the U.S. Army, and ironically the officer who commanded the federal forces that integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957, delivered a fiery speech urging the crowd, which was more and more resembling a mob, to take action. By 8 o’clock, when President Kennedy went on television to announce to the American people that federal force was being used to ensure the court-ordered integration of Ole Miss, the campus crowd had already escalated its opposition into full-scale mob action, pelting the marshals and the Lyceum Building first with bricks, lead pipes, and bottles and then with Molotov cocktails and gunfire, overturning vehicles and setting them ablaze, and ramming a bulldozer into the side of the Lyceum (I only recently learned, in reading Dean Faulkner Wells’s Time by the Sun, who was the driver of that bulldozer). The federal marshals, under orders not to fire directly into the crowd, were driven by the superior numbers of the mob and the evacuation of their posts by the Mississippi Highway Patrol to take cover inside the Lyceum. Still under attack, they unleashed more tear gas and even fired shots over the heads of the rioters. The rioting lasted most of the night, and by morning two people lay dead, scores had been seriously injured, including more than half of the 300 marshals, the central campus was physically desecrated, and Ole Miss and Mississippi had become the scandal of the nation.
As the rioting continued, and Governor Barnett refused to countermand the earlier withdrawal of the Mississippi Highway Patrol, military personnel from Memphis and area units of the Mississippi National Guard were ordered into action to assist the besieged federal marshals. The first guard unit to arrive on the scene, because of its proximity to the crisis, was the local unit from Oxford, commanded by Murry “Chooky” Falkner, nephew of the famous novelist. Only sixty-five members strong, and improperly equipped for riot control, this unit suffered serious injuries, though fortunately no deaths, at the hands of the mob, but provided crucial aid to the marshals until other troops could travel to the scene.
The Baldwyn unit of which I was a member arrived on the Ole Miss campus about 10:30 p.m. Now in army fatigues, a soldier rather than a student, I was shocked by the transformation the peaceful, if tense, campus had undergone since I had left it that same morning. Now the scene I viewed from the rear of a military transport was an active battlefield, with burning vehicles scattered around the drive encompassing the Grove, smoke and tear gas filling the air, sporadic gunfire sounding from all directions, and hordes of rioters shouting curses and hurling any object that came to hand at marshals and troops. The lead vehicle of our convoy crashed through the barricade that the mob had erected on the bridge at the eastern entrance of the campus, and the remaining vehicles followed, one after another speeding past the Confederate monument, past the burning vehicles and the jeering mob, to come to a stop directly in front of the Lyceum. There we unloaded from our vehicles, quickly organized ourselves in single file, and marched through tear gas and darkness toward the rioting mob.
Though at the time I was too frightened and preoccupied with immediate concerns to think much about the significance of the events, in retrospect I realized that the moment in which I climbed down from that military vehicle, strapped on my gas mask, adjusted my steel helmet, and walked with loaded rifle at fixed bayonet toward that angry mob, I had crossed the boundary of the Mississippi that had nurtured me and entered a strange, new world. In that new world, of course, the James Merediths would have, must have, a considerable voice and role. For many whites (and, we should not forget, even some blacks) the terror of having to adjust to that new world was so immense as to be almost unthinkable. Such, at least, seems part of the explanation for the hysteria and violence I witnessed that terrible night in Oxford. Other Mississippians, however, felt less threatened by the new order, were more willing to leave the old traditions behind. In the succeeding months I found myself more and more belonging to this second group.
Following what is now called “The Battle of Ole Miss” and “An American Insurrection,” my active tour of duty in the U.S. Army was both brief and non-eventful. The day after the riot, after guardsmen and a number of regular-duty troops had cleared the rioters from the campus, arresting huge numbers of them and restraining them temporarily within the fenced grounds of the Oxford National Guard armory, the Mississippi guardsmen were replaced by huge numbers of full-time military policemen, who were now assigned the responsibility of securing the campus and safeguarding it from further unrest. Guardsmen, along with other late-arriving troops, were moved to Ross Brown’s pasture on the edge of town, which was quickly converted into a huge tent city to house the military personnel, the number of which over the next few days would grow to nearly 30,000, nearly double the combined population of the city and the university. I’ve not been able to document what I’m going to say next, but I have my own theory about the immense size of the federal force in Oxford. Certainly President Kennedy wanted to demonstrate to the entire South the length to which the federal government would go to enforce court-ordered school desegregation, but generally overlooked in the histories of this event is the fact that the mobilization of troops at Ole Miss coincided with the developing Cuban missile crisis. The federal troops I met in Brown’s pasture were persuaded that, for many of them, Oxford was merely a relay point for action in Cuba. Sending huge numbers of troops to Ole Miss would certainly send a message to segregationists, but it would also strategically position troops in a manner that might not unduly alarm or provoke the Soviet Union. In any event, the arrival of such large numbers of federal troops rendered the further services of the Mississippi guardsmen unnecessary, and within ten days I found myself again a student, though this time at a University of Mississippi that had been drastically and irrevocably changed from what it formerly was. The reason for that change was the daily presence of James Meredith.
Except for a few professors like James Silver and Russell Barrett who were well known for their liberal political views, and of course the federal marshals who guarded him constantly until his graduation the following August, I know of no whites who developed a close friendship with Meredith while he was at Ole Miss. Meredith acknowledges in his book, Three Years in Mississippi, that a surprising number of students were cordial and friendly when he met them in classes, in the dormitory, or on campus; but even he recognized that the danger of his situation, in that time and place, discouraged all except the bravest or the most foolhardy from seeking his friendship. In my own case, among friends and family I voiced support for Meredith’s right to attend the university of his choice, and Meredith and I exchanged greetings when we occasionally passed each other on campus; but (I am now somewhat ashamed to admit this) partly out of fear and partly because I allowed others to half persuade me that his motives were purely political and not educational, I never went out of my way to engage him in an extended conversation or to befriend him in any way.
One day I found myself playing golf just ahead of Meredith on the campus course. Ordinarily I would have lingered at the next tee and asked the player following to join me for a twosome, but on this day there were two Army helicopters hovering overhead, a couple of soldiers with high-powered rifles standing at the top railing of the football stadium that overlooked the course, other soldiers with guns scattered throughout the woods lining the fairways, and two federal marshals striding alongside Meredith with every step he took. Such conditions were hardly conducive to either friendly overtures or an enjoyable game of golf. I hastily finished my round, actually skipping the last few holes, and headed for the clubhouse. As I walked across the parking lot I noticed that all four tires on Meredith’s Volkswagen had been deflated.
Another time I stood behind him as he collected his mail at the campus post office. It was delivered to him, as campus rumor reported that it always was, in a pasteboard box which, I could tell, contained dozens of letters, many of which, I felt sure, were from well-wishers and supporters around the country but some of which, I felt equally sure, were from hate mongers and bigots communicating threats of reprisal or death. The segregationists on campus insisted that many of the letters contained money, and that it was primarily the desire for profit that led Meredith to the Ole Miss campus.
As I look back on these events, I think the major impact that Meredith’s presence at Ole Miss had on me was the contribution it made to my developing awareness of race and race relations. Never before or since has my reading and formal education been so highly charged with relevance to existential experience. It seemed that everything I read or studied was given heightened significance and meaning. When I read Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” in Evans Harrington’s Modern Poetry class, I could not help but parallel Frost’s text about fences that divide neighbors with the ongoing campus debate over integration, and it seemed quite clear to me which party in that debate should be linked with Frost’s lines, “He moves in darkness as it seems to me, / But not of woods only and the shade of trees. / He will not go behind his father’s saying, / And he likes having thought of it so well / He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.” Sometimes the linkage was less serious, in retrospect almost humorous, as when I read, in James Savage’s Renaissance Drama class, of the poorly trained and ill-equipped civilian militia satirized in Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle, a militia that seemed to impress Dr. Savage as not altogether unlike the National Guard of which I was still a part.
More significantly, as it turned out for my future life and career, were the novels I read in John Pilkington’s American novel and William Faulkner seminars. In reading Faulkner’s novels in the context of the racial tensions on campus, I discovered that the lynching of Joe Christmas, the saintliness of Dilsey, the Negrophobia of Thomas Sutpen, the growing racial awareness of Ike McCaslin, the stubborn pride and insistence of Lucas Beauchamp, and the youthful courage of Chick Mallison took on a startling relationship to actuality. Fiction, it seemed, was in the process of becoming fact.
But Faulkner was not the only great Mississippi author that Dr. Pilkington had us read. We also read Richard Wright, and his novel Native Son provided another corrective lens through which I could view the day-to-day events now unfolding at Ole Miss.
In Native Son I read, at first disbelieving, of the pent-up frustration and resentment and rage that eventually, inevitably exploded into hatred and violence toward the oppressing whites. Bigger Thomas is a monster, as I suspect Wright intended him to be; but he is a monster of the white man’s making. Interestingly enough, though, what moved me most in Native Son was not the gruesome murders, or Bigger’s futile flight from the police, or his last moments before execution. Rather, it was that brief scene early in the novel in which Bigger and Gus watch a plane fly overhead and fantasize about being pilots themselves. “Them white boys sure can fly,” Gus says. “Yeah,” Bigger responds, wistfully. “They get a chance to do everything.” Continuing to watch the plane, Bigger says: “God, I’d like to fly up there in that sky.” To which Gus replies, with an obvious note of irony, and finality: “God’ll let you fly when He gives you your wings up in heaven.”
In reading Native Son I was reminded that I had never met, in my Mississippi childhood and adolescence, a Bigger Thomas or a Richard Wright–that is, an openly militant black who was fed up with the old system and refused to accept it any longer. But now just such a black had pushed his way into the same space that I occupied, demanding his equal share of that space. James Meredith was not the violent, vengeful rebel that Bigger Thomas is, but he shared the same anger and frustration at the black man’s plight, and he was just as determined, though fortunately in a more positive and productive manner, to register his protest against the status quo. It seemed clear to me that, in his quiet courage and grim determination to have his constitutional rights, Meredith was a later incarnation of that same black spirit and pride that Richard Wright had written about two decades earlier when he had first coined the phrase “Black Power.”
And so it continued for an entire year. It seemed that my participation in the enforced integration of Ole Miss and the physical proximity of James Meredith throughout the 1962-63 school year affected almost everything I did, said, or thought. It was as though somehow the principle and condition of being Negro had wedged its way into my life and consciousness, indeed into my very soul, in a way that it never had before, despite my growing up in the South, altering forever my view of race, democracy, justice, and the world.
As I reflect on these matters now, it is quite startling, and perhaps as significant, that my three years of full-time graduate study at Ole Miss began and ended with a racial disturbance. The second event occurred in the spring of 1965. Like many other students that spring, I eagerly awaited the convening of the annual meeting of the Southern Literary Festival, set for April 22-24 on the Ole Miss campus. The festival program, organized by Ole Miss professors Evans Harrington and Gerald Walton, had been planned as a tribute to William Faulkner, and Robert Penn Warren was one of the literary figures who had been enlisted to lead the celebration. But I had a special reason for excitement which went beyond my interest in Faulkner and Southern literature: I had been asked by the festival coordinators to serve as escort for Warren during his stay on the campus. Little did I know that I was about to become a backstage observer of a mini-drama in which Warren would be caught on the horns of a dilemma created by the racial tensions that permeated the Ole Miss campus at that time.
Even in 1965 Ole Miss was still experiencing the aftershock of the violent confrontation that had accompanied the enrollment of James Meredith. It was now three years later, but only three additional black students had been enrolled in the school; and the university was still perceived by most people as one of the last bastions of segregation and reactionary states’-rights politics in the Deep South. And in August 1964 the university’s governing board had voted to deny admission to campus programs to all blacks except those enrolled in classes.
Despite the trustees’ ban on off-campus Negroes participating in university events, one of the groups attending the 1965 Southern Literary Festival was a biracial delegation of three black female students, two white male students, and a white male professor from Tougaloo College, the predominantly black school located near Jackson, Mississippi. Although this group had earlier in the day registered for the conference sessions, visited the Student Union, and eaten in the university cafeteria without serious incident, on Thursday night a crowd of about 500 persons gathered near Hill Dormitory, where the three Tougaloo males were housed, and began chanting segregationist slogans. The late-night demonstration lasted for more than an hour, during which time the rented vehicle being used by the Tougaloo delegates had its windows smashed, its tires deflated, and its gas tank filled with sugar. A racial epithet was painted in orange lettering on the side of the auto. Not until the Dean of Students and Campus Security forces arrived and started taking the names of the protesters did the mob disband.
Many students, myself included, did not know about the disturbance until the following morning, when both the campus and the city of Oxford were buzzing with accounts and rumors of the incident. Warren also learned about the occurrence the next morning; and throughout the remainder of that day he followed the aftermath of the incident with concerned interest and even alarm. Raymond Rohrbaugh, the professor with the Tougaloo delegation, announced that his group, “for [their] own personal safety,” had decided to walk out of the festival and return to Tougaloo. Rohrbaugh told newspaper reporters that Ole Miss officials had informed him following the demonstration that “they would do the best they could to protect us, but they couldn’t guarantee us anything.”
Before leaving the campus, however, Rohrbaugh lodged an “informal protest” and called upon festival officials to cancel the remainder of the program. “We felt the festival should not go on when a member organization could not be fully protected,” he told newsmen. George Owens, the black president of Tougaloo College, drove to Ole Miss to accompany his professor and students back home. “The decision [to leave] already was made,” he said later. “I just went up to bring them back.” Shortly after midday on Friday Ole Miss campus police escorted the Tougaloo contingent off the campus, and a Mississippi Highway Patrol unit accompanied the group along the entire 150-mile route to Tougaloo.
On the two or three occasions that I was with Warren on Friday morning and afternoon he was noticeably agitated about the developments. He questioned me, and others, about the events of the night before, about the university’s handling of the situation, and about Rohrbaugh’s demand that the festival program be terminated. More than once he wondered aloud whether, in view of what had transpired, it would be appropriate for him to stay to complete his role in the program. My distinct impression was that Warren was not so much seeking advice as he was thinking out loud, weighing the pros and cons of the matter. It was obvious that he was genuinely concerned about the physical well-being and the constitutional rights of the Tougaloo delegation. “Shameful!” was his response to one reporter who asked him his opinion of the Thursday night demonstration. But it was equally clear that Warren also felt strongly (maybe even more strongly now because of the circumstances) about the lecture he was scheduled to deliver in Ole Miss’s Fulton Chapel that evening. That lecture, entitled “Faulkner: The South, the Negro, and Time,” would not only serve to illuminate Faulkner’s handling of race relations but would express Warren’s deeply felt personal convictions as well. It would also, ironically but powerfully, serve as an editorial on the events of the night before.
The questions that Warren, along with other observers, kept coming back to throughout the day were whether the incident on Thursday night had presented any real threat to the Tougaloo delegation and, consequently, whether the walkout represented a legitimate response to actual danger or, as some claimed, was merely a media event designed to gain more publicity for the civil rights movement. In his conversations with me and others Warren appeared to be genuinely outraged at the treatment of the Tougaloo delegation. There was also, I think, a personal dimension to Warren’s dilemma. As a born and bred Southerner who had three decades earlier (in I’ll Take My Stand) endorsed a “separate but equal” approach to race relations, but as one who had subsequently become an integrationist, Warren, I am convinced, was concerned that his decision at Ole Miss might compromise his current position as a leading Southern spokesperson for racial equality and justice.
I can only guess as to how close Warren actually came to walking away from the festival. My belief was, and still is, that he came very, very close–that a big part of him (perhaps the new Warren calling the old Warren to heel) wanted to leave. I do know that he wrestled with the problem long and hard. And what finally kept him there was not the rationalizing by Ole Miss representatives but rather the speech that he carried in his briefcase. “Abandoning, or canceling, the literary festival is not the way to accomplish any desirable end,” he told Paul Flowers, the literary editor of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. What he said to me Friday afternoon was a bit more succinct: “Dammit, I came here to deliver a speech, and I intend to deliver it.”
And deliver it he did. On Friday evening at 8:00 Warren spoke in Fulton Chapel to a near-capacity crowd of 1200 persons. The audience included festival participants, Ole Miss faculty and students, citizens of Oxford, and quite a few people who had driven down from Memphis, where Warren had once taught. Everyone present was white. We listened as Warren read, in a quiet voice that could barely be heard at the rear of the auditorium, a paper that outlined Faulkner’s views on history, humanity, and race. Warren spoke of the “curse” and “doom” of Southern history, with “its record of man’s failure to realize his fine ideals, of the perversion of his ideals, of the cynical use of ideals as masks for brutal and self-aggrandizing action.” He traced the tragedy that occurs when a society abdicates “the things which affirm human worth and express human brotherhood.” In Faulkner’s treatment of the abuses that Southern whites had heaped upon blacks, Warren found “the rejection of the brother, the kinsman, as a symbolic representation of the crime that is the final crime against both nature and the human community.” For Faulkner, Warren asserted, piety is not respect “for institutions and social arrangements,” but instead “the reverence for the human capacity to struggle and endure, ultimately . . . reverence for the human effort for justice.”
After Warren’s presentation I waited offstage to drive him back to the Alumni House, where he was staying. He was surrounded by members of the audience who had stayed to speak with him personally, shake his hand, or ask for an autograph. Several people thanked him for coming, and for having the courage to say the things he had just said. During his presentation I had observed the audience closely, and it was obvious that Warren’s ideas were being carefully followed, and well received. Now, as I listened to individual after individual tell him how grateful they were for his remarks, I could sense that the lecture had produced a cathartic effect upon the listeners, as though the honesty and truth of Warren’s words had served as a kind of confession, releasing the anguish and regret of the days, months, and years of racial strife and tension and positing the hope of a better time to come. And I knew then why Warren had felt compelled to stay to deliver his address.
During the short drive back to the Alumni House I added my congratulations and thanks to Warren for a job well done. He was clearly pleased that the evening had gone so well, and he was especially gratified at the number of university students who had stopped by to talk with him. Though I did not have the boldness to press him on the matter, I could tell that, if earlier in the day he had questioned whether he should stay or leave, he now knew that he had made the right decision.
I never saw Warren again after that week, though I continued to follow his career with interest and to read and teach his novels, stories, poems, and essays. I still treasure the Modern Library copy of All the King’s Men that Warren inscribed to me, as I do the gift copy of Who Speaks for the Negro? that I received in the mail, compliments of Warren, a few weeks after the conclusion of the Southern Literary Festival. But the greatest treasure I retain from my brief encounter with Warren is an intangible one, though no less real than the inscription and the gift volume: it is the memory and example of an heroic Southerner who had the vision and the courage to grow with the times and who demonstrated that April day in Oxford that it can be just as noble and brave to stay and fight as it is to walk away in protest. It was a vision and courage, I realize these many years later, not altogether different from those I had previously observed in James Meredith.
I conclude with a postscript. This has been an essay about personal history, which, like all history, usually can be understood, if at all, only in retrospect. So I offer a retrospective impression. Flash forward to several years later. I am back on the Ole Miss campus to participate in the annual Faulkner conference. One late afternoon, needing some exercise, I go for a jog around the campus. Returning to the Alumni House on the eastern edge of campus, and now walking, I pass the Lyceum and cross the area which had been the scene of the 1962 riot. The stately columns of the Lyceum are now smooth and white, showing no trace of the bullet marks that were visible for months after the riot. The scene is calm and quiet and clean: no tear gas, no burning vehicles, no angry and screaming mob, no threatened reporters, no uniformed soldiers. A squirrel moves leisurely across the grass; a mockingbird sings her heart out in a nearby oak. Continuing on, I pass a picnic table at which are seated a young man and a young woman, students I presume, sharing a late afternoon snack. Both are African Americans, and they are obviously enjoying themselves: relaxed, laughing, happy in each other’s company—and completely indifferent to the white man walking past. I wonder if they know the bloody history of this spot of ground, if they’ve ever heard of James Meredith or Cleve McDowell or Cleveland Donald or the other blacks who paved the way for their attendance at this institution. Probably not, I suspect, but does that really matter? What matters is that they are here, and welcome, and safe, and unafraid, entirely at ease in this place, subject to no threat of harm or censure. Not fifty yards away stands the Confederate soldier high on his marble pedestal. He too is calm and peaceful in this new world, and I like to think that he now celebrates with us not the divisions and conflicts of the past but the brighter, nobler promises of the future we always yearn and strive for, and sometimes possess.