Forty years ago this month, a lone black man named James
Meredith faced off against an angry mob of thousands of white
segregationists on the campus of the University of Mississippi. After a
violent clash that left two people dead, 48 American soldiers injured, and
30 U.S. Marshals with gunshot wounds, a dignified Meredith sat in the
registrar's office with stunned college officials and signed the forms that
led to the historic integration of a fiercely resistant Ole Miss.
The incident, dubbed the Battle of Oxford, is mostly ignored in
public school history texts. But as author and documentarian William Doyle
describes it, the showdown was "the biggest domestic military crisis of the
twentieth century" and a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement.
Doyle's gripping and meticulously researched book, "An American
Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962," recounts Meredith's
brave stand against Mississippi's Democrat governor Ross Barnett, the state
police, the Ku Klux Klan, students and bloodthirsty rabble-rousers who took
up guns, clubs, bricks and bottles in their bid to prevent a fellow American
citizen from getting a college education.
On Meredith's first day of class, the stinging smell of tear gas
filled the air. Some 30,000 federal troops had been sent to quell the
uprising against Meredith's presence. "I was more frightened at Mississippi
than I was at Pearl Harbor or any other time during the war," one U.S.
Marshal told Doyle.
Meredith himself never showed fear. He walked past blood-stained
hallways, endured hate-filled taunts from his fellow students and sat down
unflappably for his first lecture: "The Beginnings of English Colonization."
On August 18, 1963, at a graduation ceremony with 16 federal marshals
monitoring the crowd, Meredith received a bachelor of arts degree in
Three years later, while on a one-man march from Memphis to
Jackson to promote voting rights, a sniper opened fire on Meredith with an
automatic 16-gauge shotgun. He sustained wounds to his head, back, shoulders
and legs; at least 80 pellets remain lodged in his body. Later, he outraged
many of his former colleagues by opposing government-imposed affirmative
action, welfare and busing and joining the staff of conservative Republican
senator Jesse Helms.
Meredith, now 69 and a resident of Jackson, Miss., is a
fascinating, renegade hero. Grandson of a slave and son of a property-owning
farmer, he was among the first black soldiers to join the racially
integrated U.S. armed forces. After serving in Japan, he enrolled at
all-black Jackson State College against a backdrop of horrific lynchings
across the Deep South. Meredith resolved to do what he could to break the
reign of white supremacy: Confront the beast head on by enrolling at the
segregated university that he had dreamed of attending since he was a little
To the chagrin of those who romanticize the Kennedys and the
Democrats as the unassailable and stalwart champions of civil rights, author
Doyle reveals how brothers John and Bobby botched the handling of the crisis
at Ole Miss. JFK preferred to wash his hands of the whole "God-damn mess"
that the civil rights issue had become to his White House. RFK, then his
brother's attorney general, led negotiations with Gov. Barnett that
collapsed at the last minute and led to what he later called the worst night
of his life.
Doyle reports that the Kennedys, more concerned with public
relations than sacred principles of equality, secretly ordered black
soldiers pulled from the front lines of the battle and forcibly
resegregated. Some 4,000 black troops were assigned to garbage details and
kitchen patrol in order not to offend white rioters. It was a disgraceful
maneuver, made all the more so, one black military policeman told Doyle,
"when you consider what the hell we were sent down there for -- the
integration of a racially discriminatory institution.
Based on more than 500 eyewitness interviews, hours of White
House tapes, and some 9,000 pages of files from the Federal Bureau of
Investigations, Doyle's "American Resurrection" is an invaluable retelling
of forgotten history -- a passionate tribute to one man who walked the talk
of equality, and a shameful indictment of the cowards and villains who stood
in the way.