Remembering an American insurrection

Posted: Sep 27, 2002 12:00 AM
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 political science. 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 boy. 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.