OTD in History… September 30-October 1, 1962, segregationists riot over the University of Mississippi’s desegregation
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history, September 30 and October 1, 1962, segregationists riot over the University of Mississippi enrolling African American military veteran James H. Meredith, clashing with federal and state troops Ole Miss’ integration. Earlier on September 30, U.S. Marshals escorted Meredith onto the Oxford campus to enroll, when riots broke out, it took 3,000 troops to quell the violence that left two dead including a French journalist and over 300 injured. The incident at the University of Mississippi was the second time a president had to intervene and send federal troops to enforce a court ordered integration. Unfortunately, the next year President John F. Kennedy would have again had to send federal troops to desegregate the University of Alabama.
After the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ruled separate but equal segregated school unconstitutional, the Southern states were slow and resistant to integrating their schools. Each time riots and protests ensued with the state governors opposing federal orders to integrate. In one such incident, the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was forced to send paratroopers to help accompany African American students into the school and stop protests after a standoff ordered by Governor Orval Faubus. Previous African American students enrolled at the University of Alabama in 1956, and the University of Georgia in 1961 were expelled or suspended.
In January 1961, Meredith, 28, who was a U.S. Air Force veteran applied to the University of Mississippi from all-black Jackson State College where he attended from 1960 to 1962. The university denied Meredith admission because only he was an African American. The most racist state in the country long prevented African Americans from attending their white universities. At first, Meredith challenged the university himself, and then Medgar Evers the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) helped him file a racial discrimination suit against Ole Miss. On September 24, 1962, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that the university had to allow Meredith to register but when he went to register Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett blocked Meredith at the entrance.
On September 13, the court issued an injunction against the university’s officials and Board of Trustees; Barnett made himself the university registrar and spoke to the state on television. Barnett inciting the public said, “There is no case in history where the Caucasian race has survived social integration. We will not drink from the cup of genocide. … We must either submit to the unlawful dictates of the federal government or stand up like men and tell them never! … No school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your Governor!” For Barnett opposition to segregation was like other Southern states an issue of states’ rights.
President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy entered into negotiations with Governor Barnett to allow Meredith to register. Kennedy did not want to send troops fearing they would incite riots between segregationist protesters and the troops. Between September 27 and 30 the administration negotiated with Barnett, hoping to pressure him with the court order and the use of U.S. Marshalls accompanying Meredith to register. After the administration promised a “face-saving event,” Barnett agreed there would be civil order after days of protests and Meredith could register.
On September 30, 500 Federal Marshals accompanied Meredith as he moved into the dorms. Soon, however, students began protesting. Then State Senator George Yarbrough withdrew on Barnett’s pledge for civil order, and Barnett told the public in a radio statement Meredith had registered and he told the U.S. Marshals directly, “Gentlemen, you are trampling on the sovereignty of this great state and depriving it of every vestige of honor and respect as a member of the United States. You are destroying the Constitution of the United States. May God have mercy on your souls.” On September 28, Gov. Barnett was “fined $10,000 each day and sentenced to jail for contempt” for not abiding by the federal court order. September 29, the court found Lieutenant Governor Johnson also in contempt and had to pay $5,000 a day in fines.
In the evening on September 30, President Kennedy went on television and addressed the nation from the White House Oval Office on his decision to send troops to the University of Mississippi. The president explained, “Even though this Government had not originally been a party to the case, my responsibility as President was therefore inescapable. I accept it. My obligation under the Constitution and the statutes of the United States was and is to implement the orders of the court with whatever means are necessary, and with as little force and civil disorder as the circumstances permit. It was for this reason that I federalized the Mississippi National Guard as the most appropriate instrument, should any be needed, to preserve law and order while United States marshals carried out the orders of the court and prepared to back them up with whatever other civil or military enforcement might have been required.”
The more than 2,000 protesters at the campus became so violent that President Kennedy felt compelled to issue an executive order sending in troops to Oxford, Mississippi. Kennedy sent Brigadier General Charles Billingslea to oversee 3,000 troops. The troops came from the “U.S. Army military police from the 503rd, 716th, and 720th Military Police Battalions,” the Second Battle Group, Second Infantry Division, and the 31st Helicopter Company, and the federalized the Mississippi National Guard, while 101st Airborne Division communication and medical personnel were sent to deal with the injured. According to the New York Times report, “3,000 soldiers and guardsmen and 400 deputy United States marshals fired rifles and hurled tear-gas grenades to stop the violent demonstrations.”
Protesters threw rocks, bricks, damaged university property, and buildings. They assaulted the dorm building Baxter Hall were Meredith was staying and they attacked Gen. Billingslea’s car as he entered the university setting it on fire, he and Deputy Commanding General John Corley, and Capt Harold Lyon were forced to leave the burning car under gunfire. The final assault was near the University Lyceum Building, with 100 of the remaining protesters. Over a third of the marshalls were injured and 40 “soldiers and National Guardsmen.” Rioters killed two bystanders, Agence France-Presse (AFP) journalist Paul Guihard and Ray Gunter, a white repairman, who was just observing the protests, both were killed execution style. The troops gathered up 200 protesters, who had “besieged” the university administration building.
On October 1, escorted by Justice Department agents, Meredith finally registered for classes at the University of Mississippi, the first African American student to do so. For his first class, he attended an American history course. Meredith would be harassed and keep on needing protection as he attended classes that academic year, but at the end in August 1963, Meredith became the first African American to graduate from Ole Miss with a Bachelors degree in Political Science. As Frank Lambert notes in the book, The Battle of Ole Miss, Civil Rights v. States’ Right, Meredith, “defied the state’s harsh racial code by refusing to accept the rejection from Ole Miss that in fact arrived in his mail, and that is why his story is so captivating and central to the fight for civil rights in Mississippi.” (Lambert, 15)
Historian Charles W. Eagle, the author of The Price of Defiance, James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss, called Meredith’s registration at a pivotal moment in the civil rights struggle. In the article, “‘The Fight for Men’s Minds’: The Aftermath of the Ole Miss Riot of 1962” Eagle writes, “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.”
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Doyle, William. An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
Eagles, Charles W. The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss. Chapel Hill [N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
Eagles, Charles W. “‘The Fight for Men’s Minds’: The Aftermath of the Ole Miss Riot of 1962.” The Journal of Mississippi History. 71 (1) Spring 2009: 1–53.
Lambert, Frank. The Battle of Ole Miss: Civil Rights V. States’ Rights. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.