On Sept. 30, 1962, chaos broke out at the University of Mississippi — also known as Ole Miss — after an African-American man named James Meredith attempted to enroll.
That night, students and other protesters took to the streets, burning cars and throwing rocks at the federal marshals who were tasked with protecting Meredith. By the time the riot was over, observers said the grounds looked like a war zone, and the smell of tear gas hung in the air.
That's not how it was supposed to be, according to Purdue University history professor Frank Lambert. He's the author of The Battle of Ole Miss: Civil Rights v. States' Rights. He was also a sophomore at Ole Miss in 1962. Lambert tells NPR's Tell Me More guest host Celeste Headlee that he had applied to Ole Miss at about the same time as Meredith. Meredith was rejected after he revealed his race. "I was white and James Meredith was black, and in 1961 that made all the difference in Mississippi. I was admitted without any question," Lambert says.
James Meredith's niece, Meredith McGee, says the foundation for Meredith's history-making decision was laid in his childhood. McGee is the author of a forthcoming book about her uncle's experience, James Meredith: Warrior and the America That Created Him.
"He wanted to go to that school before he even knew that he couldn't go because of segregation," she explains.
Meredith's dream was further inspired in 1957, when the Little Rock Nine — a group of African-American students — enrolled in an Arkansas high school with the help and protection of federal troops. As a veteran of the Air Force, Meredith confronted integrating Ole Miss with military discipline. McGee says that her uncle never talked about being afraid of what was happening on campus at the time. "I get the sense from him that he was on a mission. That he was a soldier, and that it was something that had to be done," she explains.
Lambert also got that sense when he spoke to James Meredith himself while researching his book. He describes feeling grief and guilt over the events of 1962. "I was a white student there, of course, everybody was white there, and I never cursed James Meredith, I never picked up a rock. I was probably like the majority of students there: indifferent." He says this was part of the problem. "Indifference in the face of injustice means you are a part of perpetuating that injustice," he points out.
Lambert tried apologizing to Meredith, but was met with a response that surprised him. "He said: 'What does a 19-year-old know? You were dumb, like most 19-year-olds,' " he remembers. That's when Meredith disclosed his notion that "he was a warrior, and that this was a battle," and reiterated that "nobody, black or white, was going to dissuade [him] from [his] warrior mission."
On Oct. 1, 1962, James Meredith began his studies. He required 24-hour protection for his entire time at the university, and went on to become the first African-American to graduate from Ole Miss. But he does not see value in commemorating the event. In a separate discussion with Tell Me More, Meredith said he wants less attention on his achievement, and more on the current state of Mississippi schools.
"The black public education system was specifically, deliberately destroyed over the last 40 years," Meredith said. "It may be all right with some people, but my God is not pleased, and I'm not going to pretend that I'm pleased."
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we bring you up to date with the latest news on stories we've covered and we'll get your thoughts about some of them. That's BackTalk in just a few minutes.
But, first, we mark an important anniversary in civil rights history. Fifty years ago this weekend, chaos broke out at the University of Mississippi, also known as Ole Miss, after an African-American man named James Meredith attempted to enroll.
The violence erupted despite a court order that Meredith be admitted and despite President John F. Kennedy's plea to students and citizens to comply.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: The honor of your university and state are in the balance. I am certain the great majority of the students will uphold that honor. There is, in short, no reason why the books on this case cannot now be quickly and quietly closed in the manner directed by the court. Let us preserve both the law and the peace.
HEADLEE: The president ended up sending more than 20,000 troops to restore order after a mob clashed with federal marshals. James Meredith went on to become the first African-American to graduate from Ole Miss.
To mark the 50th anniversary of Meredith's enrollment, I'm joined by James Meredith's niece, Meredith McGee. She's the author of an upcoming book titled "James Meredith: Warrior and the America that Made Him." Also with us, Professor Frank Lambert. He teaches history at Purdue University and wrote the book "The Battle of Ole Miss: Civil Rights v. States' Rights." He was also a student at Ole Miss when James Meredith enrolled.
Welcome to both of you.
FRANK LAMBERT: Thank you.
MEREDITH MCGEE: Thank you.
HEADLEE: So, Meredith, what has your uncle told you about his initial decision to enroll at Ole Miss and how he came to that decision?
MCGEE: I think, at first, he was inspired to go to Ole Miss as a young man when he was maybe 12. He saw a Ole Miss degree on the wall of his father's doctor and he wanted to go to that school before he even knew that he couldn't go because of segregation and I think that he was inspired even more when he was in the military. He came home on a furlough and the Little Rock Nine were integrating, of course, with a military force and that was the other thing.
And then he was also inspired when John F. Kennedy gave his inauguration speech and he gave a civil rights platform that was - the day that he gave the speech is when he wrote his initial draft to become admitted into Ole Miss.
HEADLEE: You know, Professor Lambert, you were there at the school at the time. I understand you played football and came out of your game to see all of this beginning to happen. Can you kind of describe it for us?
LAMBERT: Well, I can. In 1962, I was a sophomore there and one of the interesting things to me, as I reflect on it now from the perspective of a historian, I wrote my letter to Ole Miss seeking admission in 1961, about the same time that James Meredith did. Of course, I did not know that at the time.
Both of us received exactly the same letter from the registrar. We're pleased that you're interested in Ole Miss. Enclosed is an application. Fill it out, send it in. The difference, of course, is that I was white and James Meredith was black and, in 1961, that made all the difference in Mississippi.
I was admitted without any question and, when he identified himself in a follow-up letter, saying you need to know that I am an American Mississippi Negro, that was it. That set in motion an institutionalized response from the governor on down to make sure that he was not admitted to the all-white university.
HEADLEE: Well, let's take a listen. This is from September 29th of 1962 and the voice we're hearing here is the Mississippi governor at the time, Ross Barnett, giving a speech at halftime during your game. Let's hear a clip.
LAMBERT: Oh, I remember it well.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
GOVERNOR ROSS BARNETT: I love Mississippi.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE CHEERING)
BARNETT: I love her people.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE CHEERING)
BARNETT: Our customs. I love and I respect our heritage.
HEADLEE: So, if you listen back to that without the context, it sounds relatively harmless, but back in 1962, there's an unspoken message there. Right, Frank?
LAMBERT: Exactly. Context is everything. There wasn't a person in that stadium that had any misunderstanding of what he meant about heritage. He had been elected governor by pledging to safeguard segregation and, over and over, he said, as long as I'm governor, the University of Mississippi will never be integrated.
And, incidentally, he left that stadium that night, went back to the governor's mansion, called the Kennedys - and he had already made a deal with them to see that James Meredith was safely enrolled - and he called them and said, the deal's off. I can't do it. I saw those people, those Mississippians. He didn't say all of those white Mississippians, but that's what it was. And he said I cannot go through with the deal. And he called it off.
And that was when President Kennedy called General Creighton Abrams and initiated the military response and decided to send in the military, much the same way as Eisenhower had done at Little Rock.
HEADLEE: You know, Meredith, I have to wonder. You know, I was so interested to read that your uncle, James Meredith, actually went to bed at 10:00 or 10:30 on that night while all of the chaos was ensuing, but he must have been afraid. Do you get the sense from him that he had a sense of fear for his own safety?
MCGEE: Well, I really didn't get a sense that he was afraid. I get the sense from him that he was on a mission, that he was a soldier and that it was something that had to be done. That's the sense that I get from him.
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. James Meredith, the first black student at the University of Mississippi, first enrolled there 50 years ago. We're marking that anniversary by speaking with history professor Frank Lambert, and Meredith's niece, writer Meredith McGee.
And, Meredith, you mentioned that he thought of himself as a soldier and that must be why you titled your book "Warrior," and Professor Lambert has talked about this, as well, the fact that he saw this as a military campaign.
MCGEE: Absolutely. His philosophy was somewhat different from Martin Luther King at that time because, as a military man, he opposed non-violence because he thought that the same thing that happened in Little Rock was the same thing that was going to be necessary to crush the Southern forces in Mississippi that were still maintaining segregation 50 years ago.
HEADLEE: What happened in Little Rock - were you talking about the military intervention?
MCGEE: Yes. And I think he was absolutely right.
HEADLEE: And, Professor Lambert, when you first met James Meredith, this is when you were researching for your book, you told him you still held onto some grief about the incidents in 1962. What happened?
LAMBERT: I did. And not just grief, but quite frankly, guilt. I mean, I was a white student there. Of course, everybody was white there and I never cursed James Meredith. I never picked up a rock. I never did any of that. I was probably, like the majority of the students there, indifferent. And, of course, indifference in the face of injustice means that you are a part of perpetuating that injustice.
So I apologized and said, you know, I feel terrible that, at the time, I never befriended you or tried to befriend you. And he said two things, really interesting to me. He said, number one - he said, how old were you? I said, I was 19. And, of course, he was 29 at the time because he had spent a career in the Air Force. And he said, what does a 19-year-old know? You know, you were dumb, like most 19-year-olds. And, indeed, I was. I was much more interested in that ball game on the 29th than anything else.
But then he said, the second thing is, had you tried to befriend me, you would have gotten nowhere. And that's when he disclosed his notion that he was, in Meredith's words, a warrior and that this was a battle and he had a three-pronged strategy that was just fascinating to me. Number one, he said that he was going to make sure that everything he did was in the full glare of publicity. The KKK and the institutionalized racists in Mississippi always operated under the cloak of secrecy and darkness and what have you and he was going to bring all of that out into the glare of light.
Secondly, he said that he was not going to attempt to desegregate Ole Miss without the full support of the federal government. He said, otherwise, it's suicide. I mean, Barnett had all the power. And he said, I had to have countervailing power. And he said, the third thing is I determined that nobody, black or white, was going to dissuade me from my warrior mission and he said that's why, if you had tried to befriend me, you would not have gotten anywhere.
And he carried that out. I mean, the guy was very disciplined and he carried out that mission to a T, quite frankly, and I can't imagine the courage that that took because I know what the opposition was all about.
HEADLEE: Well, we reached out to him, too - James Meredith - to talk about the 50th anniversary of integrating Ole Miss. He declined to speak with us for this interview, but he did want to talk about some of his main concerns in Mississippi today.
JAMES MEREDITH: The black public education system was specifically, deliberately destroyed over the last 40 years and, you know, it may be all right with some people, but my God is not pleased and I'm not going to pretend that I'm pleased.
HEADLEE: Meredith, can you help us understand what he means here, why we shouldn't be seeing this anniversary as necessarily a victory?
MCGEE: Well, it is not a victory in terms of education because now we have resegregation in public schools. They have declined drastically. You have a very, very high high school dropout rate. You know, the equality of education is just - it has declined. Overcrowded classrooms, teachers are not paid enough and they are not prepared for college.
HEADLEE: Right. And yet, Professor Lambert, we can't forget the importance of what James Meredith did. How do you think we should understand him and his actions 50 years later?
LAMBERT: Well, I think what he did was extremely important and I would say that he won the battle. Now, he will quickly add that he did not win the war, but he won the battle and it was an extremely important battle. I mean, the fact that, the last I read, something like 13 percent of the student body at Ole Miss is black - is an unbelievable...
HEADLEE: Sixteen point five percent is the...
LAMBERT: Is that what it is?
HEADLEE: ...number that we got from Ole Miss. Yeah.
LAMBERT: You know, I mean, that is a tremendous step forward. To follow up on something that Meredith just said about the resegregation in Mississippi, it seems to me that - and I think this contributes directly to what James is talking about - and that is the rise of all of the so-called Christian academies in Mississippi. Excuse me, but I call them segregation academies.
HEADLEE: A way to resegregate the schools, so meaning that the battle continues, or at least the war.
LAMBERT: No question.
HEADLEE: That's Professor Frank Lambert, author of "The Battle of Ole Miss: Civil Rights v. States' Rights." He teaches history at Purdue University, joined us from NPR member station WUOT in Tennessee. We also spoke with Meredith McGee, who is James Meredith's niece. Her book, "James Meredith: Warrior and the America that Made Him," will be out at the end of October. She joined us from Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
Thanks so much to both of you.
LAMBERT: Thank you.
MCGEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.