---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 30 Sep 2002 19:39:18 -0700
From: radtimes <email@example.com>
Subject: 40 Years Later, Ole Miss Asks When the Past Will Be Past
40 Years Later, Ole Miss Asks When the Past Will Be Past
September 27, 2002
By DAVID M. HALBFINGER
OXFORD, Miss., Sept. 23 - Ole Miss is looking for witnesses
to the night of Sept. 30, 1962.
It was the night James H. Meredith integrated the
University of Mississippi, backed by 300 federal marshals
and 30,000 troops, as thousands of white students and
outsiders ran riot over the campus. Two men were left dead
and at least 300 wounded, yet not one student was expelled,
not one attacker convicted.
Now, as it faces up to its infamy more candidly than ever,
the university is embarking on a project that is more
self-examination than investigation. Scholars are beginning
a yearlong documentary project, videotaping anyone they can
find who was in Oxford that night 40 years ago: Mr.
Meredith, his lawyer and the federal officials charged with
enforcing the orders they won in court; the marshals,
National Guardsmen and regular Army soldiers - black and
white - who were credited with averting a massacre; the
town doctor who stitched up gashes and bullet wounds while
under fire himself; the college chaplain who climbed the
Confederate soldiers' monument and begged the mob to go
At the same time, university officials want America to
appreciate that this is a very different campus now. Last
spring, after quietly earning his doctorate in business
administration like any other student, Mr. Meredith's son
Joseph graduated at the top of his class. Today, black
students make up nearly 13 percent of the enrollment and
have held every major leadership position on campus, while
far from Oxford, university emissaries are going into poor
communities across the state to help fix schools, build
sewers and bridge racial divides.
The school's chancellor, Robert C. Khayat, argues that Ole
Miss, in effect, has earned emancipation from its
historical burden. "Forty years ago, the nation wanted us
to treat everyone the same way," said Mr. Khayat, who has
struggled since 1995 to make the university more hospitable
to minorities. "Now we just want to be treated the same way
everyone else is treated."
What has not changed since 1962, though it recedes with
time and effort, remains in the picture. The Confederate
battle flag is harder to spot at Ole Miss football games,
but its image is still there, on the handkerchief that a
young man waves after the Rebels score a touchdown, on the
cover of a cellphone clipped to a middle-aged alumnus's
belt. The marching band still plays "Dixie." And there are
still those who cling to the memory of what used to be.
Anson Sheldon, for one, will not be making the two-hour
drive to Oxford next week from his home in Avon, Miss.,
near Greenville. "I won't be celebrating anything," he
Mr. Sheldon, 59, a real estate broker, was a junior at Ole
Miss in the fall of '62. He was a segregationist then and
is unashamed of it now. He easily recalls how he howled at
the marshals that night to make his feelings known, how he
erupted - don't push him on the details - along with
thousands of other angry whites after, he says, the
marshals opened fire with tear gas and birdshot.
"That got my blood flowing pretty good, and I just answered
the call," Mr. Sheldon said, recalling the sting of the
pellets that hit him. "I didn't have a weapon, and I don't
think I caused any serious injuries. But there could've
been somebody standing too close to my fist when I flexed
Many others will be celebrating, officials say, for there
are many people to honor, and time is running short. The
generation of civil rights activists is now about the same
age as Civil War veterans were when monuments to the
Confederacy started popping up across the South at the turn
of the 20th century. Indeed, a long-planned civil rights
memorial at Ole Miss will be dedicated here next week, just
behind the Lyceum, the symbolic heart of the campus where
rioting broke out.
Ole Miss has observed the anniversary every year, but never
like this, Mr. Khayat said. "It's an opportunity to bring
together the participants in that event, probably for the
last time," he said, "but also to let them know that what
they did was not in vain."
Some university officials said they were surprised to find
that many current students were only dimly aware of the
rioting at Ole Miss or the constitutional crisis that
precipitated it, when Gov. Ross Barnett repeatedly defied
federal court orders to admit Mr. Meredith, an Air Force
veteran and a Mississippi native, and physically blocked
him from registering. The military suppression of the riots
that Governor Barnett had helped to incite crushed the
prevailing Southern strategy of "massive resistance" to
integration, wrote William Doyle, author of "An American
Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962"
In Mr. Doyle's view, it was as critical a moment as the
collapse of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, which turned
the course of the Civil War. A year after Oxford, Gov.
George Wallace capitulated peacefully to the integration of
the University of Alabama, despite going through the
motions of "standing in the schoolhouse door."
The 14-hour riot came "within an eyelash" of turning into a
bloodbath, said Melvin Brown, a black master sergeant in an
elite military police unit that marched through a wall of
flames and a hailstorm of brickbats to rescue the
beleaguered marshals, minutes before they ran out of tear
gas. "All night long, those people threw rocks and bottles
and Molotov cocktails and jars of chemicals that exploded
on us," said Mr. Brown, now a deputy marshal himself, who
plans to travel from his home in Augusta, Ga., to be
honored by the town of Oxford.
"It could have been another Kent State deal," he said. "We
didn't know we were shot at till the next morning, because
of all the noise, but we had locked and loaded. If we had
known we were fired on, we would have fired back."
Mr. Doyle's book revealed a 1963 Army memorandum rejecting
recommendations for battlefield decorations for troops
there because the publicity "would not be in the best
interest of the U.S. Army or the nation." In an interview,
Mr. Doyle called it "tragic" that the marshals and
soldiers, who he said had saved the university and the
town, had been ignored for so long. "Forty years of denial
has robbed Mississippi of some of its greatest heroes," he
Even as Ole Miss relives the 1962 riots, a debate is
continuing - involving current students and teachers and
people who were here then - about how much more the
university must do to put its ghosts to rest.
Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the university's Center
for the Study of Southern Culture, said that honoring the
forgotten marshals and troops whose sacrifice assured the
integration of Ole Miss was a good start, in much the same
way as the trials in recent years of Byron De La Beckwith,
Medgar Evers's killer, and the surviving Birmingham church
bombers Thomas E. Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry had
each helped to close a chapter of history.
"That's a very upbeat story, about change and healing," Mr.
Wilson said. "But symbolism is where it gets real muddy.
Southern whites don't want to give up a flag that blacks
find very offensive. There the story is much more
complicated and divisive."
Ethel Young-Minor, a professor of Afro-American studies
since 1996, said she had at first been deterred by symbols
of the old Ole Miss. Despite Mr. Khayat's efforts to
eradicate those symbols, she said, "The truth is, a lot of
African-Americans still don't want to come here. They don't
see Ole Miss as a place they want to be, and Mississippi as
a place they want to live. When I first heard Ole Miss, all
I thought about was James Meredith, then `Dixie,' then the
rebel flags. There's nothing that makes you want to apply."
For all the talk of falling barriers, meanwhile - 4 percent
of the faculty is black, including two vice chancellors -
some African-American students and professors questioned
how much longer it would be before, say, a black man or
woman is named the university's chancellor. Asked that
before Saturday's football game against Vanderbilt, David
G. Sansing, the university's historian, quickly said, "Oh,
that'll never -" before catching himself and reconsidering.
State politics, he said, would make it very hard for the
Others said the question was unfair, and that Ole Miss
should be judged by the same standards as the rest of
academia. But Mr. Wilson acknowledged that "more is
expected of the university because of its history."
"But that can be an incentive to make the university a
leader in race relations," he said, pointing, for example,
to its recent initiatives at community organizing around
the state. "That is the next stage: to take that special
burden of the past and make it a special responsibility, to
be a place where race is discussed and initiatives are
begun that can make a difference."
One man who is looking forward to the discussion, at the
very least, is Willie Tankersley. In 1962, he was the
chancellor's limousine driver. Mr. Tankersley, who is
black, lived next to the university, and as armed whites
massed in his yard that "miserable night," he said, he and
his wife hid in their basement, listening to radio updates
with the volume turned down low.
Mr. Tankersley, now 80, admitted being unsure what to
expect, or to hope for, from next week's observance. "When
this is over, will it make us better friends?" he said.
"I'd like to know."
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