[sixties-l] 40 Years Later, Ole Miss Asks When the Past Will Be Past (fwd)

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Date: Tue Oct 08 2002 - 15:00:32 EDT

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    Date: Mon, 30 Sep 2002 19:39:18 -0700
    From: radtimes <resist@best.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

    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
    my arm."

    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"
    (Doubleday, 2001).

    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
    foreseeable future.

    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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