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On this day in history: James Meredith barred from Ole Miss

Posted By GABRIELLE LEVY, UPI.com   |   Sept. 20, 2012 at 11:04 AM   |   Comments

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Sept. 20 (UPI) -- September 20, 1962.

For 16 months, James Meredith's case was fought in the courts.

A 28-year-old married veteran of the Air Force, Meredith had studied for two years at Jackson State University. But Meredith wanted a better legal education than the historically black university could offer, and he wanted to get it at Ole Miss.

Even though the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. the Board of Education had come more than eight years earlier, forbidding "separate but equal" public schools, no university in the South--the great bastion of segregation--had yet integrated.

After twice being denied admission, with advice from the NAACP, Meredith took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where he was finally granted the right to attend the all-white university.

"Nobody handpicked me," Meredith would later recall, crediting President John Kennedy's inaugural address as inspiring him to attempt what had never before been achieved. "I believed, and I believe now, that I have a divine responsibility to break white supremacy in Mississippi, and getting in Ole Miss was only the start."

Armed with a court order, and escorted by federal marshals, Meredith tried to enter the university on Thursday, Sept. 20. He was blocked by mobs and Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, defying the high court's ruling:

And in order to preserve the truth, and in order to maintain and perpetuate the dignity and tranquility of the brave and tall State of Mississippi, under such proclamation do hereby, now and finally, deny you admission to the University of Mississippi.

It would get worse before it got better.

The NAACP sent a letter to Kennedy, begging the president to force the state to allow Meredith's enrollment by way of withdrawal of federal services.

Riots erupted in the university town of Oxford, and Kennedy sent in U.S. Marshalls and thousands of troops to quell the violence, and federalized the Mississippi National Guard, including the son-in-law of Governor Barnett, to enforce the court ruling.

Kennedy, having convinced Barnett to allow Meredith to register in secret on Sunday (September 30), addressed the nation to condemn the rioters and state officials for defying the law.

Even as the president spoke, Meredith and his military escort, besieged by rioters, had barricaded themselves in the university's administrative building. By the next morning, October 1, two people had been killed and at least 75 injured. But Meredith had been successfully registered at Ole Miss.

Although he had to be protected around the clock while he was a student, Meredith graduated on August 18, 1963. He went on to study law at Columbia University and work actively for the further advancement of African-American rights.


Below are stories from the United Press archives

Ole Miss enrolls Meredith after riots kill 2, injure 75
By Al Kuettner
OXFORD, Miss., Oct. 1, 1962 (UPI) -- Negro James Meredith registered today at the University of Mississippi and began attending classes on a campus littered with the debris of a major riot that took two lives and injured at least 75 persons.

"It is not a happy occasion," he said.

About 400 U. S. deputy marshals and 1,000 federal troops guarded the campus as the 29-year-old Negro cracked the segregation barriers of the 114-year-old school.

The campus was brought under military control early today but the rioting spread to downtown Oxford and at least one soldier was hurt in a barrage of rocks, timbers and pop bottles before the crowd was dispersed with tear gas and reinforcements were brought in. Shots were fired over the heads of rioters.

Meredith, whose determination to desegregate "Ole Miss" brought about a conflict that threatened to rock the Union, walked solemnly to an American Colonial History class to shouts of "Nigger, Nigger" and "Was it worth two deaths?"

He was accompanied to the classes by three deputy marshals and U. S. Department of Justice representative Ed Guthman.

The Negro was met at the registrar's office by University Registrar Robert B. Ellis, who handed him a stack of forms. The historic occasion was concluded quietly.

Meredith, who caught a whiff of the tear gas that clouded the campus early today, rubbed his eyes occasionally.

In the downtown area, troops under command of Brig. Gen. Charles Billingslea dispersed bands of marauding demonstrators. Rioters hurled fire bombs at Army vehicles and chased cars containing Negroes.

Some of the demonstrators were routed with tear gas and fixed bayonets. Several of the infantrymen were Negroes, who gritted their teeth as crowds taunted them and told them to go to Cuba or back to New Jersey. One Negro soldier was hit on the neck with a bottle.

Before troops were ordered to fire tear gas, some one hurled a huge rock through the window of an Army truck and a man on a balcony dropped a log on another truck.

Truckload after truckload of troops poured into Courthouse Square where soldiers had pinned down some of the rioters. Ten helicopters circled overhead spotting crowds which were reforming in alleys for another attack on the troops.

Choking clouds of tear gas seeped into stores and women staggered from them.

Officials announced the arrest of 108 persons. It also was hinted that ex-Maj. Gen. Edwin A. Walker would be arrested. Bayonet-wielding soldiers today forced him away from downtown Oxford.

Among those arrested was Melvin Bruce, 24, of Decatur, Ga., a supporter of the American Nazi Party. He was charged with being a sniper who had been firing on marshals and soldiers during the eight hours of rioting.

The campus itself looked like a battleground. It was littered with burned-out automobiles, tear gas canisters and broken glass and echoed to the cadence of marching troops, including the Mississippi National Guard which President Kennedy summoned yesterday.

Army troops began moving onto the campus at midnight, three hours after the riot began, but it was not until 6 a.m. that the last stubborn segregationists were routed.

More violence was unleashed in less than four hours than in the six-month period when U. S. paratroopers forced integration of Central High School in Little Rock five years ago.

Before dawn a military force of 2,600 was on or near the Oxford campus. Troops were converging from all directions on the Northern Mississippi town which had been the home of the late Nobel-prize winner author, William Faulkner.

Twelve marshals were either wounded or injured, three of them seriously, and five soldiers were hurt.

Most of the wounds were caused by bricks and blows with lengths of pipe. But there were some gunshot wounds.

Many of the rioters apparently were students from Mississippi State College at Starkville. A massive demonstration was conducted there yesterday afternoon including marches through the Negro section of Starkville and the burning of an effigy of President Kennedy.

The dead were Paul Guihard, New York-based correspondent of the French news agency France Presse, and Ray Gunter, 23, of Oxford.

Guihard, 30, was shot in the back less than 10 minutes after he was admitted to the campus. He was found dead near a woman's dormitory. Gunter was dead on arrival at the Oxford hospital.

Some of the injured were reported in grave condition.

The rioting began as President Kennedy, in a televised address, was appealing to Mississippians to comply with the federal law even though they did not agree with it.

Meredith, 29, a Negro veteran of the Korean War who thrice had been denied entry to the campus by Gov. Ross Barnett and Lt. Gov. Paul B. Johnson was escorted secretly into the university by a motorcade of U. S. marshals and bedded down for the night at a dormitory which was put under heavy guard.

The hours-long battle that caused the death of Guihard and Gunter was the first open armed conflict between the United States Government and southerners since the end of the Civil War almost 100 years ago.

Shortly before 10 p.m. the word flashed around the campus that Meredith was there. And, even as Kennedy spoke, the riot began. A group of students threw lighted cigarets on the canvas top to a truck carrying U. S. marshals.

The canvas caught fire and the marshals, in steel helmets painted white and wearing orange vests with tear gas grenades, jumped out.

The marshals loosed barrages of tear gas. The Mississippi State Highway Patrol, surrounding but not entering the campus, made no move. It had been ordered by Barnett not to hinder the marshals but neither - apparently -- did it have orders to help.

The riot grew even worse after Guihard and Gunter were killed.

One youth fired a fire extinguisher into the face of one of the drivers of the trucks used to bring in the marshals. A state highway patrolman was struck in the face by a tear gas cartridge. A U. S. marshal was shot in the neck.

The Fifth U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans last week found Barnett in contempt for failing to abide by a federal order to admit Meredith.

The governor was ordered to admit the Negro by Tuesday at 1 p.m., or be subjected to a daily fine of $10,000. Johnson, cited under a similar order, was given the same deadline and faced a daily fine of $5,000.

Barnett's son called to fight father
OXFORD, Miss., Oct. 1, 1962 (UPI) - Paradoxes in the Mississippi integration crisis:

Ross Barnett Jr., son of Mississippi's anti-integration governor, was mustered into federal service to take action against his father's stand in the case of James H. Meredith. Young Barnett is a lieutenant in Headquarters Company of the Mississippi National Guard at Jackson. The unit was federalized Sunday.

John Stennis, a Jackson attorney and son of Sen. John C. Stennis, also was called to active duty. The elder Stennis has supported the governor in his fight to keep Meredith from enrolling at all-white Ole Miss.

Edwin A. Walker, who as a U.S. Army major general commanded the federal troops which integrated Central High School at Little Rock, and now a civilian, appeared on the Ole Miss campus as a supporter of Barnett.

Col. T.P. Birdsong, head of the Mississippi State Police which had been ordered by Barnett to prevent Meredith's admittance to the campus, rode with U.S. marshals in the lead car escorting the Negro applicant onto university property.


Battle of Oxford - reaction of the world's press
LONDON, Oct. 1, 1962 (UPI) - The world press Monday played up the Meredith case as the worst United States constitutional crisis since the Civil War.

There were banner headlines from London to Tokyo.

The Soviet Government newspaper Izvestia called the shooting of French correspondent Paul Gulhard "the crime of the racists." The Tass news agency described the University of Mississippi as a stronghold of bigotry and racism and said it has become an armed camp.

West European newspapers generally condemned the racist policies of Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett and praised President Kennedy's firm stand. Some said Kennedy had regained stature as a forceful leader after hesitating over the Cuban crisis.

However, Red China's Peiping Radio said racist terrorists against the Negro people are mounting with the claimed "connivance" of the U.S. Government. It also played up the attack in Birmingham on the Rev. Martin Luther King "by an American Nazi."

The Oxford riots overshadowed all other news in Latin American newspapers. Editorial comment was sparse but tenor of the headlines and cartoons was critical of Barnett's stand. Kennedy generally was presented as a champion of equal rights.

In Mexico City the headline on La Prensa read: "One Negro Rocks Uncle Sam." The headline in Excelsior was: "Kennedy Inflexible and Blood Flows in Mississippi." The Mexicano said Kennedy must win, for it he does not "the United States is lost forever before man, the world, and society."

Newspapers in segregationist South Africa splashed "dramatic developments" in Mississippi but refrained from commenting editorially.

The Ghana press and radio, critical of United States policies, generally reported the story without special prominence to the race issue.

But one newspaper, the Independent Ashanti Pioneer, denounced the "jungle selfishness" of some White Americans and added: "We are heartened, of course, that the Kennedy administration is doing everything practicable to remove this shameful show from the States."

In Singapore, the Straits Times bannered the crisis and said editorially "... no matter at what cost, this is a battle which President Kennedy and Washington must win."

The Oxford rioting occurred too late for most of London's morning papers to comment but there were banner headlines.

Farmer's son enrolls - Meredith dream comes true
By United Press International

James H. Meredith picked cotton in the fields of Mississippi as a boy and nurtured a seemingly unattainable dream for the son of a Negro farmer.

Meredith wanted to study law at the fiercely all-white University of Mississippi.

The 29-year-old veteran explains his boyhood dream this way: "Every citizen has a right to be educated in his own state."

Meredith says Mississippi's Negro schools are not adequate for giving him a good legal education. "You lose contact with your state if you move out," he answers when asked about attending law school outside of Mississippi.

But the former sergeant does not plan to practice law. He wants to major in political science at the University of Mississippi and then "later on" possibly enter politics.

He was born on a farm near Kosciusko, Miss., a rural area 75 miles north of the state capitol of Jackson.

Meredith's parents still live on a farm and his father is a partial invalid.

Meredith walked the fields of Mississippi picking cotton with his brothers and sisters and left home for his senior year in high school. He received his high school diploma in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he lived with an uncle.

After graduating he joined the Air Force in 1951 and spent most of his time in the service in Kansas, Nebraska and Indiana. Meredith also was stationed in Japan.

He married his wife, Mary Jane, now 24, of Gary, Ind., while serving in the Midwest. She is now a senior at Jackson State College. Their 2-year-old son, John Howard, lives with Meredith's parents in Kosciusko.

After nine years in the Air Force Meredith was discharged in 1960. The slight, short veteran enrolled at an all-Negro institution, Jackson (Miss.) State College and applied for a transfer to the University of Mississippi in January of last year.

The constant legal battles since that application have hardened Meredith to jeers and disappointments. The stack of documents relating to Meredith in one court alone is over six feet high.

Throughout repeated attempts to register at the University, Meredith remained calm and conducted himself with dignity.

His boyhood dream of the cotton fields came true as Meredith was finally admitted to the university as a student and went to his first class Monday.

Whether he will be able to remain and receive his degree remained to be seen.

Supreme Court allows Meredith to enter U. of Mississippi
WASHINGTON, Oct. 8, 1962 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court today refused to review the court order which forced the admission of James H. Meredith to the University of Mississippi.

It also upheld two lower court decisions which struck down racial barriers in bus and railroad terminals in Louisiana and Georgia.

The Supreme Court also:

Agreed to examine cases dealing with Bible reading and recitation of the Lord's Prayer in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Refused to review a ruling of the Oregon Supreme Court which barred distribution of textbooks at public expense to parochial schools in Oregon.

The court's action in the Mississippi case had been anticipated. Justice Hugo L. Black early last month vacated several stays granted by Fifth Circuit Judge Ben F. Cameron. Black, after consulting with the other justices, said the lower court orders to admit Meredith should be carried out.

The suits in Georgia and Louisiana stemmed from new regulations established by the Interstate Commerce Commission as an aftermath of the "freedom rider" campaign last November.

The rules prohibited interstate bus and railroad companies to use the facilities of any terminal where waiting room, rest room, eating, drinking or ticket-sales facilities are segregated.

Racial discrimination already was barred under the Interstate Commerce Act. But Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy requested the new rules on the ground that segregation could not be effectively broken down through suits by individual Negroes who suffered discrimination.

The appeal on recitation of the Lord's Prayer as part of opening exercises was brought by Mrs. Madalyn E. Murray of Baltimore, who described herself and her son, William J. Murray III, as atheists.

The case on Bible reading was started in Philadelphia by a Unitarian couple, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Lewis Schempp.

Their children attend a high school in Abington Twp., Pa.

In the Oregon case, the 1941 statute which allowed distribution of textbooks was found to violate the state constitution by the Oregon Supreme Court in a 6 to 1 ruling on Nov. 15, 1961.

Today's brief order rejected a petition for review by Ivan B. Carlson, father of five children who attend St. John the Apostle School in Oregon City.

The state court had rejected the "child benefit theory" which asserts that the expenditure was solely to meet the needs of the pupils, rather than to aid the schools.

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