By Bill Minor
JACKSON – During the reckless 10-day prelude to the “battle of Oxford” on the Ole Miss campus the night of Sept. 20, 1962 over enrollment of one black student, Mississippi politicians dangled state troopers like puppets in a last ditch segregation defiance of federal authority.
Now, 50 years later, one ex-Highway Patrolman caught up in that historic state-federal confrontation wants to speak out against state officials for violating his conscience as an American citizen.
Doyle Ferrell, 83, who now lives in Belmont (Tishomingo County) who had been a Highway Patrolman for five years – based in New Albany. On Sept. 20, 1962, he was ordered with fellow troopers to rendezvous at the university campus to guard Gov. Ross Barnett when James Meredith came with a federal escort to register under court order.
This scene, first of three blocked attempts to enroll Meredith, played out inside Ole Miss’ continuation education center where Barnett, who the previous night bludgeoned the state College Board to appoint him university registrar, awaited Meredith. I was with several other newsmen, kept by highway patrolmen across the driveway from the center (unknown to me, one patrolman was Ferrell). Hundreds of students milled behind us in the Grove.
A three-car caravan of black government cars brought Meredith to stand before the governor. Twenty minutes later Meredith and his group emerged, driving away amid jeers and racial epithets. Five days later in Jackson in a tense, dramatic episode at the doorway of the College Board offices, Barnett again rejected Meredith. The feds determinedly flew Meredith to Oxford the next day, expecting another confrontation by the governor. Instead, they were blocked on the University Avenue by Lt. Gov. Paul B. Johnson. After a tense several minutes, the federal group left with Meredith.
Dozens more state troopers – including Ferrell – were ordered to Oxford overnight. During that night, Ferrell said he struggled within his conscience on what he would do as a state lawman if forced into a close confrontation with federal officers.
Next morning, Ferrell related, the lieutenant governor came to the armory and told the patrolmen that they would “resist with everything except guns” in a face-off with the feds. The ex-patrolman remembers Johnson saying “we’re going to try to make the federal government use force.” That’s when Ferrell made up his mind to turn in his badge and resign to his superior officer, Chief Dave Gayden.
“I would never take a stand against my country,” Ferrell told me. Gayden urged him not to resign but return to his New Albany sub-station. Significantly, afterwards he was never sent back to Oxford. He remained on the Patrol five more years before resigning to enter the ministry.
“I have not shared my experience (during the Ole Miss-Meredith crisis) with anyone other than immediate family and a few trusted friends,” the ex-patrolman told me, adding: “As far as I know, I was the only person on the Mississippi Highway Patrol who dared defy Barnett’s order to challenge federal court orders allowing James Meredith to register at Ole Miss.”
Somehow, the story of James Meredith breaking the color barrier at Mississippi’s pristinely all-white university will never die.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.