BILL MINOR: New history paints a fuller portrait of James Meredith

By NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Ole Miss history professor Charles Eagles took 15 years to research and chronicle “The Price of Defiance,” his anticipated definitive history of James H. Meredith’s 1962 violent integration of the all-white university, and unveil the confluence of an intransigent political and cultural forces behind the landmark civil rights event.
Consequently, to do justice to the important scholarly work my longtime friend Charles Eagles has produced, (publication by the University of North Carolina Press Aug. 1), I am reviewing his 592-page volume in two columns.
Eagles’ “Price of Defiance” is poles apart from a mere rehashing of the story of the bloody riot on the Ole Miss campus the night of Sept. 30-Oct 1, 1962, which many might say has been too much rehashed already. His work provides a perspective only a dedicated historian can do, tapping deeply into sources, files and unknown documents to bring alive one of the historical civil rights moments of the 20th century.
From Eagles’ vivid account, you gain the belief that the 1962 bloody confrontation between federal and state power on the tree-shrouded Ole Miss campus was made inevitable by the two opposing principals involved:
– A university (even it’s nickname has a racial connotation) which generations of Mississippians had revered as the last redoubt of the old Confederacy. And the school did little to dispel that image.
– A uniquely complicated, independent black man from the Mississippi hill country with eight years of military service who had a laser-like determination to graduate from the state’s most prestigious white university.
Perhaps it was poetic that the campus confrontation which saw two persons killed and dozens of federal marshals wounded before the U.S. Army restored order, took place under the gaze of a 19-foot granite statue of a Civil War rifleman who stands at the foot of the campus’ “Circle.”
None of the many books produced since the 1962 Ole Miss-Meredith crisis paints as Eagles does the intricate portrait of who James Howard Meredith really was. From his sturdy hard-working family background (father “Cap” Meredith defied segregation’s economic bonds to acquire substantial farm and timber land while instilling strong work and education ethics in his children) Meredith became the perfect actor to withstand legal assaults and physical risks thrown in his path to finally smash white supremacy.
What was commonly not believed back then – and maybe by many even today, J.H. (as he likes to call himself) was not hand-picked by the NAACP, the leading black rights organization back then, to be the black community’s symbolic candidate to enroll in the university.
After Meredith on his own had begun correspondence with Ole Miss’ registrar, the NAACP’s Medgar Evers reluctantly decided to take up Meredith’s legal case. Evers, himself previously rejected for enrollment in Ole Miss law school, was skeptical of Meredith’s independent, aloof attitude, (once, Meredith hung up the phone on Thurgood Marshall, then the NAAACP chief counsel and later the first black named to the U.S. Supreme Court) but the organization sent in Constance Baker Motley, the imposingly tall black attorney who though young then, would become a noted jurist, to represent Meredith in his prolonged legal battles.
Time after time, in late 1961 and into 1962, attorneys for the state (representing the State College Board) launched legal missiles to throw out Meredith’s case. Though pro-segregation Mississippi federal judges sided with the state, (much to the glee of Gov. Ross Barnett and state newspapers) eventually the Fifth U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans knocked down all of the state’s legal delays.
I still vividly recall the scene in the WPA-era-built federal district courtroom here covering the drawn-out litigation: the stubby 29-year-old black man being subjected to contemptuous questioning as he sat in the witness stand. Behind him was the courtroom’s 50-foot wide mural depicting life in Mississippi as it existed in 1935, with blacks doing menial tasks harvesting the cotton crop and whites the law-givers and overseers.
Dugas Shands, the assistant state attorney-general who pressed the state’s court case (at one point failing to prove Meredith’s Air Force service made him unfit to enroll as an Ole Miss student) often addressed Meredith as merely “well, now James,” and is shown by Eagles in an official transcript as referring to Meredith as a “Nigra,” until being reluctantly reprimanded by Judge Sidney Mize.
The courtroom mural has been covered by a drapery for the past 30 years, after civil rights attorneys won an order from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to have it covered. (Next week: the outcome of the Meredith legal battles, and the showdown of the price of defiance.)
Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215. Send e-mails to Minor through edinman@earthlink.net.