BILL MINOR: Racist mania drove bizarre acts

JACKSON – James Howard Meredith, wrote Court of Appeals judge John Minor Wisdom, was “a man on a mission and a nervous stomach.”
That June, 1962 comment – one of many court rulings knocking down Mississippi’s massive resistance to block Meredith from enrolling at Ole Miss – appears in Charles Eagles’ forthcoming “Price of Defiance,” his scholarly, cohesive account of historic forces that exploded in violence when the 29-year-old black man was finally admitted to the all-white university.
Wisdom, considered the best legal mind on the New Orleans-based U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, aptly described the complexities of Meredith, the former Attala County farm boy, who spent eight years in the Air Force then set out on a mission to crack the state’s higher education race barrier.
The “nervous stomach” reference had crept into legal issues raised by state attorneys from Meredith’s military medical records. Before his 1960 discharge, Meredith had been treated by Air Force doctors for anxiety and nervousness. As Eagles describes, Meredith’s condition stemmed from his inability in the military to play a role in “a war against white supremacy.” Once a civilian, an Ole Miss degree became his mission.
I well remember my impression when I was one of the first reporters to interview Meredith in early 1961 after learning he had applied for enrollment at Ole Miss. He struck me as a little wacky (I’ve often told him that in later years) to think the state would “do the right thing” and not try to block his admission.
Yet, I could not imagine back then it would eventually take some 25,000 army troops to install this slightly-built black man as a student in the university – or that he would trigger an historic confrontation between state and federal power.
That’s why Ole Miss history professor Eagles – my good friend since 1983 when I taught journalism at the university – has contributed through extraordinary research such a valuable literary work. From “Price of Defiance” we can understand how Mississippi’s segregation culture, perpetuated at the time by the university since the Civil War, would violently collide with an incredibly independent black man bent on cracking the state’s most prestigious racial barrier.
Many pages in Eagles’ 592-page volume will not please Ole Miss loyalists because they revive and put into context race-based events which happened at the university long before Meredith ever set foot on the campus. None were worse than two which happened in my years as a Mississippi journalist: the Clennon King affair and the Billy Barton affair.
It must be noted that King was a black man, a minister and a professor at a black state college, while Barton was white, and further, a journalism student at Ole Miss. And, as you can conclude from “Price of Defiance,” in both instances weak leadership, especially by then-Chancellor J. D. Williams, failed to take a stand against outside interference.
King, then teaching at Alcorn A & M (as Alcorn State University was called then) showed up on the Ole Miss campus in June, 1958, and attempted to register for the summer session. King, who earlier was the target of student protest at Alcorn, had been tracked to Oxford by agents of Gov. J. P. Coleman. Hardly had King presented himself at the Ole Miss registrar’s office when he was grabbed by state highway patrolmen, thrown to the floorboard of a patrol car and whisked down to Jackson where a waiting clinical psychiatrist committed him for lunacy testing at Whitfield Mental Hospital.
Afterwards, Coleman issued an absurd statement that King was so handled because he had gone “berserk” at the Ole Miss Lyceum building and tried to stir up a riot. Nonetheless, King soon left the state and did not again try to enroll at the university.
As an Ole Miss journalism major, Barton in the summer of 1960 had served as an intern on the Atlanta Journal and helped cover sit-ins by blacks at Rich’s Department Store. From his Georgia segregationist contacts, Citizens’ Council leader W. J. Simmons concocted a bizarre story that Barton participated in the sit-in and was being groomed as a “subversive” to overthrow segregation by being elected the editor of the Daily Mississippian. Through the state Sovereignty Commission (and even Gov. Ross Barnett’s office), Simmons smeared Barton’s name on the university campus, forcing the gangling 20-year-old to abandon his campaign for the editorship. A candidate pushed by the Simmons’ council forces was elected.
Jackson State Times editor Oliver Emmerich, Eagles writes, charged that Barnett and the Sovereignty Commission in smearing Barton’s reputation were “authoritarian goose-steppers.” Several other editors expressed their outrage, not among them Jackson’s Clarion-Ledger and Daily News.
After graduation, Barton was hired by The Associated Press and found himself covering the war in Vietnam. There, a South Vietnamese sentry mistakenly shot Barton in the head. Most of his head blown away, Barton was recovering at his family’s Pontotoc County farm when his car one night went off a highway down a steep bank, ending his tragic young life.

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.

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