James Meredith, the state’s bewildering civil rights icon, again became national news as the focus of racial conflict centered at the University of Mississippi. And this time, he didn’t even set foot on the campus.
By coincidence, an oddball book just arrived dredging up events of Meredith’s 1962 riotous entry to the university. The author, Dick Gentry, said he was an eyewitness and contends that both news media and federal and state accounts of the “Battle of Oxford” got the story muddled.
The major difference in the Meredith-Ole Miss story this time is that Mississippi authorities are arrayed behind him and not against him. Many today agonize to recall that the state’s governor back then literally precipitated a mini-Civil War in a desperate attempt to bar one black student from enrolling in the all-white university.
A bronze statue of Meredith now stands near the Lyceum, the university white-pillared landmark which became the epicenter of the 1962 riot. When several youthful students on an ill-advised lark one night draped a noose around the statue’s neck and draped it with a Confederate emblem, they triggered a new round of racist-tinted news involving the school which for four decades has sought to shed an image as one of the last bastions of the old Confederacy.
OK, the book: Gentry writes he was a student on campus the explosive night of Sept. 30-Oct. 1, and viewed proceedings with an ex-Marine buddy, both fortified with a six-pack of beer. Gentry is not your ordinary rah-rah college student. From Tupelo, he was just back from a four-year hitch in the Marines before enrolling in journalism at the 1962 summer session, finding himself as interim editor of the Daily Mississippian.
In his self-published book, “Under Fire at Ole Miss,” Gentry claims the actual number of rioters on the campus when federal marshals at 8 p.m. fired tear gas was much smaller than many news accounts indicate. However, Gentry agrees with one key point in most reports: the riot grew worse when 200 state highway patrolmen were unaccountably pulled off campus entry points and outsiders streamed into the grove. In all the years since, the consensus of those of us reporters who have sought to nail down who gave the withdrawal order is that rather than Gov. Ross Barnett himself (he was not there), the order came from a four-man delegation of high-ranking legislators, led by Sen. George Yarbrough of Red Banks, that the governor had sent to represent him. All the lawmakers are deceased.
Gentry at least did some digging, going to visit Barnett’s son, Ross Jr., a Jackson attorney. The younger Barnett told him the former governor had never discussed the Ole Miss events with him before he died.
The redoubtable James Meredith, now 80, gave Gentry an interview at his home in north Jackson. The gem Gentry took away from his visit with Meredith was “…only two people there knew it was all a game. Me and Ross Barnett.”
That one stacks up pretty well with what Meredith told reporter Alan Blinder who wrote the New York Times’ lengthy piece about the defiling of his statue on the Ole Miss campus. Said Meredith: “It (the statue) is a false idol and it’s an insult to me.” He added that the statue should be moved off the university’s campus.
And you wonder why he never has been elevated by the black community as a hero comparable to Medgar Evers.
Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.