Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of Charles W. Eagles's The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss (University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

Sep 20, 2009 10:26 pm

Luther Spoehr: Review of Charles W. Eagles's The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss (University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

[Luther Spoehr is Senior Lecturer in Education and History at Brown University.]

Here is how the John F. Kennedy Library’s website summarizes James Meredith’s integration of the University of Mississippi:

“In the fall of 1962 the college town of Oxford, Mississippi, erupted in violence. At the center of the controversy stood James Meredith, an African American who was attempting to register at the all-white University of Mississippi, known as "Ole Miss." Meredith had the support of the federal government, which insisted that Mississippi honor the rights of all its citizens, regardless of race. Mississippi's refusal led to a showdown between state and federal authorities and the storming of the campus by a segregationist mob. Two people died and dozens were injured. In the end, Ole Miss, the state of Mississippi, and the nation were forever changed.”

This is accurate enough—and typical of many textbook descriptions--as far as it goes. But of course there’s much more to it than that. Just how much more is demonstrated by Charles Eagles’ “The Price of Defiance”: Eagles’ narrative contains over 440 pages of text (plus almost 100 pages of endnotes), and there’s not an extraneous sentence in it. Simply put, this is the best study of this dramatic episode that we have.

Other, more journalistic renditions, especially Nadine Cohodas’ “The Band Played Dixie” (1997) and William Doyle’s “American Insurrection” (2001), have told the story well. (I have used Doyle’s book in a freshman seminar on colleges and universities in the 1960s every year since it came out, and students always give it rave reviews.) But Eagles provides by far the most detailed and thorough account to date. In addition to the usual sources—newspapers, memoirs (including Meredith’s), and so on—Eagles got access to FBI, US Marshal, and Army files, as well as the University of Mississippi’s own records, and made good use of all of them. Moreover, he takes pains to establish the context in which Meredith operated (in Mississippi in general, and at Ole Miss in particular) and after retelling the relatively familiar narrative of Meredith’s official admission, he follows him through the rest of the academic year to his 1963 graduation—and the tales of harassment that he tells reveal that resistance to Meredith’s presence by no means ended with his successful enrollment.

The book’s first 200 pages set the stage by showing that, despite white Mississippians’ determination to remain what Mississippi historian James Silver called a “closed society,” cracks had been appearing in the façade for several years. Wanting to share America’s postwar prosperity, Mississippi needed and wanted to modernize—and fast. That meant opening itself up to the world, a world which increasingly looked with disapproval Mississippi’s attachment to segregation. Improving the state’s flagship university was essential to modernization, but that increasingly meant concessions to the standards of outside funding and accrediting agencies. (One of Eagles’ most striking findings is how much university officials, and some state officials, too, obsessed over the possibility of losing accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools [SACS] because of the state government’s ongoing political interference in the Meredith case.)

For white students, the University was still primarily a social club. Eagles quotes a satirical summary (from the summer of 1962) on why prospective students should consider attending Ole Miss: “to learn the medicinal value of good bourbon, suh; to see a lot of pretty babes lolling about the campus [the “Miss Americas” of 1959 and 1960 had been Ole Miss coeds]; [to learn] at which angle it’s most appropriate to carry yo’ nose in the air; the evils of work; how to relax at all times under undue stress and strain; the history of the plantation aristocracy in Mississippi; and which families to marry into.” For some reason, the satirist didn’t mention football, but the Rebels were nationally ranked, and, as Eagles shows, that mattered, too.

After detailing several unsuccessful attempts to integrate the University (notably by the indomitable Medgar Evers and the eccentric Clennon King), Eagles recounts “the making of a militant conservative,” James Meredith, a native Mississippian, complicated and contradictory, quiet, tough, and determined. Born into a family of successful strivers in the Booker T. Washington mode, Meredith made the most of his years in the Air Force, saving money, piling up college credits at various institutions, and reading and thinking hard about what he wanted to do in Mississippi. When he finally applied to Ole Miss, he downplayed his desire to overthrow what he sometimes termed, forthrightly, “white supremacy,” and merely insisted that the University was the only institution in the state that offered the courses he wanted.

University officials, naturally, were having none of that and for months piled one bureaucratic obstacle after another in Meredith’s way. When it became apparent that his only hope lay in the courts, he appealed to the Justice Department, and Eagles then tells the more familiar part of the story—from judicial success at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, to the jockeying between Governor Ross Barnett and the Kennedy brothers, to the murderous on-campus riot that was soon followed by Meredith’s enrollment—in greater detail than ever before.

In the process, Eagles makes clear that the night when rioters encircled the marshals at the Lyceum in the heart of the campus was a mismanaged mess that could have been far more catastrophic than it was. Governor Ross Barnett, his local popularity soaring because of his intransigence, vacillated, pontificated, and preened, while his state police added to the melee by giving rioters free rein. The Kennedys—President and Attorney General alike—were often misinformed and slow to grasp the situation’s gravity. (Well into the riot, the President seemed to think that the rioters were mainly students, even as armed men, some urged on by the nutty former general Edwin Walker, surged into the area.) Meredith was actually hidden and under protection in a dormitory several hundred yards away from the Lyceum; had he been discovered, it is hard to imagine that he would have survived and that there would not have been much more bloodshed.

Besides Meredith, the real heroes were federal officials on the scene (such as Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach) and the US Marshals, who held the line with tear gas and resisted the temptation to return the gunfire that came at them out of the night. So were some on-campus Mississippians—such as Episcopal priest Duncan Gray—who confronted rioters with arguments for peace and respect for the law.

Given the tumult, it may be surprising to realize how much respect for the law there actually was. When the Mississippi National Guard was federalized, among the Guardsmen who followed orders were “Barnett’s son and his son-in-law, Senator John C. Stennis’s son, eleven state legislators, several college students, and Charles Sullivan, a 1959 gubernatorial candidate.” This highlights an important point: many people who wanted to uphold segregation had other values at stake, too—not only respect for the law, but also their belief that Mississippi should become a prosperous and well-regarded part of the nation. And when those values came into conflict, the “race card” was not always trump. On the morning after the riot, businessman William Mounger “interrupted the regular broadcast of his company’s Jackson television station to speak extemporaneously for eight minutes. He deplored the violence and declared, ‘We are a part of the United States of America, and we must obey the laws of the United States of America.’”

By giving at least an approximate sense of how widely such sentiments spread and were shared, Eagles enhances our understanding of the story’s complexity. Meredith’s mission did not provoke a simple confrontation between segregationists and integrationists, but raised unsettling questions in the minds of people in the middle, who found they had to choose among competing values. For many of them, including Mounger and some colleagues at Lamar Life Insurance, and more than a few students (such as the one who exclaimed, “I’m so tired of this mess, I don’t care if they let 50 [Negroes] in”), segregation was no longer worth defending. Minds were changing—leading to the question of exactly how much change is required to constitute a revolution.

Unfortunately, Eagles does not really confront this question; his presentation contains far more reporting than explicit analysis. It’s too bad this is so, because after spending all that time immersed in his sources, he is certainly positioned to gauge the extent and depth of the middle-of-the-roaders’ ambivalence and provide an explanation for the invisible but undeniable process that was going on as people, especially young people, were changing their minds.

Eagles’ interpretational reticence means his book is not quite as powerful or useful as it might be. But it is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of an important, complex, arguably pivotal moment in American history. Although this book may not be definitive, it is surely essential.

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