Luther Spoehr, Review of Frank Lambert’s “The Battle of Ole Miss: Civil Rights v. States’ Rights” (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Sometimes history turns a corner, and nobody notices. But such was certainly not the case in the fall of 1962, when James Meredith’s ultimately successful integration of the University of Mississippi involved a showdown between state and federal authorities, an on-campus riot featuring tear gas and gunfire, the presence of federal marshals and then federal troops, two fatalities and dozens injured. For a variety of reasons, the whole world was watching as President John Kennedy and Governor Ross Barnett jockeyed for position. The stakes for Meredith himself, the Kennedy administration, the burgeoning civil rights movement, and the South’s diehard segregationists couldn’t have been higher.
Yet today, almost 50 years later, the event is usually relegated to a paragraph or two in history textbooks, and although there have been some fine journalistic accounts—William Doyle’s “An American Insurrection” (2001) is probably the best—it has received relatively little scholarly attention. Until the last year or so, that is. In 2009, Charles Eagles, a historian at the University of Mississippi, published “The Price of Defiance,” a lengthy, detailed, authoritative account. Now Frank Lambert, professor of history at Purdue University, offers up a narrative of fewer than 180 pages that is, he says, “written primarily for students.” A part of Oxford’s series on “Critical Historical Encounters,” it is well suited for classroom use and should enable instructors to bring Meredith’s story to the center of the civil rights discussion.
Lambert’s account is commendably strong on context, especially for such a short book. In Part I, “The Mississippi Way,” he begins with chapters on “Growing Up Black in Mississippi” and “Growing Up White in Mississippi,” including stories of how Meredith’s tough-minded, independent father managed to be an example to his son of how a black man could stand up for self-respect even in Mississippi, the most airtight “closed society” in the South. Two more chapters, on black challenges to segregation after World War II and white responses to them, complete the setting of the stage.
Part II, “Confrontation at Ole Miss,” is a tight, tension-filled retelling of the story that readers of previous accounts will recognize. Familiar, well-known characters reappear: the conniving, wavering, self-aggrandizing Governor Barnett, striking heroic poses in public then scheming behind the scenes to save face; the Kennedy brothers, hoping to enforce the courts’ desegregation order without overly antagonizing the South (a futile hope, of course); the bizarre General Edwin Walker, who had commanded federal troops when President Dwight Eisenhower enforced desegregation at Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957, now calling on his followers from all over the South to come to Oxford to resist the federal occupation. And, of course, the redoubtable Meredith—quiet, inscrutable, understandably skeptical about the depth of federal commitment, but utterly determined.
Relatively minor, but symbolically significant and analytically useful, figures from the earlier narratives also resurface: Murry Falkner, the novelist’s nephew, and Ross Barnett, Jr., the governor’s son, who follow orders when the National Guard is federalized; Buck Randall, perhaps the toughest player on the Rebels’ nationally-ranked football team, trying desperately to herd his classmates back to their dorms; William Mounger, the businessman who, fearing for the South’s reputation in the outside world, takes to the airwaves on the morning after the riot to plead for calm. White Mississippians all, their behavior suggests that the façade of Southern unity was cracking, that integration would at least be tolerated, if not advocated, by people whose commitment to and definition of the South did not begin and end with segregation.
Adults and young people alike were caught up in this transformation. Lambert’s assertion that this book is not merely “for students,” but “largely about students,” is an exaggeration. (Although he was himself an undergraduate there at the time, and despite the publisher’s implications that this is somehow an insider’s account, this is in no way a memoir.) Lambert focuses mainly on the power players. That said, it should be added that near the end of the book he discusses the range of opinion among student leaders, particularly those, such as editors and writers of student publications, who left a paper trail. And he presents the results of a survey, the “College Characteristic Index,” given to students at the University of Mississippi (and many other schools across the country), which gave Ole Miss students especially low ranking in “esthetic sensitivity, idealism, involvement in the world’s problems and self-analysis.” James Meredith brought the world to their door.
To be sure, it is difficult for historians to observe and assess the invisible process of people, perhaps unconsciously, changing their minds. With Meredith’s enrollment at their state’s flagship university, Mississippians turned the corner and headed—often hesitantly, but irrevocably--into a new future. Lambert’s solid, accessible book will make it possible for a generation of students who can’t imagine how brave Meredith had to be or how big a change he inaugurated to understand how it all happened.
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