True students of American history will remember James Meredith for being the first black to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962. Few, however, know how perilously close his enrollment came to igniting a Second American Civil War.
Meredith, an Air Force veteran, originally applied for admission in 1961, seven years after the United States Supreme Court had mandated that all public schools were to desegregate by 1956. The stubborn states of the Old Confederacy, however, considered Jim Crow laws—not the U.S. Constitution—to be the supreme laws of their lands.
By September of 1962, Meredith, who applied to enroll at Ole Miss in 1961, had waited nearly 14 months for a decision from school administrators. A daily retrospective of the ensuing civil rights drama is as follows:
*On September 13th, Mississippi’s staunch segregationist Governor Ross Barnett announced on statewide radio and tv that he would “interpose” the authority of the state over federal authority and vowed to go to jail if he must. (Nota Bene–“Interposition” is a legal theory that holds that the states have the right to nullify federal laws. If you think you have heard this term recently, you have, as Interposition was resurrected in speeches by states rights’ opponents of former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act).
*On September 20th, Governor Barnett personally and physically denied Meredith admission to Ole Miss.
*On September 24th, a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Mississippi’s Board of Higher Education to admit Meredith or face contempt citations.
*On September 25th, Governor Barnett, again, physically denied Meredith admission in open contempt of the federal court order.
(Governor Ross Barnett being removed by U.S. Marshalls after trying to block James Meredith’s registration at Ole Miss)
*On September 26th, Lieutenant Governor Paul Johnson led a group of state patrolmen who blocked Meredith and the Federal Marshalls dispatched by President John F. Kennedy to foster his admission.
(Lt. Governor Paul Johnson physically blocking Meredith’s path to class)
*On September 28th and 29th, Governor Barnett and Lieutenant Governor Johnson were found guilty of civil contempt and faced jail and $10,000 dollar per day fines.
*On September 30th, President John F. Kennedy mobilized the Mississippi National Guard while a contingent of federal agents escorted Meredith to campus. After Kennedy addressed the nation, a riot broke out that lasted two days and left two dead, hundreds of soldiers injured and thousands of dollars in property damage.
Among the riot leaders was former Army Major General Edwin Walker, who only a few years earlier had been in charge of the federal troops dispatched by President Dwight Eisenhower to help the “Little Rock Nine” integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1961 Walker resigned his commission in protest of what he believed was a communist infiltrated federal government usurping southern states rights. Walker was held on charges of sedition and insurrection against the federal government but was never formally indicted.
*On October 1st, nearly 12,000 federal soldiers quelled the riot and escorted Meredith to campus, where he finally was allowed register for classes.
(A few pictures of White “patriots” in open rebellion against the Brown vs. Board of Education’s decree that schools desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”)
*Meredith graduated in 1965 and went on to earn a law degree from Columbia University. The collage below shows Meredith’s first day in class right before–and immediately after–white classmates walked out in protest, leaving him alone with the professor.
Meredith’s story would be replicated in similar ways across the South during the 1960s until each of the former Confederate states finally desegregated their white public universities before decade’s end. But the enduring memory of these events, captured in the pictures above, reminds that peaceful demands by Black people for equal rights under the law have always been met with outright hostility or violence by a large segment of Whites, and a casual indifference by an equally large set of Whites. Thus, it comes as little surprise when Colin Kaepernick or other Black NFL players kneel to protest police brutality against unarmed Blacks with impunity, that there are large numbers of Whites who are hostile toward the peaceful protesters, while an equally large set has a casual indifference to the truth of the syllogism that if all lives matter, and Black people are living beings, that Black lives, indeed, matter.
Lest we forget…