In 1962, Mississippi was convulsed in violence as James Meredith enrolled as the first black student at Ole Miss. Tonight, the first African-American presidential candidate participates in a historic debate, Two reports from The Nation’s archive shed light on those dramatic events forty six years ago and place tonight’s event in context.
Sidna Brower, then editor of the University of Misssissippi student newspaper, conveys the drama of James Meredith’s historic role as the first black student at Ole Miss. And a 1964 report by Howard Zinn, bears witness to the thousands of civil rights workers who converged in Mississippi to be part of an historic movement.
By Sidna Brower
From the Oct. 27, 1962, edition
Because of the dearth of information generally about the attitude of Ole Miss students towards James Meredith and the events which preceded and followed his admission to the campus, we invited Miss Sidna Brower, editor of The Mississippian, the campus daily, to report on the subject for our readers Miss Brower’s editorials on the campus rioting, printed in The Mississippian, attracted nation-wide attention.—ED.
“Students started out yesterday by shouting slogans of their pride in Mississippi and ended up with nothing to be proud of,” read the first paragraph in the lead story of The Mississippian‘s “riot issue.”
The curiosity of hundreds of Ole Miss students changed to shock, and the bright gleam of Governor Ross Barnett’s new popularity on the campus began to dim, as students witnessed violent demonstrations sweeping the university grounds.
Not only students, but almost the entire State of Mississippi, had expected a miracle from a demigod—Governor Barnett. After all, he had sworn in his campaign speeches that there would not be integration as long as he was Governor. For a short while, it seemed as if he could keep his pledge. The new hero of the “great sovereign State of Mississippi” wrote proclamations, hired the state’s leading legal minds and listened to the advice of the national president of the White Citizens Councils. After he had successfully defied federal court orders for the first time, the state’s citizens put almost complete trust in his drive to keep James Meredith out of the university. Students who had formerly booed him at football games began to “Roll with Ross.”
But while the students cheered Barnett, they never dreamed that their university would appear as a torn battlefield at dawn on October 1, 1962. True, they didn’t want Ole Miss to become the first Mississippi college to be integrated. They were prepared to hurl nasty remarks, but never would there be an actual fight, much less bloodshed on their campus. There was still the sincere belief that the Governor was right. After all, he was standing up for an old Southern tradition, even if few Southerners can state exactly what that tradition is.
Some Southerners have expressed their firm belief in “white supremacy.” These people fear their “superiority” would be overthrown if the Negro were allowed in all-white colleges. There was, and still is, the fear among some of the lower classes that the Negro, if educated, would be on an equal economic basis with them; thus “the poor white trash” would have no scapegoat. Even some members of the upper classes fear economic equality–if Negroes became educated, they would cease to be a source of cheap labor. Naturally, among many Mississippians and other Southerners is the constant fear that integrated schools will lead ultimately to intermarriages. Thus the white race would no longer be “superior.” Yet many of those who most fear for the “degeneration” of the white race are the products of the degeneration of their own fine old families.