A little Russian satellite beeping in space causes mass hysteria on the ground.
One of the more thought-provoking aspects of the news that came out of Oxford, Mississippi, before and during James Meredith’s registration at the University of Mississippi, was the reported attitude of the faculty towards the crisis on its campus. According to at least two widely reprinted newspaper stories written shortly after Meredith’s registration, not one faculty member at the University of Mississippi spoke out endorsing integration or advocating compliance with the federal court order to admit Meredith either before or during the violence that accompanied his registration. The local chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), however, did issue a belated statement defending the conduct of U. S. marshals in their execution of orders.
That an entire 200-man faculty of a respected state university should have found it wise, expedient or necessary to maintain silence in a situation intimately and violently affecting its own campus, its own students, and the whole structure of constitutional government in its state, is both curious and disturbing. It is impossible to believe that all of these men, educated in a variety of disciplines, could have been indifferent to the struggle going on in front of their office doors. One wonders about student interpretation of the faculty silence.
Writing this 1,500 miles away from Oxford, I do not presume to judge the faculty or its lack of action. But I suggest that its conduct during the Meredith crisis, and the attention that conduct received, constitute material for some interesting academic meditation. What is expected of professors and teachers in the way of public commitment in time of crisis? Does it make any, difference if the crisis is on the campus and involves student riots and death? What role do learning and historical awareness play in time of public conflict? Does learning entail responsibility? A few years ago, it was commonplace to hear in faculty lounges that German professors and intellectuals shared a great guilt for not speaking out during Hitler’s rise to power. “They failed to keep the beacon light of freedom and right burning during the night of tyranny,” William L. Shirer quoted Julius Ebbinghaus. Do we expect our professors to keep lights of freedom and right burning? How do they go about it? Was it done in Mississippi?
Some of the public reaction to the faculty silence in Mississippi is an interesting commentary on these questions. During the week of Meredith’s registration, the Louisville Times, under a three-column headline on page one, ran a Chicago Daily News Service story from Oxford. Said the headline, “Ole Miss Faculty Would Rather Eat Than Speak.” The story included accounts of interviews with two faculty members, both of whom chose to remain anonymous. One was quoted as saying his job depended on silence in this situation. The other was quoted as saying that there was freedom of speech at the university all right, but that freedom did not give anyone the right to yell fire in a crowded theatre. It was not clear from the news story just how this analogy was to be applied.