Archive: Bearing Witness in Mississippi

Archive: Bearing Witness in Mississippi

Archive: Bearing Witness in Mississippi

As the eyes of the nation are focused on the University of Mississippi for the presidential debate, The Nation archive yields insights on key events in Mississippi during the civil rights era.


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.

Mississippi Mud…

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.

AS THE period of uncertainty lengthened, tensions mounted. The less radical segregationists said, “I just don’t care; I wish something would happen one way or the other.” A few students transferred to other schools to escape the problem—not of integration, but of the continued campus unrest. Radicals became even more extreme, more determined to fight; some were actually willing to kill “that damn Nigger.”

Very few students wanted Meredith to enter Ole Miss and a few more didn’t really care; the vast majority, however, wanted their university to remain segregated. “The federal government is forcing Meredith down our throats and if we let one in, they will send more Negroes down here,” was the honest opinion of a great number of students. Now that Meredith is in, they are saying, “They pushed him down our throats and if we don’t show some disapproval, there will be several more Negroes trying to get in.” Thus they jeer at Meredith, “Nigger, go home,” “I’ll kill you,” “Go to hell, black bastard.”

The so-called moderates on the campus were disgusted with the federal government for having imposed integration by force. Although they personally do not resent integration, they felt such extreme measures should not have been taken. They feel the whole affair has actually slowed down desegregation.

Almost all the students seem to think that Meredith was selected as the guinea pig for integration in Mississippi. Hardly any twenty-nine-year-old married veteran would be easily accepted on a campus where most students are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one—much less a Negro. Students felt that since Meredith lacked only one semester at Jackson State and, as a result of his transfer, will have to attend classes for another year, he was not sincerely interested in his education but merely in desegregating Ole Miss.

Many students and Mississippians still firmly believe that Ross Barnett was right in every action; they read only Mississippi papers and thus read and hear only what they want. But some students are searching their consciences and asking questions; for them, Barnett’s aura of heroism has faded. They are in doubt where to place the blame for the Sunday riots. They do not want integration, but they feel violence is not the answer. They believe the Governor incited the riots in part, but do not entirely blame the state officials. (University officials are completely out of the picture, since they were caught between state and federal governments.) Now the students look to the administration for advice—and until recently, at least were receiving little.

Naturally, Mississippians tend to blame the federal courts, the government and the Justice Department. They believe that the Justice Department, after forcing the issue of integration upon the state, is attempting to make the students accept Meredith as “one of them.” Although most students refused to accept Meredith, they have accepted the fact that the university has been desegregated, and are attempting to settle down to normalcy. But in others the flame of hatred still burns; they continue to believe that “the South shall rise again” and that the “great State of Mississippi” will once more by sovereign.

Journey to Understanding: Witness to a Mississippi Summer

By Howard Zinn

From the December 28, 1964 edition

Neither a small army of newspaper correspondents, nor all the power of the electronic mass media, has been able to convey to the country at large the reality of Mississippi. Perhaps our senses have been bludgeoned in this century by too many images; fact and fiction have become indistinguishable, and now even the starkest horrors are only scenes in a global theatre of the absurd.

So it was not only desperation, but genius that inspired the Mississippi civil rights workers a year ago to call for help from Northern ministers, lawyers, doctors, students, teachers, laborers. Their arrival last summer meant that a line of 1,000 people would begin moving back and forth across the desert of indifference (or worse: token concern) which has always separated the rest of the nation from the Deep South. Now—except for the 150 who insisted on staying—they are back North creating little circles of unrest wherever they move, trying to communicate, as only one living being can to another in the freshness of his own astonishment, what it was like to be in Mississippi.

Those of us who have spent some time in that state return in turmoil and in awe. It is a place that stretches ceilings to their limits. There, in one place, you find the worst and the best of this nation: malevolence matched by courage, like confronting death. What one feels most is not despair, however, but indignation because Mississippi, unlike South Africa, is part of a nation that professes liberty. Someone returning from hell might want to convey to the world, not the nature of the Devil, which is already known, but the fact that what he endured took place within sight of God. Those home from Mississippi try to explain to their friends why it is not enough to belabor the warped officialdom of that state and its murderous deputies, and why the citizenry must press the point of moral responsibility hardest against those in the nation who have both the knowledge of right and wrong, and the power to change the situation. That means the President of the United States and the Department of Justice. There is too little outrage in the country to waste it on less than the federal government which, tomorrow, in all legality could begin to transform the state of Mississippi as a model of purposeful social change.

In some ways, we ought to be grateful for Mississippi. A nation needs to look at itself in the most revealing of mirrors, and Mississippi is just that for the United States—not an oddity in a glass case, but a particularly ugly reflection of the rest of the country. Because of this, the sojourn there of 1,000 Northerners could have a special value. Prodded by what they saw, they now might begin to look with new vision into the Mississipian crevices back home: into the back rooms of police stations, the municipal courts and the jails, the ghettoes, the factories, the unemployment offices.

Rousseau once wrote “We have physicists, geometricians, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians, and painters in plenty, but we have no longer a citizen among us.”

Who could have dreamed up a better plan to destroy popular government than to divide us all into self-sealing occupational groups and professional societies, each diverting civic energy to its own narrow end? But last summer some uncommon purpose brought to various Negro communities in Mississippi a New York lawyer, a California carpenter, a Southern white minister, a Negro physician, a Yale philosopher. If we keep rubbing away at the traditional lines that divide us, we may yet build a body of citizens in America powerful enough to make democracy work.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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