Ole Miss Riot 50 Years Later Through U.S. Marshals’ EyesBy Sandra Knispel | Published 02 Oct 2012 08:34am |
The U.S. Marshalls sent to ensure the safety of the University of Mississippi’s first black student are recounting their days of protecting James Meredith. Fifty years ago, the marshals were greeted by bottles, Molotov cocktails and guns. This time the reception in Oxford was much friendlier. Yesterday, as MPB’s Sandra Knispel reports, a group of them were back on the Ole Miss campus for a panel discussion.
In 1962, the marshals were under strict no-gunfire and tear-gas-only orders as they arrived in Oxford on Sept. 30th. Meredith’s enrollment was the culmination of a lengthy court battle that had pitted the state against the federal government. Former deputy U.S. marshal Herschel Garner recalls the unfriendly greeting they received in a state that prides itself on its hospitality.
“On the way to the campus the road was pretty much lines with people. Bottles and brick were thrown at us as we were coming from the airport to town. I was fortunate I didn’t get hit but others did.”
As night fell and the protests turned violent, the marshals started to use tear gas.
“And we were using that stuff hot and heavy for a while and all of a sudden we started running out. And the crowds were still coming up, the teargas would blow away and if you didn’t have more to throw at they could get closer to you to throw bricks and bottles," Garner says. "And I don’t know whether this was appropriate or not, at the time it seemed like it, to pick up the coke bottles and throw back at them.”
Of course, the marshals were not just on campus for that one night. Some stayed for days or weeks, telling stories of sleeping in tents without floors, erected in a swampy area of campus, crawling with snakes. And not just white law enforcement came to protect Meredith. Kirk Bowden, an African American deputy U.S. marshal from Washington D.C. was assigned as Meredith’s security detail.
“I wondered why in America, a citizen of the state of Mississippi, a military person, [a] taxpayer had to be protected to go to a state university.”
Bowden and other black marshals couldn’t find a hotel room in Oxford, everybody turned them away. So the black community, despite their fear of white reprisal, housed and fed them for the duration of their stay. Today Bowden freely admits:
“When we were assigned to come down to protect Mr. Meredith we were afraid for ourselves. And I find out I’m down here, might lose my life for something that should be automatic. But we could not let Mr. Meredith know how scared we were.”
But Bowden also brought the audience to laughter when he recounted the story of accompanying Meredith on a shopping trip to Jackson. As Meredith attempted to pay by credit card, just as the white man had done in front of him, the cashier demanded identification. Already bristling at the racism Bowden encountered daily in Mississippi he blurted out:
“Miss, do you believe that any black man – I did not say black man, I said negro – would be in the state of Mississippi portraying himself as James Meredith?”
After that the cashier accepted Meredith’s credit card without further question. Also on hand at the panel discussion was John Meredith who choked up as he thanked the marshals.
“I’m thankful beyond words for the U.S. Marshal Service keeping my father alive so that I could have these last 50 years with him. And [that] his grandchildren could know him and love him is more than just words in a history book.
At the same time he implored fellow African Americans to stop the still common practice of self-segregation, whilst telling them to do a better job of learning about their own history:
“The challenge to blacks now is to not allow the knowledge of what happened here 50 years ago to evaporate," John Meredith says. "Sadly, young white Americans are far more likely to know about James Meredith and Ole Miss than their black counterparts.”
Markers and events across the Ole Miss campus commemorate Meredith’s story and that of the thousands of military and law enforcement personnel who risked their lives and ultimately restored order after the deadly rioting.
Sandra Knispel, MPB News, Oxford.
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