Fifty years apart together

Fifty years ago this week, James Meredith, the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi, suffered death threats and taunts as he was escorted to class by federal marshals. The classes themselves were mostly empty. Whatever the machinations of the university, the resistance of Meredith’s new classmates was perhaps more damning.

Meredith’s enrollment came after a standoff between state segregationists and the federal government. The ensuing riot on the Oxford campus claimed lives as though it were the last pitched battle of holdout Confederates.

National Public Radio interviewed journalist Curtis Wilkie, a white senior at Ole Miss during the riot. Along with Marvin King, a younger black professor, he teaches a course called “Opening the Closed Society.” The course is an in-depth look at the integration of Ole Miss.

“I thought, as a student, that there was a possibility the university would be closed. There was even thought that Mississippi might try to secede from the union again. That was how intense the situation was,” Wilkie says.

While Ole Miss, still struggles to reconcile past and present, there are tangible signs of change. The current student body president is an African-American woman, and black enrollment is at an all-time high of 16 percent.

Most discussions of Ole Miss and its place in the timeline of desegregation tend to circumscribe history with that-was-then-this-is-now bookends. The narrative starts with Meredith and ends with a platitude about the progress that’s been made. Unfortunately, in the drive to neatly package the march across time, most of the subtle ebb and flow of social currents gets lost.

Take for example the observations of Kaitlyn Barton, a student who was interviewed by NPR: “Just take a look at the student union…There’s typically one section that’s African-American and one section that’s white. It’s not that anyone tells us to sit there; it’s just the way we separate ourselves out.”

By this meter, progress means the freedom to self-segregate. One wonders if this was the promised land Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned.

One of the most interesting undertones of Ole Miss desegregation was eloquently discussed by Paul Hendrickson in his award winning book, Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy. The book takes its cue from a now-famous photograph of seven Mississippi county sheriffs gathered at Ole Miss to help stave off the inevitable. The photo looks like something ordered from central casting. You can almost here the director: “We need seven real crackers. Put them in thin-lapel suits. Give ‘em good close haircuts, narrow ties, cigarettes, and don’t make ‘em look too bright… oh, and give one of ‘em a club.”

Burt Reynolds can’t be far behind. Even so, this isn’t pastiche. These sheriffs are the genuine article, men who were there to defend their particular wrinkle in human history. Hendrickson’s literary achievement documents the lives of these seven men and how this frozen moment was pivotal for some. As the author asks, “Where did the hatred and the sorrow go that flowed out of the moment?”

We now know some of the answers. We know the hate and the resentment didn’t go far. We now know other victims would be claimed. We also know the truth of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein’s words from the musical, Showboat, “Dat ol’ man river… He jes’ keeps rollin’… He keeps on rollin’ along.”