An American Insurrection


by William Doyle (Doubleday, 2001)


(This column first appeared in the January 23, 2003 issue of ArtVoice of Buffalo.)


William Doyle's remarkably exciting book, An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962 is about an incident almost completely obliterated from our national psyche. And there are several major reasons for this.


It was replaced in the nation's headlines just days later by the Cuban Missile Crisis that caught everyone's imagination.


But also, Doyle tells us, "The mayhem of the riot was so severe that many reporters fled the scene early in the fighting or couldn't get there until after the fighting ended. Since the crisis occurred in the days just before national TV networks began covering such events live, there were almost no TV images of the battle. There were exceedingly few newsreel or still images, either, since it was a nighttime battle and photographers on the scene were threatened and attacked by rioters. There do not appear to be any newsreel or video images of the daytime rioting in downtown Oxford on the morning of October 1, though a few still photos were made."


And finally, "'Oxford was something everybody wanted to put behind them,' noted Larry Williams, a former Second Infantry sergeant who was attacked with bricks as his army truck moved through the town square on October 1, 1962. 'It was something that they wanted to hush up. Because it was a disgrace, the way the people acted.' Sergeant James Kennedy of the 503d Military Police Battalion said the crisis 'was one of the sorriest shows of leadership that I have ever seen in this country, on all sides?'"


We owe it to ourselves, I believe, to witness just how terrible we citizens of this great country could be just forty years ago -- and, yes, still can be. We here in this favored nation spend much time congratulating ourselves on our superiority to other peoples of the world, but this event shows us that our precious beliefs can too easily degenerate into our own Somalia, our own Beirut, our own Afghanistan.


And I have to add, AN AMERICAN INSURRECTION is a very exciting book. It tells one of those stories whose outcome we know but, as we read, we can't believe that things are going to work out. It was, to use that trite phrase, touch and go.


The cast of characters starts with the true hero of this tale, James Meredith, who was, it turns out, one of the strangest characters in the story of southern integration. 

Here is some of what Doyle has to say about him: "Meredith was simply a man who was ten, or twenty, or forty years ahead of his time, like a man from the twenty‑first century dropped through a time warp into America's racial prehistory. The prospect of living out his life in the Dark Age of a segregated Mississippi was simply unacceptable to him. James Meredith wanted the world, and he wanted it now. As he later explained, 'I asked myself the question, 'Why should it be someone else?' If people keep placing the responsibility with someone else, nothing will ever be accomplished.'"


But elsewhere he tells us, "Jack Greenberg, a white attorney who successfully argued the Brown case before the U.S. Supreme Court...thought that 'Meredith was a man with a mission. He acted like he was an agent of God.' According to Motley, 'We never would have brought suit in Mississippi if it wasn't for James Meredith. Meredith had to have a Messiah complex to do what he did.' Medgar Evers later observed of Meredith, 'He's got more guts than any man I know, but he's the hardest‑headed son‑of‑a‑gun I ever met. The more you disagreed with him the more he became convinced that he ‑- and he alone ‑- was right.'"


Amazingly, years later Meredith joined the staff of the Southern redneck senator, Jesse Helms.


Then there is segregationist governor Ross Barnett who consistently catered to the worst in his constituency but who sought at the same time to cover his back. "On Friday morning, Ross Barnett had been hit with a frightful shock. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order giving him until next Tuesday, October 2, to register Meredith at the university, or face a $10,000‑per‑day personal fine. Barnett was a successful lawyer, but such a huge penalty could quickly wipe him and his family out, and this terrified him."


Also playing are the Kennedys, John and Bob, who do not come across at all well in this story. Even worse than their dithering that allowed the situation to get completely out of hand, they forced re-segregation of the federal forces finally employed to join the fight. Even though many of the African-Americans were military leaders, the Kennedys ordered them withdrawn from their units to do menial jobs during the confrontations. In a few cases this direct order was not carried out and the blacks in those cases earned just as high marks for bravery as white soldiers.


After the pitch battles on the Ole Miss campus politicians had to sneak in a contrived -- but at least reasonable -- happy ending:


"On January 21, 1964, Ross Barnett was succeeded by his lieutenant governor, Paul B. Johnson, Jr. Johnson's campaign ads featured photos of his confrontation with Chief U.S. Marshal McShane and James Meredith, trumpeting the slogan 'Stand Tall With Paul?' During the campaign, Paul Johnson had ridiculed the NAACP as 'niggers, alligators, apes, coons and possums.'


"But in the instant that Paul B. Johnson, Jr. was sworn in as governor, he began turning the state away from its neo‑Confederate immediate past and into the twentieth century. In his inaugural speech, Johnson declared, 'You and I are part of this world whether we like it or not.... We are Americans as well as Mississippians.... Hate or prejudice or ignorance will not lead Mississippi while I sit in the Governor's chair.


"'If we must fight' Johnson promised, 'it will not be a rearguard defense of yesterday. It will be an all‑out assault for our share of tomorrow?' When his speech concluded, he looked up from his text and added a spontaneous ending to the address that was, in the context of this time and place, almost revolutionary: 'God bless every one of you, all Mississippians, black and white....'


"Governor Johnson soon cut off state funding to the Citizens Council, oversaw the dismantling of barriers to black voting, and welcomed federal civil rights officials. In 1964 the business leaders of Jackson defied the Citizens Council and decided to comply with the Civil Rights Act and integrate public facilities in the city."


For the rest of my life I will think of this book every time I see an Ole Miss football team take the field with at least half of its players African-Americans.


Read it and weep, but read this important book.