In Billy Joel’s historical ballad "We Didn't Start the Fire," a song about significant events that became turning points and catalysts in American history, the University of Mississippi's nickname falls between "Lawrence of Arabia, British Beatlemania" and "John Glenn, Liston beats Patterson."
The lyrics are listed year by year, and those four references were all part of 1962. That's the year Ole Miss became the first integrated learning institution in the South known nationally not because it quietly complied, but because the widely-publicized entrance of James Meredith, 29, the school’s first African-American student, resulted in violent riots, multiple injuries and two deaths.
The chaos came from the resistance of an inevitable social change occurring all over the United States. Segregation would end.
Dr. Richard Russell was the guest speaker at Tuesday’s Lunching With Books, held at noon inside the Union County Library. Russell, a student at the University of Mississippi in 1962 who lived in the dorm beside Meredith, reviewed the book "An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford" by William Doyle" and gave a personal account of the "fire" he witnessed that Sunday afternoon when Meredith, accompanied by Federal Marshals and National Guardsmen, came to take his place in history.
"I lived in Lester dorm," Russell said. "Meredith was to be in Baxter next door to mine, so I went to his dorm to make a phone call to my soon-to-be wife and told her I was in Meredith’s dorm."
Russell attempted to paint a picture of what he witnessed that day.
"They were yelling things like ‘2-4-6-8. We don’t want to integrate. Go to Cuba and fight Castro.’ They had reporters on campus all week. I remember one or two of them ask me, ‘Are y’all boys going to take this or are y’all going to fight.’ I thought they were going to try to build up a fight."
In January of 1961, Meredith, a retired member of the U.S. Air Force, applied for admission to the University of Mississippi. School officials denied his application, and Meredith fought their decision in court.
On Sept. 10, 1962, the Supreme Court ruled that Meredith had the right to attend the University of Mississippi. Governor Ross Barnett initially ignored the court ruling, personally blocking Meredith from registering, but on Sunday, Sept. 30, 1962, Meredith was escorted onto campus by federal marshals and civil rights lawyers.
Also present were 123 deputy federal marshals, 316 U.S. border patrolmen, and 97 federal prison guards.
"I was standing by a Mississippi highway patrolman, and I noticed that they had loaded their tear gas guns," Russell said. "Tear gas covered the whole place. I trotted over to the student union and listened to the speech by Kennedy, who begged everybody to be calm and not to ruin the university’s good name. I felt like it was probably over and went to the dorm."
Russell later drove behind the chemistry building near the Lyceum to further view the situation.
"I spent a couple of hours observing the riots at that point," he said. "Things were getting out of hand quickly."
Within an hour, federal forces were attacked by a mob of more than 1,000 people. Some fought with guns, bricks, bottles and Molotov cocktails. Tear gas was used to control the crowd, and the violence continued until President Kennedy sent 16,000 federal troops to the campus.
When it was over, two people were dead, 28 Marshals had been shot, 160 people were injured, and Meredith became the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi.
Walter "Pud" Graham, who married a month prior to the riot, attended the library presentation and brought the gas mask he wore that Sunday while working as one of the National Guardsmen. He remembers transporting an injured man across campus.
"There was a bunch of rednecks with bricks and rocks that came out," said Graham, "and I thought one of them broke my hip when they hit me. The Highway Patrol was just sitting there, and I carried him on down to the National Guard, and they called an ambulance to come and get him."
Russell said Meredith’s problems did not end that Sunday. They continued throughout his college career.
"There were all kinds of things done," said Russell. "I can remember that the military police were with him. They would bring him to lunch. I can remember the kids singing ‘Mickey Mouse,’ and while they were doing that, they let the air out of the tires of the Jeep — all four tires. People would walk by in the cafeteria and shove him against the wall. One time they bombarded his dorm with cherry bombs and sling shots. It was a tough year, and the whole year, the entire year, I had military police marching between my dorm."
Meredith graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1963. In 1966, he recounted his Ole Miss experience in his first publication, "Three Years in Mississippi." The same year, he was shot and injured by a sniper while leading a march for voter registration. In 1968, he received a bachelor of laws degree from Columbia University.
"Like most Mississippians, I was torn at the time," said Russell. "There was not many integrations in Mississippi. I never supported Ross Barnett. I’m not a racist, but right now, I get angry when I hear people refer to Ole Miss as a racist institution."
In 1997, Meredith donated his personal papers to the J. D. Williams Library at the university. The James H. Meredith Papers is a collection of more than 250 linear feet of clippings and printed material from Meredith’s personal appearances and book manuscripts dating back to 1962.
Forty years after Meredith’s admission to Ole Miss, his son, Joseph Meredith, received his doctorate in business administration from his father’s alma mater in Oxford. Joseph is also a Millsaps College and Harvard University graduate.
The University of Mississippi has announced that it is planning to erect a civil rights monument on campus commemorating the movement and Meredith’s entrance. The monument is expected to be completed sometime in 2003.