Kathleen Wickham will sign “We Believed We Were Immortal,” a study of the 1962 integration crisis and the reporters who covered it, at Off-Square Books in Oxford, on Tuesday, September 12, at 5:00 p.m.
In the morning, in his office in Washington, Robert Kennedy said it had been the worst night of his life. On the Ole Miss campus, it was worse. Around the Circle, two men were dead, one building was wrecked, and the Lyceum was scarred with brickbats and bullets. Wisps of tear gas lingered and anyone driving on campus – not many people were – stopped for MP’s at checkpoints and drove past overturned burned-out wrecks of cars.
At dawn on October 1, 1962, the city of Oxford had six thousand people. Stationed in Lafayette County were the spearheads of fifteen thousand soldiers – twelve thousand infantry and paratroopers, the rest from the Mississippi National Guard. Ole Miss had fewer than five thousand students. One of them was black: James Meredith, over whose enrollment the students had rioted and the soldiers had deployed. Reporting on the riot at Ole Miss – the Battle of Oxford, it has been called, or the Meredith Incident, or the Last Battle of the Civil War– were three hundred journalists.
Kathleen Wickham, who teaches journalism at Ole Miss, has profiled a dozen of the reporters and photographers who came to Oxford to cover the riot. Wickham has written a forceful and memorable book. Her subjects’ words – the stories they filed, the memories they shared – give an intense, troubling portrait of that landscape.
The TV newsmen are the most familiar figures. Richard Valeriani dashed to the campus to shoot film for TV and then doubled back to his motel to make radio broadcasts. Dan Rather and his camera crew dodged through the darkness, shooting short film clips and shifting position. Bob Schieffer drove a radio truck in from Fort Worth, just in time to be surrounded by rioters. They smashed his tape recorder, and he hit the dirt as a sniper fired. “The next twelve hours,” he sums up, “were the most terror-filled in a long life of covering not only Vietnam but countless protests that turned violent.”
Claude Sitton reported for the New York Times. He filed a long story, perfectly phrased and paced, an exemplar of Times “Gray Lady” style. “James H. Meredith, a 29-year-old Negro, was admitted last night to the University of Mississippi campus,” Sitton wrote. “A riot broke out shortly after his arrival . . . . Students gathered in ‘The Grove,’ a tree shaded grassy mall in front of the Lyceum building, a neo-Greek revival building, as the marshals arrived.”
No one who read Sitton’s article would have known that he favored a roughed-up, dirty shirt for covering riots, or that he had rolled underneath a car to get out of the melee. Nor would they have guessed that he was a friend of Karl Fleming, a reporter of the two-fisted old school. Fleming drank whiskey and smoked unfiltered Camels, and the prose he supplied to Newsweek was muscular: “The resistance fighters arriving were rough-looking Snopesian characters, many with angry faces and sagging bellies in a variety of working clothes.”
Michael Dorman interviewed John Faulkner, William’s brother, comparing Lafayette County to Yoknapatawpha. Dorman would have found Faulknerian conflict in front of the Lyceum that night. The family’s tradition holds that John’s son Jimmy drove a commandeered bulldozer toward the Lyceum that night, to be stopped by John’s other son Chooky, a National Guard captain serving alongside the marshals. Meantime, at the YMCA on the Circle, a third relative ran a makeshift infirmary:
“Social activities coordinator Louise Meadow, William Faulkner’s sister-in-law, was pressed into service tending to bloodied rioters and injured newsmen. Rioters seeking bottles for Molotov cocktails had cleaned out the soda machine, and there were no medical supplies in the facility. Meadow used paper towels as bandages.”
Outside the YMCA building, as the mob surged toward the Circle, French reporter Paul Guihard told his photographer that he would be back in an hour. He vanished into the tear gas floating behind the Fine Arts Building (now Bryant Hall). Guihard was a tall, red-bearded man, and he spoke with a foreign accent. Someone saw him – followed him, or forced him, into a spot that was unlighted and half-hidden by bushes – and then shot him in the back, at close range, with a pistol. Guihard was the only journalist to die covering the civil rights movement.
Sidna Brower covered the riot from her editor-in-chief’s desk at the Daily Mississippian. She wrote an editorial denouncing violence, then hurried to her room at the Kappa Kappa Gamma House – women students still lived under an 11 p.m. curfew. Next morning, helped by a friend from Phi Delta Theta, she distributed the paper herself. Long afterward, segregationists dogged Brower’s path; she was reprimanded by student government and questioned by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission.
Because she was a black woman reporter – rare in the newsrooms of those days – the Washington Post waited a week to send Dorothy Butler Gilliam to Mississippi. The delay did not limit her. Gilliam covered the black community, casting light on ordinary people’s fears and hopes. She interviewed a Central High School home-ec teacher who had been tailed as she drove from Oxford to Batesville, and a busboy from the Grill in the old student union. After the riot, in a half-baked reprisal, he was fired by his white boss. “I was glad,” the busboy told her. “It was a rather small contribution.”
Other white bosses fired black workers. Students who ate with James Meredith or sat with him in class would find their dorm rooms ransacked or bleach poured on their laundry. Newspapers lost subscribers and advertisers; reporters had windows shot out or crosses burned on their lawns. In the end, those small contributions won the struggle for civil rights. In telling the story of that second civil war, a project on which she has spent ten years, Wickham proves an eloquent correspondent. She draws on face-to-face interviews, oral histories, the massive files of the United States Marshals Service and the Department of Justice, and countless news stories filed from Mississippi in those years.
For those who remember the burned cars and brickbats, there is an irony that shadows the manicured Circle and Grove of the present day. The landscaping befits what those acres are: a national historic site, as recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists. This book shows why that honor is deserved.
Allen Boyer is Book Editor for HottyToddy.com. He grew up on the University campus and has his own family stories to tell of the riot. His new book, “Rocky Boyer’s War,” based on his father’s wartime diary, has been published by the Naval Institute Press.HERE!