t's all now, you see" wrote William Faulkner in "Intruder in the Dust". "Yesterday wont be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago."
Faulkner's beloved homeland of Mississippi is the luminous, tormented racial mindscape of America, and sometimes she lifts her veil to reveal mysteries that collapse time and amaze the soul.
In 1996 I was co-writing an A&E documentary on the history of White House taping and a companion book "Inside the Oval Office." My partner Carol Fleisher was preparing to videotape Kennedy aide Burke Marshall about JFK's tapes of the so-called James Meredith crisis in 1962, when Meredith attempted to become the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi. As the cameras were about to roll, Marshall said almost off-handedly, "that was the night we had a little war."
I simply could not believe that statement, and I set out to research what seemed to be an unbelievable story. I spent much of the next four years completely amazed as I conducted hundreds of eyewitness interviews and reviewed thousands of pages of documents buried in archives, uncovering a forgotten event that U.S. News & World Report wrote "came close to being a small-scale civil war."
The incident was a white riot that exploded into a ferocious and chaotic battle that saw U.S. federal marshals fighting for their lives in hand to hand combat. "I was more frightened at Mississippi," said one marshal, "than I was at Pearl Harbor or any other time during the war."
The battle climaxed in a lightning invasion of Mississippi by 30,000 U.S. combat troops, which was more soldiers than the U.S. had in Korea, and six times more soldiers than were stationed in Berlin. The battle resulted in 375 military and civilian casualties, 300 civilian arrests, and two innocent civilians being killed in circumstances that are a mystery to this day.
The event was triggered by a young Mississippi soldier, a black Air Force veteran named James Meredith. I spent many hours interviewing him for my book, and found him to be a fascinating, sometimes perplexing man, in some ways forty or fifty years ahead of his time.
Although he was inspired by the heroes of the civil rights movement, Meredith was not a civil rights activist. He was a career soldier. He did not believe in turning the other cheek. He thought that anyone trying civil disobedience in Mississippi was crazy, because state-sponsored white supremacy was so powerful and so violent that it had nearly crushed the civil rights movement in the state.
Meredith also thought that the traditional discussion of civil rights was a total insult to the more fundamental question of whether or not he was an American citizen. For him, the issue was not civil rights, but American citizenship. He considered his rights as an American citizen, all of them, to be non-negotiable.
"I considered myself an active duty soldier," Meredith explained. "I was at war, and everything I did I considered an act of war."
Through a stubborn, methodical, year and a half long legal struggle, James Meredith forced the U.S. Justice Department and the Supreme Court to his side, and forced the Governor of Mississippi into a confrontation not with James Meredith but with the President of the United States and the world's most powerful military machine.
To uncover the truth of what James Meredith triggered in 1962, I traveled into some of the most amazing chambers of American history.
In Jackson, Mississippi, I walked past giant templed monuments to the Confederacy into the remarkable Mississippi State Department of Archives and History. There, I reviewed the intelligence files of the sinister state spy agency, the Sovereignty Commission ("the KGB of the cotton patches"), which had recently been unsealed by court order, as well as former Governor Ross Barnett's recently-acquired personal papers.
Ross Barnett was the son of a Confederate soldier. As a lawyer he championed civil cases for black clients but as Governor he was a man who Time magazine called "as bitter a racist as inhabits the nation." In response to Meredith's campaign, for seventeen days Barnett and the government of Mississippi physically blockaded federal authorities from honoring Meredith's right as an American citizen to enter the University of Mississippi at Oxford.
In Jackson I sat down with William Simmons, the 85-year-old former chief of the Citizens Councils of America, a charming, sophisticated intellectual who in 1962 was the most powerful segregationist in America and the shadow ruler of Mississippi on racial matters, the man who Governor Ross Barnett actually reported to. Simmons explained that from the segregationists point of view, the Battle of Oxford was the decisive turning point in the entire struggle against integration.
I tracked down Robert Shelton, former Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America and the most powerful Klan leader of the late 20th Century. As the Battle of Oxford drew near, Shelton placed his 20,000 Klansmen on alert and prepared them to move on Oxford with rifles and shotguns. Shelton disclosed what went through his mind on the eve of the battle.
"This," he thought, "could be another War Between the States."
At Oxford, I inspected the long-forgotten bullet marks in the columns of the University of Mississippi's Lyceum building, reviewed the University's files on the crisis and strolled the streets and court house square beloved by William Faulkner, streets where much of the action of "An American Insurrection" takes place. I read books by Eudora Welty and Willie Morris on the balcony of Square Books overlooking the Square, a building (then Blaylock's Drugstore) where riot leader former General Edwin Walker briefly held court during the riot in 1962.
Also in Oxford, I interviewed Murry C. "Chooky" Falkner, William Fauklner's nephew, who in 1962 was Captain of Mississippi Army National Guard Troop E. Falkner explained, "No one knows what went on here then." Then he took his thirty-five year old typewritten after-action report out of his files, and handed it to me, saying "read this."
The document described in extraordinary detail how Falkner and his band of local white men, most of whom were personally opposed to the immediate integration of the University of Mississippi, were ordered into the battle to try to rescue the marshals and Meredith from being massacred by the mob. As I read the report I was dumbfounded by the ferocity of the violence inflicted upon the Guardsmen by their fellow white Southerners. I could only mumble, "this is like combat."
Falkner quickly corrected me: "It WAS combat."
At the JFK Presidential Library in Boston, I reviewed President Kennedy's remarkable secret White House tapes of the crisis, and inspected the desk exhibit of then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, which includes paperwork on the Meredith case on his desk and a federal marshal's dented helmet from the riot.
At this point in his presidency, John Kennedy was not a convinced and devoted proponent of civil rights as a policy. He thought it was in his words, a "God-damn mess" that embarrassed him on the world stage. He, like most white Americans, had to be forced to face this issue by people like James Meredith.
For seventeen days, the government of Mississippi was in a state of open rebellion against the federal government on the issue of race. Secretly, however, Ross Barnett engaged in a series of bizarre, almost comic opera telephone negotiations with President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy to capitulate and allow James Meredith to enter the university.
After a series of miscommunications, misjudgments and foul-ups, on the afternoon of September 30, 1962, negotiations between the Kennedys and Barnett collapsed and RFK and Barnett made a joint emergency decision to install James Meredith on the campus immediately that Sunday night, before tens of thousands of civilians were expected to descend on the city on Monday morning to blockade the university.
But at 8:00 PM Sunday night, a chain reaction of errors combined to unleash a riot which pitted several hundred federal marshals against a mob of several thousand white civilians.
The incident was an absolute disaster-in-progress for President Kennedy and Attorney General Kennedy, as an American city collapsed into 14 hours of terror and mayhem. RFK later described it as the worst night of his life, and described the President as "torn between an Attorney General who had botched things up and the fact that the Attorney General was his brother."
At FBI headquarters in Washington, DC, I reviewed 9,000 pages of raw Bureau files on the crisis that I obtained access to through a Freedom of Information Act request. The files contained a treasure trove of first-person detail and intelligence on the event, including over 500 eyewitness interviews by FBI agents from 1962.
I interviewed over 500 eyewitnesses and key players in the Battle of Oxford: soldiers, local and state police, students, rioters, reporters, faculty, townspeople, U.S. marshals and federal and state officials. Many of them responded to notices I placed in scores of newspapers across the South (from major metropolitan newspapers to Pennysavers) and in veterans newsletters, which triggered an overwhelming response. Almost every person interviewed had never spoken publicly about Oxford and had in many cases buried their memories of it for nearly two generations.
I was stunned to discover that according to Pentagon records and many eyewitnesses, Attorney General Robert Kennedy secretly ordered 4,000 black soldiers to be stripped off the front lines and forcibly segregated during the invasion and occupation of Oxford. He did it to avoid the political embarrassment of having black troops with high-powered rifles in command of Mississippi streets. Many of these black troops were disgraced, disarmed and forced to do non-stop KP and garbage duty. This segregation was condoned by President Kennedy.
Nearly 40 years later, a number of black and white veterans expressed to me their outrage and disgust at the disgrace of "resegregation", which was all the more offensive, as one black military policeman told me, "when you consider what the hell we were sent down there for," to integrate the university of Mississippi.
In the files of the Pentagon, I found a memo which partly explains the mystery of why the Battle of Oxford has largely been forgotten by history. It turns out that the U.S. Army soldiers who rescued the city of Oxford were supposed to be awarded combat medals and citations for the operation for their courage in combat. Their commanders recommended them. But the Pentagon brass denied them.
Why? The Army memo dated April 19, 1963 reads: "It is considered that the focus of additional attention on this incident would not be in the best interest of the nation . . . Decorations should not be awarded for actions involving conflict between U.S. Army units and other Americans."
Together with James Meredith and many unsung heroes of the Battle of Oxford, this country fought and won the last battle of the American Civil War on October 1, 1962.
It was a symbolic turning point in American history that marked the death of massive resistance to integration.
When Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963 he predicted that "some day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, courageously and with a majestic sense of purpose facing jeering and hostile mobs and the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer."
Today, in 2001, King's prophesy has yet to come true.