An American Insurrection

An American Insurrection


Back on the front lines, the marshals had just about run out of tear gas, the only means they had to keep the rioters at bay.

"We've got to have more gas," one marshal demanded of Nicholas Katzenbach.

"We don't have any more right now, but we're working on it" was the reply.

"We've got to have it now," the marshal shouted. "My men are getting slaughtered out there!"

The marshals were pumping out tear gas faster than they could get reserves ready. McShane and the Justice Department officials were pleading for more tear gas to be flown down from Memphis, but the supplies were running so low there that marshals were commandeering crates of gas bombs from the 503d Military Police Battalion's supply. Two hours into the chaos, the riot was abruptly shifting into full-scale combat.

The marshals could hear a shotgun blasting away in the distance, and it was soon joined by the rhythmic "pow-pow-pow" of a .22 automatic. Before long, gunfire seemed to be coming from everywhere. "We were now alone," recalled newsman Ed Turner, "the crowd roaring louder with each barrage, the campus filling up with reinforcements from three states and no guard at the gates to stop them."

Across the region, cars and trucks full of armed and unarmed fighters were surging toward Oxford from all directions, especially from segregationist strongholds in adjacent Alabama and Louisiana. A few scattered Mississippi Highway Patrolmen were blocking potential rioters from the campus, but one patrolman was observed telling a carload of outsiders, "We can't let you in here but if you break into small groups you can sneak in across the railroad tracks."

Civilian volunteers armed with rifles and shotguns were flocking into the campus and taking turns opening fire at the Lyceum and the marshals, who now became the bull's-eye of a demented public shooting gallery. Over the next hours, snipers and muzzle flashes were reported at roofs and windows of the YMCA building, the Fulton Chapel, the Peabody Building, the Confederate statue, and scattered in the shadows around the Circle.

At 10:00 P.m., Deputy Marshal A1 Butler reported to the deputy attorney general: "Mr. Katzenbach, that's not a riot out there anymore. It's an armed insurrection."

On the edge of campus, FBI agent Robin Cotten saw dozens of civilians carrying shotguns and long rifles as they jumped out of pickup trucks and ran up the hill toward the center of campus. Agent Cotten figured the campus was now swarming with Klansmen. He was extremely concerned for the safety of his son, who was an Ole Miss student trapped somewhere on campus. The FBI agent didn't know how to get his son out of there. In fact, the young man was pinned sown on an upper floor of the YMCA building, directly underneath a riper. "Every time the ambulance would pull out of there," Agent Cotten remembered, "I'd run by and see if it was my son inside."

What Cotten was witnessing, among many other things, were the beginnings of a Ku Klux Klan rebellion, with scores of out-of-state armed Klansmen converging spontaneously on Oxford. They were acting on their own initiative without orders from their leadership. There hadn't been time for that.

A rattletrap school bus with Louisiana plates pulled in behind the Ole Miss football stadium. Inside the bus, a sound system was playing a tune called "The Cajun Ku Klux Klan": "You niggers listen now, / I'm gonna tell you how, / To keep from being tortured, / When the Klan is on the prowl, / Stay at home at night, / Lock your doors up tight, / Don't go outside or you will find, / Them crosses aburning bright:" A team of five stocky men disembarked with a beer cooler and picnic supplies. One of the men asked a student where the action was. Another announced that they had brought machine guns.

Hardy Stennis, a student who was observing the chaos, saw four armed men in cowboy hats and western wear walking toward the Lyceum. Stennis asked them, "Where are you fellows from?" The reply: "Louisiana." Stennis queried, "Well, what in the world are you doing way up here?" One gunman answered, "We come to help out!"

"Now, watch," Stennis lamented to a friend, "these people have no business here, and Mississippians and our student body are going to get blamed for what they do."

One sniper crouched down behind a pile of bricks near the construction site of the new Science Building. He shot his rifle three or four times, then trotted to a new position. Another shooter lay down in a flower bed close to the marshals and fired on them with a .22 automatic, squeezing out strings of twenty-five and fifty rounds from there and from a spot at the northwest corner of the YMCA building. When he blasted out a light near the Lyceum, the crowd cheered.

"We come to help kill the nigger," a pair of well-dressed men announced to a student. The men said they came from the nearby town of Batesville, and one had a light rifle shoved in his coat and a pint of booze in his pocket. He offered to share it with a rioter, asking, "Want a drink?"

One rioter clutching a shotgun climbed up a tree in front of the Lyceum and began firing at the marshals. A young man from southern Mississippi sprawled down flat on the grass fifty yards in front of the Lyceum, firing a squirrel gun. He paused to exclaim to a nearby acquaintance: "God damn, this is war!"

At 10:00 P.m., Ted Lucas Smith, a young local stringer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, noticed three acquaintances from his hometown of Oakland, Mississippi, strolling by him, each one toting a shotgun. They were about twenty-five years old, and not students. "They walked straight into the curtain of tear gas boiling around the front of the Lyceum," Smith recalled. "Their silhouettes raised the guns in union and unloaded five rounds each into the tear gas .... Then they calmly turned and walked back past me, down the hill toward the football field, saying nothing."

On the other side of the firing range, anyone standing outside the Lyceum was a sitting duck, unable to see the snipers. Early in the riot, a forty-two-year-old staff reporter for the Associated Press named Bill Crider was wandering around in the foggy darkness "like a damn fool," he recalled, trying to figure out what to write about. He barely knew where to start. Crider was based at the AP Memphis office and usually covered Tennessee state politics, not the world's most dramatic beat. Tonight, Crider found himself in the epicenter of what felt to him like a revolution breaking out.

Out of nowhere, Crider remembered, it felt "like some giant hand reached down from the sky, clubbed me and laid me flat on my face." As he fell, he saw muzzle flashes from a shotgun. Two pellets of double-aught buckshot had pierced his back muscles, one on either side of he spine. An anonymous voice yelled, "Somebody's hit!" A team of marshals came over with their guns drawn, hoisted Crider by his arms and legs, and hustled him inside through the front door of the Lyceum. There he waited, hoping a doctor would show up as his rounds trickled blood.

Also in front of the Lyceum, a federal prison guard from Atlanta was holding a lit flashlight when a sniper zeroed in on him with a shotgun. He caught six pellets in the stomach and chest, and a seventh flew trough his gas mask and punctured his forehead. He was patched up with the few first-aid supplies inside the Lyceum, and then he volunteered to go back outside on the firing line, where he stayed all night. Another Atlanta prison guard felt two blasts striking the right side of is head and chest. The eyepiece of his gas mask was cracked by a shotgun pellet, and another pellet pierced his chest. Yet another marshal was hit in the earlobe with double-aught buckshot, spun around like top, and fell to the ground as pellets slammed into the wall behind him.

Border Patrolman Dan Pursglove was sprawled on the Lyceum floor, bleeding from a shotgun pellet wound in his right thigh. "Damnit, Dan;' he thought, "you've spent four years in the Marine Corps, a year in Korea, and ten years in the Border Patrol, now some fellow Americans are going to be your demise." As the night raged on, one thought increasingly dominated his thoughts: "I wonder if I'm going to see the light of day"

Deputy U.S. Marshal James K. Kemp was a thirty-six-year-old father of three from Nashville, Tennessee. "I was a gunners mate in the Navy" Kemp recalled soon after the riot, "and after my ship went down, I was in the Atlantic Ocean for about an hour." But the riot at Ole Miss, Kemp shuddered, "was the worst thing I've ever been in."

Nicholas Katzenbach grabbed the line to the White House, and finally pleaded for a military rescue.

"For God's sake," he said, "we need those troops!"

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Excerpted from An American Insurrection by William Doyle. Copyright © 2001 by William Doyle. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.