Reflections on my Interview with James Meredith

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Posted January 23, 2013

In the June 2012 issue of the Capital Area Bar Association newsletter, John Hengan reviewed a book written by Charles W. Eagles, The Price of Defiance-James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss. Professor Eagles made reference to an interview I did of Meredith when we were both students at Ole Miss.

Henegan wanted me to write an article for the CABA newsletter about that interview. I searched and found it – it was not a great interview. In fact, Meredith commented that “this is kind of a strange interview.” It appeared in the Ole Miss student newspaper, The Daily Mississippian, on May 10, 1963, close to the end of Meredith’s second semester at Ole Miss. I was a naive 19-year old journalism student. Meredith was an Air Force veteran in his mid to late 20’s who had survived a year of hell as the first African-American to attend the University of Mississippi.

Meredith’s enrollment and attendance at Ole Miss had set off a riot that left two persons dead and resulted in a military occupation of the campus. The enrollment came only after protracted federal court proceedings and a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals order directing Meredith’s admission that found “from the moment the defendants discovered that Meredith was a Negro, they engaged in a carefully calculated campaign of delay, harassment and inactivity.” 1 The defendants included university administrators, state officials, and the Board of Trustees of the State Institutions of Higher Learning, better known as the college board.

The pre-enrollment harassment by state and university officials was continued by students after Meredith arrived on campus. Among other incidents, cherry bombs were sling-shotted at his dormitory room and students formed a line at the dormitory water cooler to keep him from getting a drink. The emotional toll of that treatment had to be enormous. Although Meredith was accompanied on campus and protected by federal marshals, given the riot and the hatred with which his enrollment was met, he had to be apprehensive about his safety.

But none of that was displayed in the 1962 interview. The first paragraph related:

A sometimes serious, sometimes nonchalant —but always quietly confident James Meredith answered questions and offered comments in his dormitory room Wednesday afternoon.

Meredith was unflappable. Before I could get going with questions, he said “I didn’t think the campus senate would allow you to do this.” He referred to the censure by the campus senate of then Daily Mississippian Editor Sidna Brower for an editorial she wrote and published October 1, 1962 headlined “Violence Will Not Help.” It urged students to “preserve peace and harmony” and avoid violence and bloodshed. Sidna was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her courage, but the censure by the campus senate criticized her for “failing in a time of grave crisis to respect and uphold the rights of fellow students.” In 2002 – 40 years later – the campus senate rescinded the censure.

A couple of questions I asked Meredith were who he was supporting for governor (“let them fight it out”) and did he have aspirations to run for governor (“Who do you think would vote for me?”)

Meredith volunteered to a question I didn’t ask:

“The real question is seldom, if ever crossed in this whole business,” he said. “There’s a lot of talk about soldiers and marshals being on campus – a lot of complaining. It’s seldom discussed why they’re here, and that is the real heart: why they’re here.”

 

“And I think I should answer that question. The actual question, the issue faced here is basic to citizenship and that is whether or not citizens will be the recipients of the rights, privileges, and benefits of a citizen or will it continue to be a double standard — and that’s what we have”

James Meredith knocked down the double standard at Ole Miss – and at all institutions of higher learning in Mississippi. A monument was dedicated to him on the Ole Miss campus in 2006, presented by the president of the college board.

A sidepiece to the Meredith interview was an observation about the decor of Meredith’s dormitory room. It was older men’s dormitory issue except the chair I sat in for the interview. Meredith got it, as he said, at “Shine’s.” Shine Morgan owned a furniture store on the square in downtown Oxford and was a Ross Barnett-appointee to the state college board that resisted Meredith’s entrance at Ole Miss.

A couple of postscripts to this

Sidna Brower was not the first editor of the Daily Mississippian to attract the ire of the campus senate over James Meredith and integration at Ole Miss. CABA member and former Supreme Court Justice Jimmy Robertson preceded Sidna as editor and wrote a front page story in 1962, “Meredith – the Man.” He quoted persons who knew Meredith as “a quiet student with few outside interests” and his family as “good, solid, substantial citizens” of Attala County. A campus senate resolution sought to reprimand Robertson for his article (and other editorial misdeeds), but succeeded only in passing a measure that stated it was “not in complete agreement” with his policies. Earlier – in 1950 – Mississippian editor Albin Krebs, uncle of Pascagoula Circuit Judge Robert P. Krebs, – editorized in favor of entry of African-Americans into the Ole Miss Law School and other professional schools. A recall petition was presented to the campus senate, but student leaders, including student body president Maurice Dantin of Columbia, defeated the attempt to adopt a recall petition.

The Fifth Circuit decision put the handwriting on the wall for Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett and the college board. But Barnett wanted to continue to maintain a public persona of “standing in the schoolhouse door” to block Meredith’s entry at Ole Miss. This led to a series of secret negotiations between Barnett and United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy about how Meredith would be escorted onto campus. Barnett wanted a “show of force” by federal marshals, at times insisting to Kennedy that the marshals draw their guns. These shenanigans were generally unknown to the public. But in 1966, CABA member and United States Bankruptcy Judge Edward Ellington – then chairman of the Ole Miss Law School Speakers’ Bureau – invited Attorney General Kennedy to speak on campus. University officials opposed the invitation and tried to have it retracted. Ellington ignored them and Kennedy spoke to a packed audience on the Ole Miss campus in March 1966. He described in detail the hypocritical positions of Mississippi public officials during the Meredith matter. It was the most electrifying public presentation I have ever witnessed. Most memorable was how Kennedy opened his talk and broke the ice with an audience sitting on egg shells. He said that most of you have heard about the fox getting into the chicken house – “I feel like the chicken in the fox house.”

  1. James H. Meredith v. Charles Dickson Fair, President of the Board of Trustees, 305 F.2d 343, 344 (5th Cir. 1962).