OXFORD — Decades after a deadly riot over integration at Ole Miss marred the state's reputation, Mississippi has another opportunity in the worldwide media spotlight this week.
An expected 3,000 journalists are coming to the Oxford campus for the first presidential debate of 2008, which is to be held Friday night. It's a milestone for the school, especially for many who were on campus during James Meredith's fight to become the school's first black student in the fall of 1962.
That Sunday night 46 years ago, airwaves transmitted news around the world that armed rioters had killed two men - one a foreign journalist, the other an Oxford repairman. But George "Buck" Randall, a running back on the Ole Miss football team that went undefeated and untied that year, was driving up from his hometown of Greenwood for the week of classes. He arrived on campus having missed news reports.
Curious about what was happening, Randall ventured into the action. The university police chief pulled him inside the Lyceum building, where the U.S. Marshals were based, shielding him from gunfire. Not long after, Randall saw a marshal shot nearby as bullets came through the window. In the chaos, Chief Marshal Jim McShane ordered Randall, a well-known athlete, to go out and tell the mob that troops were about to return fire if rioting didn't cease.
"It was a war, really," Randall said.
Unfazed by bullets flying across campus, Randall talked to rioters, many of whom he said didn't appear to be students. Some listened, others shrugged him off or got belligerent, but Randall stood his ground. A national sports magazine wrote a story about Randall's actions, which prompted nasty letters to the athlete from his hometown. But 46 years later, he says he has no regrets.
"I didn't want anybody to get killed," Randall said. "It was a bad situation back then."
Although a monument in the heart of the campus now celebrates him as a hero, Air Force veteran Meredeth had much to fear in the 1960s. In 1966, after he had graduated from Ole Miss, Meredith was shot on the side of U.S. 51 near Hernando during a civil rights march. He recovered.
In a speech at an Ole Miss football game in Jackson on the night before the riots, then Gov. Ross Barnett, the 10th son of a Confederate veteran, whipped thousands of Rebel flag-waving spectators into a frenzy. Just a few days before, Barnett, acting as registrar, had blocked Meredith's attempt to enroll, even though the federal courts had ruled that the university must admit him. Meredith arrived again with U.S. Marshals and federal officials at his side on Sunday, Sept. 30, 1962.
Through the turbulence, which prompted President Kennedy to send 30,000 troops to the area, Meredith was mellow, said John Doar, who worked on civil rights matters for the U.S. Department of Justice and shadowed Meredith during his enrollment.
"He was very calm, very determined, very cool," Doar said. "He had no emotion and no indication of any fear, but he had stubborn determination. He just was going to go through this. I was impressed by him."
Word quickly spread that Meredith was on campus. The mood was jovial at first, but as time progressed, the mob, which gradually filled with non-students from other parts of the state and the South, grew more raucous. Things got ugly after dark as thousands of rioters focused on the Lyceum, the large, white-columned building that is the symbol of the university. It was full of Marshals and federal officials there for the integration. Many wrongfully believed Meredith was inside.
Ed Guthman, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy's press aide at the time, was inside the Lyceum and as things got chaotic outside, he likened the situation to the battle at the Alamo, according to newspaper reports. When Guthman drew the parallel, Kennedy wryly reminded Guthman that the men at the Alamo were killed.
Some rioters broke into chemistry labs looking for bomb ingredients and picked up bricks from construction sites on campus. They flipped and burned cars, threw bricks and bottles and commandeered a bulldozer, which they pointed toward the Lyceum. But armed marshals surrounded it and the bulldozer never damaged the structure.
The marshals never returned fire, but used tear gas as their chief defense.
Many estimates simply say two died and hundreds were injured. The nephew of local literary giant William Faulkner, Murry "Chooky" Falkner, who spelled his name different than the author, was head of an Oxford National Guard unit that responded to the riot. Falkner suffered a broken arm when he was hit with a brick, and he received many decorations for his service during the event.
Observers noted the outsiders had guns, but didn't appear to be aiming at anyone in particular. Associated Press Reporter Bill Crider, who was hit in the back with a shotgun blast, was able to get medical treatment while he filed his reports, according to the book "The Race Beat." Although he carried a pellet near his spine for the rest of his life, Crider had a long and successful AP career before his 2003 death.
The nation was captivated by the riot. The event, which left a black eye on the university and the state, was the inspiration for Bob Dylan when he wrote the song "Oxford Town" for his 1963 album "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan."
Hours after soldiers moved in to help marshals, violence subsided and rioters were removed from campus by mid-morning on Monday, Oct. 1.
Gerald Walton, who was hired as an English professor at Ole Miss the same semester as the riots, was part of a group of more than 30 faculty members supporting integration that fall and he'd worried he would lose his job. But while the odor of tear gas lingered and Oxford awoke to an uncertain future, Walton then had deeper fears.
"I actually wrote in my diary the morning of Oct. 1 that I didn't think we would ever recover," said Walton, who later served as provost.
Sidna Brower, who was editor of the Ole Miss student newspaper in 1962, penned a column calling for peace in the Monday paper. Although some large national newspapers praised her as a voice of reason, for that and other works, the university's Associated Student Body Senate censured her. Forty years later, the Ole Miss student government overturned the censure.
"As a student, I beg you to return to your home," Brower editorialized. "This is a battle between the State of Mississippi and the United States government; the university is caught in the middle. The Civil War was fought 100 years ago over almost the same issues and the United States of America prevailed. The federal government is once again showing its strength and power to uphold the laws of our country."
Most University of Mississippi students joined the war effort, many serving in Company A of the 11th Mississippi Infantry, which was known as the "University Greys."
A group of about 100 that was mostly students and also likely included some alumni joined in the 11th Mississippi, which included the Greys and several other companies. The Greys marched off in the late spring of 1861 and the following fall, only four students showed up for class. The university closed and many students who didn't join the 11th Mississippi joined other units or simply drifted away.
After the campus closed to higher education, a primary school for boys operated there, but the Confederacy established a hospital on campus grounds following the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862 and teaching stopped at Ole Miss.
The university reopened in the fall of 1865 and 86 students enrolled. But after fighting at Manassas, Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, and Appomattox, among other notable battles, the surviving Greys never graduated. At least 16 Ole Miss students with Company A died and many others were wounded. Complete data about the deaths of Ole Miss soldiers is not easily available, and some researchers note that many Civil War era military records aren't nearly as accurate and complete as today's.
Just before the war, the university ordered what was the world's largest telescope at the time, but the war interrupted the delivery and the Chicago Astronomical Society eventually got the telescope and it ended up at Northwestern University.
The school is located in Oxford, which was heavily damaged when Union troops set fire to it.