NewsStreet Scribe

Remembering the Riots When James Meredith Integrated Ole Miss 60 Years Ago

Federal agents roll into Oxford on Oct. 3, 1962. Credit: Jerry Huff / United Press International

“He went down to Oxford Town/ Guns and clubs followed him down/ All because his face was brown/ Better get away from Oxford Town.” So sang Bob Dylan after a mob of white supremacist rioters surged through the campus of the University of Mississippi after a young Black man named James Meredith was admitted to the long-segregated Ole Miss in 1962. 

Now, 60 years after the campus criminality at Ole Miss, the university has a series of events planned in observance of Meredith’s milestone victory over segregation in Oxford Town, and Meredith himself is to be recognized in a stadium ceremony during the Ole Miss football game on Oct. 1.

The Ole Miss riot began on Sept. 30, 1962, when an angry mob of white students, Oxford citizens and segregationists from outside Oxford stormed through the campus and confronted National Guard troops and U.S. marshals sent to enforce Meredith’s right to attend the state’s flagship university. Here in Athens, there had been right-wing mob violence that was quelled by police with tear gas when two African American students were admitted to the University of Georgia in 1961, but the situation in Oxford in 1962 was even more volatile. At Ole Miss in 1962, two men were killed—a French journalist and a young Oxford man. Their killings went unsolved, like so many murders in Mississippi during the civil rights era. Bob Dylan’s sardonic song summed it up: “Two men died ‘neath the Mississippi moon/ Somebody better investigate soon.”

The Mississippi melee made headlines across America and around the world. The Atlanta Constitution was that city’s morning newspaper in 1962, and unlike so many newspapers in the Jim Crow South, it backed the aims and aspirations of the civil rights movement. Legendary Georgia journalist Bill Shipp covered the tempest in Mississippi for the Atlanta Constitution with a front-page story saying that the Ole Miss rioters were both university students and older outsiders. “Many of the rioters were adults, carrying makeshift clubs, pipes and other weapons,” Shipp wrote. 

In his Page One opinion columns, the Constitution’s editor and publisher, Ralph McGill, scorned the politicians, media executives, police and preachers who backed a system of segregation that led to mob violence under the magnolias and moonlight of Mississippi. McGill’s writings had earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1959, and his columns on the Ole Miss situation in 1962 showed why he was called “the conscience of the South.”

Meredith made headlines again in 1966 when he was shot and wounded as he walked in a one-man “March Against Fear” to bring attention to Mississippi’s continuing injustices. Newspapers worldwide ran a shocking photo of Meredith falling to the dusty roadside as his white assailant loomed in the background. Jack Thornell, a young Associated Press photographer, won a Pulitzer Prize for his compelling photo. Aubrey James Norvell, the shooter, later served 18 months of a five-year prison sentence. He died in 2016. 

Meredith lives on today at age 89. His longtime Republican politics—including serving on the staff of arch-conservative Senator Jesse Helms and backing a political bid by “Klandidate” David Duke—have baffled or angered some in the civil rights movement, but Meredith will always be remembered as a man who scored a victory over Jim Crow segregation in the Magnolia State.

The year 1962 was a trying time in America. President John Kennedy faced Cold War troubles from Russia’s reach into Berlin and Cuba, while on the home front his administration was bedeviled by domestic terrorism like the Ole Miss riot. Today is another trying time in America as the old ghosts of white supremacy and homegrown terrorism rattle their chains and rise from their coffins. 

In 2001, author William Doyle wrote a book titled An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962. Twenty years after his book was published, America faced another threat from insurrectionists during the deadly Capitol Hill melee on Jan. 6, 2021. The threat is still out there. As Oxford’s most famous citizen, William Faulkner, wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”