We like to think of American history as perpetually sunny, a few clouds sure, racism, slavery, annihilating Native Americans, a few stumbling points but otherwise an azure sky. The reality — and once America invented the movie industry, part of our national identity and tendency became the suspension of reality, the habit of whitewashing it away — is darker.
Today, someone thinks it’s racism when photographers are accused of not properly lighting Black subjects so they are acceptably black enough. Or too black. And those people think they are racial warriors! Back in the sixties, when America was convulsing on its bigotry and shame and murder, racism was a perpetual life and death struggle and never less than sanctioned suppression. But we’re losing our history! It’s fading like an old polaroid, the colors are washing out, the detail disappearing. That’s why books are so important. They hold history in a tight-lidded jar, the ugly specimens as well as the exemplary.
And that’s why the book James Meredith: Breaking the Barrier is so important. It’s a painstakingly put together collection of essays and memories of when James Meredith, the Jackie Robinson of the University of Mississippi, which might as well have been run by the Ku Klux Klan back then, breached the student body color barrier and enrolled at the otherwise entirely white school. You may know the story — if you don’t, it illustrates my point about history dissolving — Meredith was accepted but when it was discovered he was black, he was prevented from going, and ultimately had to be accompanied to class by U.S. Marshals, to enforce the court order that he be allowed to attend.
His life was threatened constantly and there was a deadly, two day riot on campus following his arrival, on Sunday September 30th into Monday October 1st., 1962. Two people died and more than 300 were injured in the obviously doomed, obviously moronic attempt to preserve segregation.
That this book, edited by current Ole Miss journalism professor Kathleen Wickham, comes out from a tiny, very independent publishing company, Yoknapatawpha Press, in Oxford, MS, is a bit sad, honestly. This is the 60th anniversary of Meredith’s enrollment and the very dark stain of that brutal, hate-filled night in September, but where are the major publishers’ books, not quite celebrating but marking the moment? Because it’s one thing to pay lip service to political correctness, it’s quite another to actually preserve in amber the hideous horrors and lessons of racism and the successful efforts to defeat it.
This book is not handsomely designed or lavishly printed but the writing is spine tingling, some of it original, some of it excerpted, including from people who were there at the time. One is the great journalist (and longtime professor at the university) Curtis Wilkie, who was a reporter for the school newspaper at the time and was in the Lyceum for the riot, which he remembered as “being like a Nazi rally, just the way Nuremberg must have been,” and where, he writes, he got “a lesson in mob psychology that had not been taught in the classroom.”
Wickham herself has a poignant, beautifully written essay about the murder of French journalist Paul Guihard, who was covering the Meredith integration for Agence French-Presse. He was, rather incredibly, the only journalist killed during the civil rights movement of the sixties. And in the chapter “Safeguarding James Meredith,” excerpted from the book James Meredith and the Ole Miss Riot: A Soldier’s story, former Military Policeman Henry T. Gallagher eloquently recalls the early morning of October 1st when he arrived in Oxford at 5 a.m. from Fort Dix in New Jersey, in a convoy of 140 military vehicles, to help restore law and order.
The collection opens with an excerpt from Meredith’s 1966 book Three Years in Mississippi, in which he wrote “Insurrection against the United States by the State of Mississippi became on these two days a reality.” Insurrection in the U.S.? Sound familiar? History, dimmed, forgotten, ignored, repeats itself.
To order the book, because you may not find it in bookstores: