Shadowy Monticello

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A Country without Memory

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Maryhill and Celilo
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2011 John Lesage


        Integration of Ole Miss


I pick up a street map at the visitor center in Oxford, and ask about the town. Besides William Faulkner, it's known for some other things. I’m much relieved to hear that I can drive onto campus with a visitor’s pass, and park anywhere except directly in front of the administration building, The Lyceum. On the map, I don’t see any streets named for James Meredith, though I see a Confederate Drive and a Rebel Drive. When Meredith attempted to become the first African-American student at Ole Miss in the fall of 1962, dozens of federal marshals were wounded, and two people killed. I get a pass at the gate, drive onto University Circle, and park. I try to imagine a riot.
        Expecting trouble, a handful of unarmed Federal marshals three times accompanied Meredith onto the University of Mississippi campus to register, only to be blocked each time by state troopers on Governor Barnett's orders. The feds did a reinforced, surprise end run. They walked Meredith up University Circle on a Sunday afternoon, which would put him first in line to register Monday morning after spending the night in the administration building. Though the number of Federal marshals had increased to 127, this was inadequate in the face of the gathering crowd. The marshals placed themselves at 15-foot intervals around the building, where they first became targets of verbal abuse, then of rocks, bricks and bottles, and eventually, of shotgun pellets and firebombs. They were armed, but had orders not to shoot at the crowd.
        The crowd accumulated as word got around of Meredith's presence on campus. Mostly students at first, outsiders transformed the crowd as evening approached. By 7:00 PM, the crowd was making full use of a nearby construction site as a source of projectiles. They also commandeered a bulldozer and a firetruck to ram the building. The marshals fired tear gas into the crowd, but only used firearms to disable the approaching vehicles. They held on until federalized troops of the Mississippi National Guard arrived, led by Faulkner’s nephew. Thus reinforced, they made it through the night. Still, their situation was precarious until infantry arrived from Fort Bragg at dawn.
        Company A of the 503rd MP Battalion deployed past the crowd to encircle the building more tightly. Officers loudly gave their orders. “Load and lock and fire when fired upon.” The sound of
an entire company slapping rifle bolts into place in unison signaled a more fundamental change in the situation.