Skip to comments.Today In History:Judicial Power (September 30, 1962-Ole Miss Battle of Oxford )
Posted on 09/30/2007 4:02:24 AM PDT by Nextrush
Shortly after midnight (early Sunday September 30th) President Kennedy signed orders federalizing the Mississippi National Guard.
The talks over some sort of "honorable surrender" by Governor Ross Barnett continued. The hope was for a situation where Barnett and the state troopers would stand aside when confronted by the federal force.
This kind of politically beneficial event was achieved next year in 1963 when Alabama Governor George Wallace stood in the door at the University of Alabama in the face of federal orders to admit black students.
But for now the move was on and Governor Barnett wanted to look good politically so moving in Meredith on Sunday seemed like a good thing.
He could say he was hoodwinked and take his stand against the court ordered admission of Meredith without the threat of jail hanging over him.
The Kennedy Administration had no desire to make Barnett into a martyr by arresting him.
During the day Justice Department officials flew into Oxford, Mississippi along with the improvised force of marshals, border patrol agents and prison guards.
At the Oxford airport Army trucks moved a force of 300 men with white helmets, nighsticks and pistols onto the campus of the University of Mississippi. They also carried gas masks and tear gas.
By late afternoon the force was in place around the Lyceum building.
At this point James Meredith was flown in by plane from Memphis and brought to the campus by back roads. He moved into a dormitory room at Baxter Hall around 6:30PM.
His registration was delayed until Monday morning.
Mississipi highway patrolmen provided escort for the federal force and Merdith's entrance onto the campus.
Crowds of opponents began to gather around the Lyceum where the yellow armbanded federal force would have to wait until the morning to enforce Merdith's registration.
President Kennedy was set to make a nationally televised speech at 8PM Mississippi time.
He called Governor Barnett to inform him of Meredith's arrival.
Shortly afterwards Governor Barnett put out a statement saying that federal forces had physically overpowered the state's forces.
Meanwhile a crowd of a thousand people near the Lyceum expressed their disdain with federal intevention yelling "Go to Cuba" among racial epithets.
The story is that the crowd began to throw stones and rocks at the federal force. Tires of the Army trucks were also slashed.
The state highway patrolmen who had accompanied the federal force onto the campus were put in the middle with the federal force "commander" Nicholas Katzenbach hoping to keep them in place as a buffer.
Federal officials including Attorney General Robert Kennedy demanded Governor Barnett keep the patrol in place or else they would announce that Barnett had been dealing with them and broke the agreement.
That would have been politically embarrassing to Barnett.
Word spread shortly before eight that the highway patrol was moving away from the confrontation near the Lyceum.
As the rocks and bricks continued to fly, an order was issued by Chief Marshal James McShane to begin using tear gas and the federal force donned their gas masks.
The intitial barrage of tear gas injured highway patrolmen who stood between the two sides with some of them being hit by the tear gas shells.
As this violence unfolded President Kennedy began to speak:
"Good evening my fellow citizens....
The orders of the court in the case of Meredith vs. Fair are beginning to be carried out....
This is as it should be....."
The president took much time to praise the state of Mississippi, noting that the federal government had itself not sued to admit Meredith.
He even read out the names of the Fifth Circuit Court judges and named their southern home states.
The president wanted to appease white southern Democrats whose support he wanted in the Congression elections just ahead and for his own re-election in 1964.
The president also had to appease the white liberals in his party by enforcing the court order and gain black support (he got 60 percent of the black vote in 1960).
For modern day observers, there were no great statements or moral judgements about "racism" and "hate" in the Kennedy speech.
He was careful in his words and went out of his way to praise the state and the university.
Speaking to the university itself he said:
"You have a great tradition to uphold, a tradition of honor and courage, won on the field of battle, and on the gridiron, as well as the university campus...The eyes of the nation and all the world are upon you and upon all of us.....I am certain the great majority of the students will uphold that honor..."
The president's speech presented a peaceful picture of the enforcement of Meredith's admission to Ole Miss.
Viewers on television could only see what he was saying.
It would have been too dangerous for live television trucks to have been there so there there was no split screen to show the violent confrontation then going on around the Lyceum.
It would have been a surreal sight if modern day television technology had existed 45 years ago to give people a split screen view.
So for a while almost the entire nation was lulled into a sense of peace while in reality Oxford, Mississipi was becoming a battlefield.
The violence, though, would provide justification for President Kennedy to break with his 1960 campaign attack on Eisenhower over Little Rock and use federal troops to invervene in court ordered integration.
The crowd reacted to the federal tear gas with a more determined attack of bricks and stones. By around 9 that evening gunshots could be heard and the number of injuries began to rise.
At the White House the reports from Mississippi came in and the President had to consider the use of military force.
Gathered in the Cabinet Room, the Kennedy brothers and the advisors spoke of "insurrection" and denounced ex- General Edwin Walker, who had come to Oxford to oppose their intervention.
There were fears that the crowd would assualt Baxter Hall where Meredith was staying through all the violence.
About midnight word came to the Cabinet Room that the federal force would start using their pistols on the crowd because tear gas alone wasn't stopping their attacks.
At this point Nicholas Katzenbach was on the phone from the Lyceum apologizing for the mess but saying soldiers were needed.
President Kennedy agreed and military units were ordered to go to Oxford.
Ping for Sunday 9/30 post in series on Ole Miss 1962
Note that the real violence started when the federal marshals fired tear gas at the protesters AND the Miss. Highway Patrol officers holding back the crowds. Several of them were injured by being hit with tear gas canisters shot at them.