Thursday, September 20, 2012

Blood Brothers

On January 20th, 1961, twenty-seven-year-old James Meredith -- nine-year Air Force veteran who had already completed two years at "coloreds only" Jackson State college, and inspired by the inauguration of a new American President who'd called that day for citizens to stand up for their rights, and to help each other -- applied for admission to the public university of his home state: the University of Mississippi ~ "Ole Miss." Since Meredith was black, the application was necessary three times. Denied three times. Led and pushed by NAACP Mississippi Director Medgar Evers, suit was filed in US Fifth Circuit Court on Meredith's behalf, which found in June 1962 that James Meredith had been rejected "solely because he was a Negro." An appeal by Ole Miss to the United States Supreme Court was denied by Justice Hugo Black and Meredith was scheduled to enter the University for the fall term beginning 50 years ago this month.

Five years before, at Little Rock (Arkansas) Central High School, the protection and enrollment of nine black students into the previously all-white campus was commandeered by US Army Major General Edwin A. Walker. Two years later, in a moment of awesome revelation, Walker joined the newly formed John Birch Society and discovered that all civil rights actions were part of the Worldwide Communist Conspiracy. Seeing the light, Walker immediately submitted his military resignation to President Dwight Eisenhower -- refused. Instead, Ike ordered the General to take over the 24th Infantry Division, made up of over 10,000 US troops stationed in Augsburg, Germany. Walker immediately began to indoctrinate his men in the ways of Communism by labeling Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dean Acheson (and possibly Eisenhower himself) as "Reds." In April 1961, new Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara fired Walker and began a court-martial investigation against him. (Charges dropped.) Now a civilian, supported by Barry Goldwater and bankrolled by the H.L. Hunt oil family of Dallas, Walker announced his candidacy for the 1962 Texas Governor's race. (Won by John Connally.)

Throughout the summer of '62, the Justice Department under Attorney General Robert Kennedy was in negotiations with Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett to ensure the smooth and safe admission of James Meredith into Ole Miss. As the first day of school, September 20th, approached, agreement seemed to have been reached: Barnett would do what he needed to do politically -- make a paper tiger resistance to Meredith's admission, then -- given the Federal power at hand -- fold. Just in case, the Attorney General ordered first 100, then 550 Federal marshals to surround and protect Meredith. Thinking Meredith's admission into his dormitory was securely accomplished, President Kennedy went on the air.

The brothers were betrayed. As Kennedy spoke, the insurrection began, led by Major General Edwin Walker (ret?). Governor Barnett made his own television address, claiming Meredith had been sneaked in by helicopter without his knowledge. The three hundred local cops provided by Barnett for Meredith's safety disappeared into the night. The army of Federal marshals became surrounded by a mob of 3,000 seeking to take Meredith and lynch him. Carrying clubs, rocks, pipes, bricks, bottles, bats, firebombs -- and guns -- they attacked the marshals and whatever journalists they could find. The marshals responded with tear gas, but did not shoot back. The Kennedys ordered in the Mississippi National Guard. Rioting continued through the night. By morning, two were dead (one newsman) and over two hundred marshals and Guardsmen shot. Cars and buildings burned. A stolen fire engine and bulldozer each tried to knock over the walls of Meredith's "secret" dorm. And still Barnett failed to call back the disappeared state police force. What most enraged, and puzzled, the President and the Attorney General was the ass-dragging by their own United States Army, its strange failure to relieve Barnett's missing militia after many calls to do so. Why was the military being so unresponsive to the Commander-in-Chief? "Damn Army!" cursed JFK toward morning. "They can't even tell if the MPs have left yet. Where's the Army? Why haven't they left yet? Where are they?"

Hours had now passed since the President ordered the 503rd Military Police Battalion -- the Army's riot-control unit -- to move from Memphis to Oxford, Mississippi. Twenty phone calls from JFK to the unit commander failed to speed things up. The military was washing its hands of the Kennedys. It claimed to not know where to land its helicopters on the Ole Miss campus. So the President was forced to play air-traffic controller. He had to speak directly to a sergeant on the ground to ensure there would be trucks available when the Police Battalion arrived. And it did arrive. Five hours late. Afterwards, Kennedy would demand an investigation of the timing of each call placed from the White House to the Pentagon, the time such orders were implemented, and an accounting for each minute in between -- causing a penultimate break between the President and his military leaders. (The final break would come several weeks later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.) And once the flow of troops began, the Army ensured it would gush, a deliberate overkill: 25,000 men descended on the University. A number exceeding the troops dispatched by John F. Kennedy to Berlin, Cuba, Laos, South Vietnam, and Indonesia during his Presidency -- combined.

The mob was dispersed; the town was quieted; several hundred rioters were arrested. James Meredith was officially registered and began classes that week, starting his own, daily ordeal. He would graduate in August 1963, despite having to be escorted to and from class by a squad of marshals, his father's house being three times firebombed, and endless reprisals attempted against his family.

Due to his "leadership" during the battle, Edwin Walker was arrested on the orders of Robert Kennedy the morning after the riot. He was flown to a Missouri psychiatric prison, charged with sedition, rebellion, and insurrection. Claiming himself to be "America's first political prisoner," Walker was released one week later, with the charges again eventually dropped. In April '63, he was the target of an assassination attempt as he worked at home in his study. The rifle bullet exploded above his head as he reached down to pick up a fallen paper. The Warren Commission, in its Oswald framing frenzy, would claim that the shot was fired by Lee Harvey Oswald. (An idea pronounced "ridiculous" by Walker himself.) Mississippi NAACP Director Medgar Evers -- the man who drove James Meredith's court case all the way to the Supreme Court -- was assassinated before his family's home by a shot to the back, on June 12, 1963 -- the day after Kennedy's call for a "moral revolution" in the area of civil rights.

In June 1966, while leading the March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi, James Meredith was shot from behind by a hidden sniper firing from some bushes. Survived.