In early 2008, during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton infamously remarked that “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act … . It took a president to get it done.” Clinton meant this statement as a criticism of her silver-tongued opponent, Barack Obama; rhetorical brilliance, she implied, was no match for legislative skill. But the senator drew immediate and withering fire from black commentators who believed her statement debased the civil-rights movement’s achievements to score a political point.
But if Clinton’s comments were ill-considered, they nevertheless reflected a skeptical undercurrent in the public’s memory of the movement. For most people, the major achievements of the “heroic” moment of the civil-rights era came from the federal government: the1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
For all the praise we heap on it, too often the movement is seen as an important but ultimately supporting player, a catalyst, in this historical drama. The Selma-Montgomery March is remembered not in its own right, but because it put overwhelming pressure on Washington to pass the Voting Rights Act. The integration of the University of Mississippi by James Meredith is another case in point. The story is well-known, but too often it begins with the arrival on campus of hundreds of U.S. Marshals, Justice Department lawyers, and National Guardsmen, directed by an attentive Bobby Kennedy in Washington, to ensure Meredith’s matriculation.
Charles W. Eagle’s definitive new book, The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss, complicates that old narrative. It shows how, over the course of a decade, Mississippi blacks fought and eventually won the right to enter the hallowed institution, even under the benign neglect of successive Washington administrations. Only when violence against Meredith was imminent did the Kennedy White House intervene.
Eagles, a history professor at Mississippi, does more than just recount Meredith’s fight to gain admission to Oxford—in fact, Meredith himself doesn’t enter the story until page 201. Instead, the first half of the book is a fascinating tour through the history of Ole Miss, its role in the state’s culture and politics, and the unsuccessful efforts to integrate the school before Meredith first applied in January 1961.
Ole Miss played a dual role in Mississippi society. On one hand, it produced the state’s elite; graduates of its law school were automatically admitted to the Mississippi bar, while membership in its leading fraternities was a required stop on the path to political success. And though it was chronically behind in academic achievement, Mississippians took pride in the way Ole Miss represented their state to the nation—Chi Omega sisters won back-to-back Miss America pageants, while Rebel football and basketball squads were among the best sports teams of the 1950s.
“Any challenge to Ole Miss, whether internal or external, posed a direct threat to the values and stability of the dominant white culture.”
For much the same reasons, though, Ole Miss was also the bastion of Mississippi tradition. Precisely because it produced the state’s political and cultural leadership, Ole Miss bore an outsized role as the state’s guarantor of white supremacy—a task it fulfilled with even more vehemence as the rest of the South moved toward integration. Ole Miss teams had occasionally played integrated opponents in the 1930s and 1940s; in the 1950s, the university withdrew from tournaments and declined bowl invitations if there was even the slightest possibility of meeting a black player on the field. “Any challenge to Ole Miss,” Eagles writes, “whether internal or external, posed a direct threat to the values and stability of the dominant white culture.”
Mississippi whites had good reason to worry. Universities across the South were desegregating, and the state’s public school system was putting up a futile resistance to post-Brown desegregation orders. But the real pressure came from home: on their own or with the backing of the state NAACP chapter, Mississippi African Americans, many of them potential transfers from the state’s black colleges, repeatedly applied for admission to Ole Miss, though many were turned away by a mounting series of obstacles—including a requirement that each applicant get five Ole Miss alumni in their county to vouch for them, an unlikely prospect for an aspiring black applicant.
It took someone of James Meredith’s moral certitude, patience, and courage to break through. Meredith was no greenhorn; an Air Force veteran, he had lived around the country and in Japan before settling back home in Mississippi to attend Jackson State. Nor was he a rabble-rouser. Meredith came closer to the “work hard to get ahead” philosophy of Booker T. Washington than the anti-segregation approach of King and other civil rights leaders. He just didn’t see why he couldn’t work hard and get ahead at Ole Miss.
Needless to say, the white establishment didn’t agree. In February 1961 Meredith won the support of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, which dispatched a brilliant lawyer named Constance Baker Motley to lead his case. Meredith and Motley spent the next nineteen months fighting for admission in state and federal courts, with the university throwing everything it could in their way, including the astounding assertion that Ole Miss didn’t discriminate—it was pure coincidence that no black student had ever been accepted.
It took someone of James Meredith’s moral certitude, patience, and courage to break through.
The same month he contacted the NAACP, Meredith sent a letter to the Justice Department; he never got a reply. Though it was keeping tabs on the case, the Kennedy Administration’s default stance on civil rights was to let the states handle things and get involved if all else failed. In the fall of 1962, it appeared that Meredith would finally win a court-ordered admission; only then did Justice began making plans to send U.S. marshals to enforce his registration.
The administration did, to be fair, play a critical role in bringing pressure on the state’s segregationist governor, Ross Barnett, who pledged to block Meredith from entering Ole Miss regardless of court orders. Though an avowed racist, Barnett was also a politician and somewhat of a pragmatist, and—like Orval Faubus and George Wallace before him—he eventually folded when Attorney General Robert Kennedy offered a way for him to save face.
Eagles’ goal of presenting the wide context of Meredith’s fight doesn’t prevent him from giving readers a gripping rendition of the events that followed. On the night of September 30, with Meredith ensconced in a dorm on the far west side of campus, U.S. Marshals and National Guardsmen fought students and locals—as well as scores of people from out of state—in a violent riot that left two dead, dozens injured, and hundreds arrested.
The next morning the lawn in front of the Lyceum, the building at the heart of the main campus, was littered with scorched cars, rocks, and spent tear-gas canisters. But the forces of integration had held, and Meredith registered for classes. He graduated the next year, with a degree in political science.
Despite the Justice Department’s role in Meredith’s successful integration of Ole Miss, the feds very clearly followed his lead, and not without reservation. While the liberal administrations of Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson certainly helped speed the civil-rights revolution, The Price of Defiance shows that Southern blacks did not wait for federal action to go after the rights they deserved as American citizens.