In September 1962, the president of the United States sent U.S. marshals to Oxford, Mississippi, to quell civilian unrest. The occasion? The integration of the University of Mississippi. A black man intended to enroll. And the state governor was using state troopers to prevent it.
My father, Robert C. Nelson, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, covered the integration of Ole Miss. His original coverage provides me perspective in the age of George Floyd and the global protests in reaction to his death. Our family history intersects with social history, then and now. Then, Dad was 32; I was 6.
That September had been a terse month for civil rights. On the 10th, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that African-American student and veteran James H. Meredith must be admitted to the university. On the 26th, Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett ordered state troopers to prevent it. On Sept. 30, riots erupted. On Oct. 1, Meredith became the first African-American student at the university. President John F. Kennedy had ordered U.S. marshals to ensure his safety. Dad witnessed and wrote about it all.
His lede, written on Sept. 30, 1962, seems current: “All the ugliness of a mob unleashed swirled around the decisive, historic final effort to register a Negro [sic] at the University of Mississippi.”
And then the nut graph. “Even as President Kennedy broadcast an appeal to Mississippians to substitute dignity for defiance … Ole Miss students at riot pitch mauled cars, shouted obscenities at women, jumped photographers, let air out of U.S. Army truck tires, set fire to their tarpaulins, threw rocks and roared ‘We want Meredith’ and ‘Get a rope.’ Mississippi state highway patrolmen stood by until the rioters had smashed a Texas cameraman’s car, pummeled him and screamed vulgarities at his wife before they casually stepped in and sped the pair away in a squad car. Mr. Meredith stayed out of sight in a guarded campus apartment.”
Dad’s syntax and verbs alone suggest he was simmering, struggling for a reporter’s objectivity. To me, these events are a distant mirror — in family and social history.
The second paragraph gave context for the disintegration of order and veering events. “Speaking from his official mansion in Jackson shortly after President Kennedy’s nationally broadcast comment, Governor Barnett expressed his sadness at the Meredith mission being accomplished on the campus of his alma mater. Federal authorities, he charged, were destroying the Constitution. His capitulation, he said in effect, had come only after federal forces had encircled his cause.”
The images of the largest white supremacist rally in decades in Charlottesville in 2017 felt like a hoary specter of America past — confrontation masquerading as free speech, hate speech, purposeful violence, declaration of an emergency, and the tragic death of a protester. Echoes of Nazi Germany, torchlit processions and chants of “Blood and soil,” reverberated around the world. “Free Speech” demonstrators wore helmets and carried long guns, sticks, pepper spray, in an open carry state.
Now, we have an American president using active duty military to “ dominate” the urban protest zone in the wake of Floyd’s death.
Deja vu? No, this is new, precisely because it is a scene we assumed we had outgrown. However, the civil rights movement is a perpetual human yearning not confined to an epoch or era. It’s never over.
The past is prologue to the dangers of equivocation — the wrong kinds of tolerance and intolerance. We’re confronted once more with the ancient adversary: our own inhumanity wrestling with our humanity, those better angels to which President Abraham Lincoln appealed.
Dad’s reportage also referenced “the complete silence of voices of reason — from members of the Ole Miss faculty and administration.” He said it “has left the way open for the voices of emotion to hold sway throughout much of the Meredith crisis. Governor Ross R. Barnett’s political leadership rooted in repeated defiance of national laws and in unyielding devotion to racial segregation, has dominated the scene.” Sounds too familiar. We should always update the voices of the moment, and compare them to our principles and ideals, those angels.
Consider what was yet to come in 1962. Selma, Birmingham, the March on Washington, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Cuban Missile Crisis was only a couple of weeks away, that pivotal confrontation with a foreign adversary. From the vantage point of 1962, it was not yet certain that our better selves would move this arc toward justice. They did. They will. They must. Or what will my grandchildren feel if they rediscover this column, 58 years hence?
Todd R. Nelson of Penobscot is an educator and writer.