hen I was 5 or 6, because of my dad's political activism in the Mississippi Delta, local white supremacists burned a cross in our front yard. My parents had a decision to make: Wake me up or let me sleep. They chose sleep. On that night, hate and fear would not be passed to another generation.
In the years that followed, my parents raised my brother and me to leave old prejudices behind. They enforced strict rules that made our home something of an oasis. Respect all people. Understand other points of view. And, of course, no N-word, ever, under any circumstance. That certainly made our house different from many in town. My dad ran the local Democratic Party, so I grew up around whites and blacks, which also made me different from many of my friends. Still, there were things never discussed. We never really talked much about the civil rights era, about things my parents had seen. The South during the '60s was like that cross in our front yard: something they experienced but wanted to shield their children from.
Once I grew up and moved away, I began to study the history of the South. The 1962 Ole Miss football team fascinated me. That year, perhaps because of the school's near self-destruction over integration, or perhaps in spite of it, the team managed the most remarkable season seen in Oxford before or since. The star quarterback, Glynn Griffing, was born near my family's farm, which his uncle managed, and my dad idolized him growing up, wearing No. 15 as a high school quarterback to be just like Glynn. It was the team that made my dad love football. It was also a team not discussed much, just a quick story here and there. They seemed forgotten, their legend small despite big accomplishments, and I wanted to find out why.
A few months back, I dove into the Ole Miss library's special collection, containing records and artifacts from the 1962 riots. Each page changed the way I looked at the place around me, the way I looked at the places inside myself where I love my state and its traditions. Why hadn't I been taught any of this in school? I'd had an entire Mississippi history class in junior high. We talked mostly about Indians. More recently, my aggravation had been stoked by ignorant election e-mails from my great-uncle in Jackson, ones that seemed to be from a time long past.
I came upon a box containing two small notebooks used by the soldier tasked with guarding James Meredith, the first African-American student at Ole Miss. They were Nifty brand, cost a dime and were filled with descriptions of suspicious characters, of license plate numbers and names. I flipped through the pages ... until a familiar name stopped me cold.
My great-uncle, the e-mailer's brother. Last name: Wright.
Two questions went through my mind:
What is the cost of knowing our past? ...
And what is the cost of not?
1. Sept. 25, 1962
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy places a phone call to Ross Barnett, the segregationist governor of Mississippi. They've been talking for weeks now. Every day, it's a different story. Mississippi politicos joke that whoever gets to Barnett last wins the argument. Kennedy is finding this out firsthand. Federal courts have ordered Ole Miss to admit Meredith. Barnett is resisting. A bumbling and unpopular politician -- he'd been booed at Ole Miss games -- he is now soaking in some newfound adulation for standing down the Kennedy brothers. It is a drug, and Barnett's hooked.
"We have been part of the United States," he tells Kennedy, "but I don't know whether we are or not."
There is silence on the phone. Kennedy doesn't know what to say, really. It's 1962. And Mississippi is threatening to secede?
"Are you getting out of the union?" he finally asks.
2. Sept. 29, 1962
The players can hear the noise. They cannot see anything but the locker room walls inside Mississippi Memorial Stadium in Jackson, but they can hear the noise.
It's halftime, and Ole Miss is beating overmatched Kentucky, though just barely, 7-0. What's worse, the Rebels have been uncharacteristically sloppy. Early in the game, bruising fullback Buck Randall, considered by many the baddest S.O.B. on campus, has a touchdown called back because of a penalty. This is not like a team coached by John Vaught, who runs his squad like a corporation. All business, no rah-rah speeches. The critics love to pick on Vaught for his soft schedules, his inability to win a big game, the fact that his team couldn't tackle LSU's Billy Cannon three years earlier with a national title on the line, but nobody ever faults his discipline.
The scene in the stands above the locker room is alive with color, a circus of motion, most of the 41,000 spectators furiously waving Confederate battle flags. The band marches onto the field in Confederate battle flag uniforms, carrying the world's largest Confederate battle flag. The band plays "Dixie." The crowd sings along, waves those flags, cheers. There are no black fans in the stadium and, on nights like these, it's easy to forget the South lost the war. In some ways, that's precisely the point.
A young politician named William Winter looks around and feels like a stranger. How can this be happening? The crowd shakes with indignation, the air filling with Rebel yells, from the mouths of doctors and bankers and lawyers and priests, and Winter thinks: So this must be what a Nazi rally felt like.
The crowd screams for Barnett to speak. Unbeknownst to them, hours earlier, he'd made a secret deal with the Kennedys to have Meredith enrolled. But, once again, he's on the verge of changing his mind. He has been so hated and now is so loved. He can't help himself: The enthusiasm of the crowd is taking him out to sea.
A microphone appears at midfield. A single spotlight swings across the field until it illuminates the governor. Barnett walks to the microphone. The crowd falls silent. He raises his right fist. "I loooooove Mississippi!" he yells.
The crowd roars. Even the moderates in the crowd feel chills. The flag waving grows frantic. One hundred and one years earlier, all but four students at Ole Miss dropped out of school to form Company A of the 11th Mississippi Infantry. The University Greys. On July 3, 1863, at Gettysburg, the unit rose from safety and made a futile rush from Seminary Ridge. Everyone was killed or injured, and history named their suicide mission Pickett's Charge. The school's sports teams would be called Rebels to honor their sacrifice. The young men and women in the stands today are just three generations removed from those soldiers. One of them, senior Curtis Wilkie, received a letter from his mother before the game. She anticipated what the young man might be feeling: Son, Your great-grandfather Gilmer set out to fight the federals from Ole Miss with the University Greys, called the Lamar Rifles, nearly a hundred years ago. He didn't accomplish a thing! See that you don't get involved!!!
Winter grew up listening to his grandfather tell about riding with the Confederate Army. The male students especially, who've grown up with similar stories, feel something move deep inside themselves. Later, most will deny it. But tonight, the emotions are real, and in case anyone misses the connection, the next morning's paper will devote two pages to Robert E. Lee's march north.
Barnett looks out at them and feels the emotions, too.
"I looooooove her people!"
The roar gets louder.
"I loooooove her customs!"
The yelling and screaming drowns him out, and Barnett doesn't say another word. He doesn't have to. He stands at midfield, soaking up the love and adulation, a wide grin spread across his face.
3. The pride before the fall
Mississippi in the fall of 1962 is a doomed civilization at its apogee. Enrollment at Ole Miss stands at an all-time high. The football team has been to five consecutive bowl games, won three SEC championships in the past decade, and gone 27-2-1 in the past three years. In 1959 and 1960, Ole Miss coeds won back-to-back Miss America crowns. Pageant moms around the country send their daughters to Oxford, an invasion of leggy blondes whose influence can still be seen in the state's gene pool.
Of course, that's just half of the story. To be an African-American in this world isn't much different than it was in 1861, and the Mississippi of 1962 has been forming in earnest for 14 years, with segregation becoming more and more formalized. In 1948, President Harry Truman signed the first civil rights legislation. That year, something new popped up at Ole Miss football games: Confederate battle flags. The band started playing "Dixie." Someone commissioned the largest Rebel flag ever for the band to carry onto the field. Vaught, in his second season as coach, gave fans something to cheer about. The football team might not have intended it, but to people in the state, the squad became the last Confederate soldiers. "You see them moving away from this larger national narrative," says D. Gorton, an Ole Miss student who witnessed the Meredith riots and later became a photographer for the New York Times. "They're no longer part of the United States. They really saw themselves as an archipelago. That led to their great football. What else would explain it?"
By 1962, the atmosphere is intoxicating for half the population, toxic for the other. A young African-American boy named LeRoy Wadlington, who'd grow up to be an influential preacher, lives off the highway leading out of town and learns to dread home football games. Fans, many drunk on illegal booze, yell racial slurs at his family as they inch back home. The black community feels under siege.
On the day of the Kentucky game, radio stations around the state play "Dixie" over and over again. Myrlie Evers, whose husband Medgar is head of the Mississippi NAACP, is working in her kitchen, with two radios playing for surround sound, and as the hours go by, she catches herself singing along with the radio: I wish I was in the land of cotton; old times there are not forgotten ... She is horrified. She despises "Dixie," but even she is being sucked in.
By halftime, when Barnett has finished his speech, the state is in a frenzy. Leaflets circulate through the stadium with lyrics to a new song, which also had been printed in that morning's paper. A few people leave in disgust, but many stay and sing:
That's all Barnett needs to hear. The deal is off. James Meredith will not be enrolled.
4. Sept. 29, 1962
Vaught brings his team out for the second half. He knows the whole state is being pulled into something, and it's his job to keep it from destroying his squad. This group has worked so hard the past few years, and these players seem capable of finally getting it right. Seven times in the past 14 years, he has come within one loss or one tie of a perfect record. It eats at him.
The Rebels go on to beat Kentucky, though they manage just one more touchdown. As the players are pulling on their street clothes, Barnett heads back to the governor's mansion, where he will call Washington to reveal what he'd decided earlier, amid the halftime adulation: no deal.
In Washington, the wheels are turning. Staff members take papers to President John F. Kennedy that, when signed, will federalize the Mississippi National Guard and begin the process of sending U.S. Army regulars to the South, something he'd desperately hoped to avoid.
Kennedy sits down in the Treaty Room to sign and date the document. "Is it past midnight?" he asks.
"It's 20 seconds past 12," a staffer says.
Kennedy nods, signs the order, then writes the date: Sept. 30, 1962. The genie is out of the bottle, and no force on earth, least of all Ross Barnett, will be able to push it back in.
5. Sept. 30, 1962
James Meredith waits. He has been waiting his entire life. When he was just a kid, his daddy told him stories about their family, about how his great-grandfather had been the last legitimate chief of the Choctaw nation. The indignity of that fall from grace cast a shadow on Meredith's early life, and it shaped him, convinced him to leave segregated Mississippi and join the Air Force, sent him to Asia, brought him back home a 29-year-old who wanted to destroy white supremacy. On the day of Kennedy's inauguration, he applied to Ole Miss.
In other words, he has been preparing for this moment for decades, mostly getting his mind ready, reading, trying to find out the secret to ordinary men doing extraordinary things. One thing he read sticks with him. Back in the day, he says, the reigning pope and his army conquered Rome, and after the battle, the pope walked alone into the city, stone cold, to show people that he had no fear of troops or weapons or death. He knew his calm in the face of such danger would intimidate those who wished him harm. For years, Meredith has practiced making the face he imagines the pope's face must have looked like on his lonely stroll into Rome.
Meredith fought in the courts, eventually winning the right to matriculate. For most of September, federal agents were trying to enroll him, but were turned back by politicians. Meredith and the feds thought a deal had been arranged, that the waiting was finally over, but Barnett's call fixed that.
That's OK. Meredith knows how to wait. In his hometown of Kosciusko, Miss., a field of pine trees grows slowly. His father gave them to him when Meredith got out of the military; one day, his dad told him, these trees would be worth something. They grow, inch by inch. As long as something lives, it can reach the sky. Meredith, just a small man -- 5-foot-6, 135 pounds -- with the biggest dreams, finds comfort in that. Sitting at a Naval Air Station outside Memphis, Meredith watches a pro football game on television as the politicians work on yet another deal. Finally, fed up, Robert Kennedy threatens Barnett. The president is going on live television to tell the nation, and Mississippians in particular, that the governor has been promising them one thing while dealing with the hated Kennedys behind their backs.
"You mean the president is going to say that tonight?"
"Of course he is; you broke your word. Now you suggest we send in troops, fighting their way through a barricade."
"Why don't you fly in this afternoon? Please let us treat what we say as confidential."
That's what it takes. Segregation is about to end at Ole Miss. Meredith and head marshal Jim McShane climb into a green, twin-engine Border Patrol Cessna and take off. Destination: Oxford, Miss.
As Meredith and McShane make their way south, Vaught settles into the film room and begins work. Two wins down, seven to go. In six days, the Rebels will face undefeated Houston.
6. The feds arrive
The players return from the game on their own, many going home for a night. On Sunday, they begin the trek back to campus. Buck Randall heads to Oxford from the Delta, through the flatlands, white cotton all around, waiting to be picked. He listens to music, not the news, and has no idea what waits on the other side. He has deep blue eyes, a boxer's nose and a hard chin. Anger bubbles just beneath the surface with Randall, always, though he has trouble explaining it. When Buck was a kid, his father was in the pen, and Buck had to live with a high school teammate instead of his own family. He never walks away from an insult, large or small. Stories, some of them true, about him taking on two and three guys at a time, stacking 'em like firewood, make the rounds of Miller Hall, where the football team lives.
A bunch of the guys ride a bus back to campus from the airport, down University Avenue toward the statue of the Confederate soldier, honoring the students killed at Gettysburg. As they rumble toward the center of campus, quarterback Glynn Griffing stares out a window. Federal marshals have surrounded the Lyceum Building, the oldest structure on campus, where Meredith will register in the morning.
"What are they doing here?" Griffing wonders.
Players wander off to see what the commotion is all about. Sam Owen, a wise guy lineman nicknamed Soup Bone, hangs around at the back of the crowd, taking in the scene. So does Louis Guy, one of the most popular guys on campus. Jimmy Weatherly, a sophomore quarterback who is struggling with wanting to be a musician while everyone else wants him to replace Griffing, watches, too.
Hundreds of students fill the circle of grass in front of the marshals who have gathered near the Lyceum Building. It feels almost like a pep rally, topped by a large dollop of defiance. Coeds ride on the back of convertibles around the street in front of the building, Rebel flags flying from the cars. The familiar chants from the stadium ring out, albeit slightly altered:
Who the hell are we?
White folks, by damn!"
As the sun sinks down, casting shadows from the tall oaks and magnolias, things begin to get really ugly. For some, nothing -- not the campus, not the South, none of it -- will ever be beautiful again. The marshals grit their teeth. Darkness settles over Oxford.
It will be a long time before sunrise.
7. A mob scene
The players watch the madness unfold. Some join the mob. One player, a burly ex-boxer turned lineman named Don Dickson, disrupts an interview while a friend smashes the reporter's camera. Mostly, though, they stand to the side, some amazed, others frightened.
The violence increases, as if the dark offers absolution. First, it's a smashed camera. Then a tossed cigarette. The mob surrounds a Dallas television reporter, George Yoder, sitting in his station wagon with his wife in the passenger seat. Someone reaches in and grabs his camera, which is thrown at the marshals. Then the mob turns on Yoder's wife, reaching for her like a scene from a zombie movie, screaming, "N----- loving Yankee bitch!" She is from Jackson, Miss.
Finally, after watching the scene with amusement, some state troopers lead the Yoders to safety. Later, their car will be flipped and burned. The mob closes on the marshals. Missiles come from every direction, starting adolescent, slowly becoming more adult, from rotten eggs to firebombs. A construction site not far away is discovered, and bricks rain down on the white-painted helmets of the marshals, too.
A group takes down the Stars and Stripes and runs up the Confederate flag. The chain snarls at half-staff, where the flag will remain throughout the night, the stars and bars a beacon heralding a long gone moment when a bunch of college boys rose and charged from Seminary Ridge.
8. Mass insanity
Back at the Lyceum, it's a little after 7, and something has to give. A campus security official finds Vaught in the film room: Would the coach be willing to try to calm the crowd? Vaught wanders through the mob for a while, then rushes to Miller Hall.
At 7:30, Barnett goes on the radio to announce Meredith has been brought to Mississippi by force. Before signing off, he issues a warning to the marshals: "Gentlemen, you are trampling on the sovereignty of this great state and depriving it of every vestige of honor and respect as a member of the United States. You are destroying the Constitution of the United States. May God have mercy on your souls."
Twenty minutes later, Marshal McShane orders his men to put on their gas masks. More bricks. A bottle hits a marshal on his arm and liquid splatters on him. It burns: acid from the chemistry building next door. A few minutes after that, as President Kennedy prepares to address the nation, a heavy length of lead pipe bounces off the head of a marshal, denting his helmet. The marshals grip their billy clubs tighter; the students at the front can see their knuckles turning white.
Jojo Wilkins, a senior wide receiver, standing close to the marshals, by a small magnolia tree near the sidewalk, hears someone shout, "Let 'em have it!" All hell breaks loose, the marshals spraying tear gas into the crowd, the rounds sounding like helicopter rotors turning. A haze covers the campus, and tears stream down everyone's face.
Nicholas Katzenbach, deputy attorney general, picks up the open line to the White House inside the Lyceum. Robert Kennedy answers. "Bob," Katzenbach says, "I'm very unhappy to report that we've had to fire tear gas."
"I think I should really go tell the president about it," Robert Kennedy says. "He's just going on the air."
The attorney general runs to the Oval Office, where his brother is just about to go live. He arrives moments too late, just in time to hear the president begin. JFK's words carry over radios of cars parked near the Lyceum in Oxford, adding an eerie new soundtrack: the whoop of the tear gas guns, the screaming of the mob, the cloud covering the campus, with the voice of the president of the United States in the background, urging them to remain calm. "You have a great tradition to uphold, a tradition of honor and courage, won on the field of battle and on the gridiron."
No one listens.
9. "Don't go out" With tear gas seeping into the team dorm, through the towels beneath the doors and windows, Vaught gathers his players. The sounds of explosions frighten them, as does a new sound: gunshots. Most are hunters, and they listen as the caliber of the rounds slowly rises. While assistant coaches patrol the halls, Vaught says, "We have to band together. We have a purpose. We must keep our poise."
The players get the message. Pull tight. Stay together, no matter what happens. The guys worry a lot that night, about the violence and about their season. Some try to sleep, but the explosions and gunshots make that hard. A few players help wash out the eyes of students who stumble into the dorm. Assistant coach Wobble Davidson, on patrol, keeps reminding the players, "Don't go out." For most people, the fear of Davidson, a former Marine who crawled into caves in World War II, is enough. They don't want to have to run up and down the 65 steps of the stadium, 10 laps in 10 minutes, or do it again.
But Buck Randall wants to go out. Telling him to stay put is like telling him not to eat ice cream. He slips into the night.
10. Face to face with the carnage
The battle is growing desperate. The marshals are running out of tear gas. Bricks and bottles and iron spikes rain down. Gunshots ring out. Thugs drive into town from Alabama and Arkansas and Tennessee and Louisiana, one carload sending two barrels of buckshot into the home of LeRoy Wadlington, the African-American kid who lives off the highway leading into town. His father grabs his own gun and orders his family to lie down in the back of the house.
The Civil War has begun anew, and the North is losing. Later, the events of the night will seem impossible: an Associated Press reporter shot in the back with birdshot. A bulldozer and fire truck stolen and driven at the marshals. A French reporter shot dead. So is a local resident. Dozens of marshals are shot or injured. A sniper sets up on the Confederate statue, first shooting out the lights, then turning his weapon on the Lyceum, pushing the marshals inside, high-powered deer rounds shattering the door and window frames.
Watch video from ABC News' coverage of the 1962 riots on the University of Mississippi campus.
During the night, Chief Burns Tatum, head of security for the university, spots Randall in the crowd and pulls him into the besieged Lyceum, where Randall comes face to face with the carnage. In a corridor, shot through the neck, Marshal Gene Same from Indianapolis is bleeding out on the floor as his fellow officers kneel over him, helpless and frustrated.
"Where the hell's the doctor?"
"We're trying to get one!"
"Try, hell. This man's dying!"
Tatum tells the marshals that Randall plays football for the Rebels. That sends some of them over the edge. "Come on, son," a marshal snarls, "we've got something to show you." They push him real close to Same. "You see him? You see him? He's bleeding to death. You get out there and tell those bastards they've killed a man."
McShane decides to send the big football hero out into the mob. "Tell those people to disperse now," McShane says, "or we're gonna start shooting -- students and all."
Randall heads to the Grove, calling for people's attention. Gorton, standing near the Lyceum, will remember, years later, what he saw: "Buck didn't give a 'speech.' He sought people out. He implored. There was a strange quality about that from a tough guy who looked haunted that night. Bear in mind that this was the toughest guy in the Delta. It was the end of an era. He must have lost his mind because Buck Randall was always in favor of mayhem and misery and murder. That's what he loved. There was some badass mother------- around. Of all the badass mother-------, I'd like to nominate him for as mean as they got. Nothing on the face of the earth would scare that guy. But that night did."
Scared or not, Randall tries to explain what they've done. "There's a man in there dying," he says.
A crowd begins to gather and people don't like what they're hearing. Someone yells, "Pull him down!" Another yells, "Murder him!" Every time someone challenges him, Randall snarls, "Come on, boy. Come on. Try it. I'll kill you."
The people who know him, the students, don't get within a dozen feet. The folks who came just to fight sense some major alpha mojo because they don't mess with him, either. But that doesn't mean they intend to listen. They mock him. This goes on for 10 minutes. Finally, Randall gives up. The crowd separates to let him through, and he walks back toward Miller Hall, alone, disappearing into the haze.
11. Oct. 1, 1962
Through the long night, the marshals wait for the U.S. Army regulars. The cavalry, in the form of the 101st and 82nd Airborne and an elite military police unit, is on the way. Troops land in Memphis, Tenn., and head the 85 miles south to the Ole Miss campus. For the first time in a century, the United States Army is invading the state of Mississippi. Black families leave their homes and stand on the side of the highway, silent, as if at attention, watching the Union army speed toward Oxford.
On campus, the troops dismount and rush to rescue the marshals and local National Guardsmen, who are almost out of tear gas again and scared of being overrun, 160 wounded, 28 of them by gunfire. The troops form a wedge and march past the sorority houses, where girls curse and throw books. They march through a storm of bricks and Molotov cocktails, never breaking stride. The precision scares the rioters, as do the shining fixed bayonets. The sound of hundreds of rounds of live ammunition being jacked into hundreds of chambers echoes off the old white buildings, chilling the crowd.
The soldiers march toward University Avenue and, at last, the formation is within sight of the marshals, whose relief comes out as a long, loud cheer. By a little after 5 a.m., the troops have pushed the rioters off the campus. Students, the football team at Miller Hall and Meredith over at Baxter, begin dressing for class, the smell of tear gas still heavy in the air. Marshals slump over in the Lyceum, surrounded by cigarette butts and bloody gauze. Others eat C rations under trees in front of the building. Two men, the French reporter and a local jukebox repairman, lie dead. The campus priest takes down the Confederate flag. The battle is over, and now a state, a school and a football team have to pick up the pieces.
A light rain begins to fall.