The Debate at Ole Miss: The Times They Are A-Changin’

Now that John McCain has agreed to show up for tonight’s presidential candidate debate with Barack Obama at the University of Mississippi, we should recall why this debate, at this place, has such a special meaning for our nation.

White racists ganther in Oxford, Mississippi. 1962

White racists gather in Oxford, Mississippi. 1962

In 1962, it was here at Oxford, Mississippi, that one of the great battles of the Civil Rights Movement was fought and won.

On September 30, 1962, white segregationists — aided, abetted and incited by Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, local officials, and the Klu Klux Klanrioted on the university campus to prevent the enrollment of James Meredith, a black Air Force veteran from Kosciusko, Mississippi.

James Meredith guarded by federal troops and U.S. Marshals, Oxford, Miss, 1962

James Meredith guarded by federal troops and U.S. Marshals, Oxford, Miss, 1962

The events of 1962 are worth remembering:

“Meredith began his quest for admission in January 1961, after watching John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech. Meredith sent a letter to the Registrar of The University of Mississippi requesting a catalog and an application for admission. University officials responded promptly with the materials and invited Meredith to apply. When officials learned from Meredith that he was African-American, his application was immediately rejected without comment, and Meredith’s legal battles with the University began. Meredith was finally admitted in the summer of 1962 by a federal court in New Orleans, and made preparations to begin his studies in the fall of 1962.”

“Meredith traveled to Oxford under armed guard to register in late September, 1962. Riots broke out in protest of his admittance. Late on the evening of Sunday, September 30, 1962, two men, a French journalist sent to cover the events, and a Lafayette County resident, Ray Gunter, were killed by stray bullets. During the riots by whites, cars were burned, federal marshals were pelted with rocks and bricks, and university property was damaged. The Mississippi Highway Patrol, on campus to supposedly provide security for the University and for Meredith, stood by passively while the riots were taking place.”

“President John F. Kennedy, after secret telephone negotiations with Governor Ross Barnett, ordered United States Marshals to protect Meredith. Order was restored to the campus with the early morning arrival of the U. S. Army. Although President John F. Kennedy had mobilized the Army and ordered them onto the campus early on the evening of the riot, but poor communication delayed their arrival in force until the following morning (Monday, October 1). Meredith enrolled that morning without incident and attended for the rest of the school year, graduating in August 1963 with a degree in history.”

James Meredith accompanied by two U.S. Marshals and surrounded by jeering white students after registering for entry at University of Mississippi on Sept. 1, 1962

James Meredith accompanied by two U.S. Marshals and surrounded by jeering white students after registering for entry at University of Mississippi on Sept. 1, 1962

“[S]tudents on the floor right above Meredith’s room tried to keep him awake all night by bouncing a basketball on the floor, he was constantly insulted with racial slurs whenever he left his room or the building, anonymous notes and letters were delivered to his mailbox on a daily basis. . . Two United States Marshals were with him 24 hours a day. Another contingent of marshals escorted him to class and anywhere else on campus that he went.”

I doubt that anyone will mention this history during the debate tonight, but you can bet that everyone in the audience, and Barack Obama, will know the special significance of a black man engaging in a debate at Ole Miss for the office of President of the United States.

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