Sunday, January 15, 2023

Courthouse Square Is Authentic Picture of Occupied Town

Kenneth L. Dixon (1915–1986)
From Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1973

With University of Mississippi fraternity houses in the background, U.S. Army trucks loaded with steel-helmeted federal marshals roll across the campus, September 30, 1962. Photograph for UPI by Jerry W. Huff (1938–2021), courtesy Library of Congress.
On the evening of Sunday, September 30, 1962, James Meredith, an Air Force veteran with 10 years’ service, was accompanied by federal marshals on a plane to the airport in Oxford and secreted into an empty Baxter Hall, a men’s dormitory on the University of Mississippi campus. Protected by 24 marshals, Meredith unpacked his books and began to study, while more than 100 additional marshals were setting up guard around the Lyceum, the administration building where he would be enrolled as the first Black student at the school. Unaware that Meredith was half a mile away, student protesters surrounded the Lyceum—and soon the crowd swelled to more than 2,000 people, including hundreds of outsiders and provocateurs, many from other states. In all, 400 federal marshals were placed on the campus and, except for the men protecting Meredith in the dorm, they were under strict instructions to use only tear gas in defense.

Earlier that year, on June 25, the Fifth Court of Appeals had ordered that Meredith be admitted to the school. On September 13, in a televised address, state governor Ross Barnett vowed to resist any federal attempt to integrate the university and, acting as registrar, he personally blocked Meredith from enrolling on September 20 and again on the 25th. “A group of Mississippi leaders had been secretly planning to form a wall of unarmed bodies that would not yield until knocked down and trod upon by Federals,” reported a trio of journalists later that year in Look magazine. “Many were ready to fight with fists, rocks and clubs. Some resolved to stand until shot down. Others planned to defy the orders of their leaders and conceal pistols on their persons.” The court handed Barnett an ultimatum: register Meredith by October 2 or be arrested for contempt and fined $10,000 a day. Unbeknownst to the public, Barnett was already negotiating with Attorney General Robert Kennedy to end the confrontation. When he nearly backed out the weekend before the deadline, Kennedy threatened to go public with the details of their secret talks. “At that point, Kennedy could not possibly realize the Governor’s dilemma,” wrote the Look reporters. “Barnett had set forces in motion he could not control.”

The night of September 30, while President John F. Kennedy was delivering a televised address on the Oxford situation, the mob repeatedly attacked the marshals in the Lyceum. The violence ended in the early hours of the following morning as U.S. army troops arrived from Memphis; two people, including French journalist Paul L. Guihard, were shot and killed by protesters during the riot and more than 300 were injured. "It was a sheer miracle that scores, if not hundreds, of Americans were not slaughtered that night," William Doyle, author of An American Insurrection: James Meredith and the Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, told a reporter for The Guardian. Meredith registered for classes on Monday morning and by Tuesday there were 12,000 troops in Oxford. The last troops would not be withdrawn until the following July.

The scene was eerily familiar to Kenneth L. Dixon, the managing editor of The Meridian Star, a daily newspaper in eastern Mississippi. A correspondent for the Associated Press during World War II, Dixon had filed stories during the invasion of southern France and the Battle of the Bulge, and he was the only reporter with American troops when they advanced on Rome from Anzio. As he acknowledges in the opening line, his brief report from Oxford for the Star reads like a war dispatch.

Note: The trio of reporters mentioned above are George B. Leonard, T. George Harris, and Christopher S. Wren, who published “How a Secret Deal Prevented a Massacre at Ole Miss” in the December 31, 1962, issue of Look. Parts of the above introduction has been adapted from the Chronology in the Library of America anthology Reporting Civil Rights.

Courthouse Square is the historic district of downtown Oxford, about a mile away from the campus center and the Lyceum.

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce Dixon’s report, in its entirety, below. You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.

Courthouse Square Is Authentic Picture of Occupied Town

IN OCCUPIED OXFORD, MISS.—This dateline is no joke.

Oxford is occupied—as thoroughly as any occupied town I saw on foreign soil in World War II.

By dawn today, the campus at Ole Miss appeared to contain more soldiers than students. A huge bivouac stretched from the grove in the Lyceum building on down toward the main entrance.

Out at the Oxford-University airport a much larger encampment was stretched out along the ground lining both sides of the single strip runway.

Already an Army field kitchen was set up, starting to serve breakfast to the troops. It had come in during the night, along with the hundreds of other military units that poured steady streams into this town that has become the center of the nation’s and the world’s attention.

When the sun came up, the campus had been almost cleared of the skeletons of burned cars and trucks, but the broken glass and stones still remained to remind all of the terror of night before last.

A vagrant breeze still brought traces of tear gas—some of which was exploded last night when the troops saw any sign of a crowd gathering in the area of Baxter Hall where Negro James Meredith became the first member of his race to officially spend the night on the Ole Miss campus as a student.

He spent the night there—but whether he slept or not is anybody’s guess.

More tear gas was exploded in downtown Oxford about 6 o’clock this morning—just two blocks from Courthouse Square. An hour later, soldiers were not sure whether it had been done by one of their own troops or by someone who had stolen some of the tear gas bombs reported missing last night.

Courthouse Square last night was an authentic picture of an occupied town. Lights blazed on all sides of the courthouse itself throughout the long night, and the deserted parking and street areas surrounding it saw soldiers being put through bayonet drills—lunging and charging to the cries of “Yaaah—Huh! Yaaah—Huh!” of squad leaders.

Most of the practicing troops had just arrived, riding into town half asleep in the canvas covered backs of huge Army trucks.

Once on the scene they soon became adjusted to the situation. A couple of hundred of them spent the night on the grounds surrounding the courthouse, sleeping on the grass with raincoats spread over them and helmets or packs for pillows.

This morning they rose and stretched and rubbed their eyes and took up their posts—helping occupy this American town with American troops.

It was clearly apparent most of them didn’t like their present job—but just as clear that they were going to follow orders and do it.

They snapped into a combat crouch and pointed their bayonetted carbines straight at the driver of each car stopped at the roadblocks. They methodically went through glove compartments and trunks, searched under the seats to be sure that no contraband weapons were being smuggled in. But once the search was over, many of them thanked the drivers courteously and seemed almost apologetic about the incident.

This morning their almost eager friendliness was apparent. Where yesterday they were defensively terse in dealing with townspeople and newsmen, today they were more relaxed and willing to engage in conversation.

Suddenly they seemed to realize what occupying troops have discovered throughout the world and throughout the centuries.

As the streets gradually became lined with mostly silent civilians, they clearly sensed that although they held a town in captivity, they were the real captives.

October 2, 1962