Riot at 'Ole Miss'

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He went down to Oxford Town

Guns and clubs followed him down

All because his face was brown

- from 'Oxford Town' by Bob Dylan, 1963

James Meredith was expecting trouble, for just days before submitting his application to the University of Mississippi (commonly called 'Ole Miss') he sent a letter to Thurgood Marshall of the Legal Defense and Education Fund requesting legal assistance should it be necessary. Meredith was a student at Jackson State College, an all-black school, when he made his first application on 31 January 1961 for the spring semester. The application was neither denied or accepted, but the school stalled until it was too late to register for the semester. Immediately Mr Meredith sent a letter to the US Justice Department asking them to intervene on his behalf, then reapplied to the university for the summer session. When his second applicaton was also stalled, he and the NAACP1 filed suit in US District court in May 1961 alleging that the school was denying his application on the basis of race.

After more than a year in the courts and numerous appeals the US Supreme Court found in favour of Mr Meredith on 10 September 1962. The school was ordered to allow Mr Meredith to register, yet Governor Ross Barnett continued to bar his admission. The Supreme Court ruling sparked ire with Mississippi state officials, residents and Ole Miss students who began gathering to protest integration of the school. Attorney General Robert Kennedy dispatched more than 500 US Marshals, border guards and prison guards to the university on 30 September to hold the peace, instructed not to fire on the crowd but to use only tear gas. The gathered mob of more than 2000 rioted against the guards, and as the violence escalated President John F Kennedy sent 16,000 Army and National Guard troops to the campus.

In the end the riot left two people dead, 28 US Marshals with gunshot wounds and 160 injured. James Meredith attended his first class at Ole Miss on 1 October 1962 amid an escort of federal officials.

James Meredith's enrollment at Ole Miss is largely seen as a landmark civil rights event, but Mr Meredith doesn't associate himself with the civil rights movement. His stated goal was to get the government to use the military to enforce his rights as a US citizen; he considers his actions to be more a strike against "white supremacy" than anything to do with civil rights. In 1966 Mr Meredith published Three Years in Mississippi about his experiences attending school at Ole Miss.

1National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

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