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"The Worst Thing I've Seen in 45 Years"
"THE EYES OF THE nation and all the world are upon you and upon all of us," said the President of the United States, speaking from the White House on Sunday evening, September 30, 1962. It was a national TV hook-up, but these particular words were addressed to the students of the University of Mississippi. John F. Kennedy was appealing to them to accept on their campus at Oxford a young Negro Air Force veteran—the first of his race ever to win admission to the University.
James H. Meredith had arrived there that afternoon, armed with 60 hours of academic credits, an order from the Supreme Court and several hundred federal marshals. That should have been enough, but for days Mississippi had been in turmoil at the prospect. The Governor had called for defiance, the Confederate flag seemed to fly from every car aerial, and one youth in Jackson was urging that it would be perfectly practical to mobilize private planes and bomb the U.S. Army with napalm.
So President Kennedy had gone on the air at 10:00 (8:00 Mississippi time) and was using every argument he knew. There was the sanctity of the law: if the courts could be defied, "no citizen is safe from his neighbors." There was his duty to enforce the laws even if he had to use troops, but he carefully stressed that local means were best. There were the other Southern states that had set such a fine example. There was the rest of the nation that must share the blame for "the accumulated wrongs of the last 100 years." And most important, there was the honor of Mississippi—her bravery on the battlefield, courage on the gridiron, the patriotism of Senator (later Justice) L. Q. C. Lamar, the great Mississippian who put the nation first.
"Let us," concluded the President, "preserve both the law and the peace, and then, healing those wounds that are within, we can turn to the greater crises that are without and stand united as one people in our pledge to man's freedom."
Few of the students even heard. By now a full-scale riot was on, swirling about the federal marshals who were deployed around the Lyceum, the University's administration building. Meredith had been whisked to a dorm, but few knew that. Bricks, bottles, pipes showered down on the marshals, and even before Kennedy began speaking, the federals were fighting back with tear gas. By the time the President finished, a roaring battle was on.
Kennedy went to the Cabinet Room and sank into his black leather chair. Behind him hovered a handful of aides. Beside him sat his brother Robert, the Attorney General, relaying bulletins that came over the phone from the riot. The news grew steadily worse—10:58, marshals running out of gas ... 11:02, the Mississippi Highway Patrol, the chief hope for law and order on the spot, reported pulling out ... 11:22, former General Edwin A. Walker, militant right-winger, rumored on the campus ... 11:23, a marshal shot through the leg ... 11:42, "state trooper hurt bad."
About 11:45 Kennedy was on the phone with Mississippi's Governor Ross Barnett, urging him to get the Highway Patrol back. Barnett said he'd do everything he could. But the bad news flowed on—11:55, FBI radio monitor reported Highway Patrol still without orders to return to campus ... 11:58, still no orders to the Patrol ... 12 midnight, gunfire spreading.
Now Deputy Attorney General Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, in charge of the federal forces on the scene, came on the phone. Reluctantly he said the time had come for troops. It was the last thing the President wanted to do, but he didn't hesitate a second. Walking to his oval office, he phoned the Pentagon and put through the orders.
The minutes dragged on, punctuated by more depressing bulletins—12:10, only 67 local National Guardsmen immediately available ... 12:13, U.S. Army regulars, flying down from Memphis, not airborne yet ... 12:21, troops still not airborne ... 12:52, 13 wounded now ... 12:57, state patrolmen still sitting out on the highway. Once, spirits briefly rose with a flash that the troops were at last on the way, but at 1:02 word came that this report was wrong—they hadn't left Memphis yet. Then another message that the men were airborne ... and at 1:47 another heart breaker, that they were really still in Memphis.
In the end, it was after 2:00 when the little group in the Cabinet Room knew for sure that the troops had not only left but were actually arriving at Oxford's miniature airport. Now at last the White House could breathe easily. It was only a half-mile to campus—General Billingslea and his men should be there in three or four minutes. Such calculations made it all the more frustrating when word arrived at 2:55 that there was no sign of the Army yet ... only new, high-powered rifle fire. Worse, at 3:33 word came that the troops were still at the airport. The General—struggling to assemble his men and equipment—thought they could reach the battlefield by four.
John F. Kennedy was not a man to throw his weight around, but the long delay, the mounting bloodshed and, above all, the dashed hopes had done their work. At 3:35 the White House line to the communications base at Oxford crackled with a stern command: tell General Billingslea to move now. The General got and obeyed the order, but he didn't learn the actual text until two hours later, when his men were clearing the campus and the crisis was over. "People are dying in Oxford," ran the anguished message. "This is the worst thing I've seen in 45 years. I want the military police battalion to enter the action. I want General Billingslea to see that this is done."
Where did the blame lie for the "worst thing" in the President's 45 years? Certainly not with the troops—they were moving as fast as they could. Nor with the decision a few days earlier to rely on federal marshals—that was in the best tradition of civilian government. Nor was it the fault of a month ago, when the Administration first plunged into the Meredith case—it was the President's duty to enforce court decisions. No, the real blame lay still further in the past—beyond the Supreme Court's ban on school segregation, beyond dark decades of apathy and misunderstanding ... all the way back, in fact, to the blunders and bitterness of a people fighting a desperate civil war.CHAPTER 2
"Lest We Forget, Lest We Forget ..."
SPLINTERS FLEW IN EVERY direction as the Union troops hacked away at the chairs and tables of Edward McGehee, a wealthy cotton planter in Wilkinson County, Mississippi. It was October 5, 1864, and Colonel E. D. Osband's men were simply acting on the philosophy expressed by General Sherman when he told a group of protesting Mississippians, "It is our duty to destroy, not build up; therefore do not look to us to help you."
Soon the work was done, the house in flames, and Edward McGehee left contemplating his only remaining possession—a gracefully carved grand piano. It was no comfort to Mr. McGehee, once the owner of hundreds of Negro slaves, that these deeds were done by a company of stern, efficient Negro soldiers.
Ruin upon ruin, the destruction continued for six more grueling months of war. By the end, Mississippi seemed but a forest of chimneys. The whole town of Okolona could be bought for $5,000. There was not a fence left within miles of Corinth, not a clock running in Natchez. The capital, Jackson, was in ashes—the Confederate Hotel as complete a wreck as the cause it honored.
The first visitors from the North were stunned. Approaching old Charles Langworthy's home near Aberdeen, a man from Chicago recalled spending two pleasant weeks there back in 1855. Greeting the owner, the visitor quickly asked after Mr. Langworthy's five boys and two girls.
"Where is John, your oldest son?"
"Killed at Shiloh."
"Where is William?"
"Died of smallpox in the Army."
"And the other boys?"
"All were killed...."
The Langworthy daughters came forward, dripping with mourning. Not only were their brothers gone; both also had lost their husbands in the service.
The incident was all too typical. Mississippi had sent 78,000 into the fight; only 28,000 came back. Whole companies were wiped out—the Vicksburg Cadets marched off 123 strong; only six returned. The legacy of this sacrifice was 10,000 orphans.
Nor were those who returned always able to play their full part. Surgery was not one of the happier aspects of the Civil War. Empty sleeves flapped everywhere. At a town meeting in Aberdeen a visitor noticed that 100 of the 300 men present had lost either an arm or a leg. It's not surprising that in the first year after the war Mississippi spent one-fifth of its entire revenue for artificial limbs.
Painfully, the people of the state struggled to live again. Nearly everyone was wiped out. The greatest source of wealth—436,000 slaves worth over $218 million—had vanished with Emancipation. The farm animals that meant so much to a rural people had been carried off—one out of every three mules gone. Most of the cotton was confiscated as Confederate property; any that escaped was mercilessly taxed by Washington. Land values crashed—on December 13, 1865 alone the Vicksburg Herald advertised 48 plantations for sale or lease. After five years of war Mississippi tumbled from the nation's fifth wealthiest state, per capita, to the very bottom of the list.
"My children, I am a ruined man," Thomas Dabney told his daughters one evening in November 1866. In happier days Mr. Dabney had endorsed some notes. At the time there seemed little danger—the risk was good and Dabney was the wealthy owner of Burleigh, a fabulous plantation near the town of Raymond. But now times had changed, and the sheriff was downstairs.
Ultimately, Burleigh was auctioned off, and Dabney managed to buy it back only by consigning his cotton crop for years to come. Meanwhile, the family had nothing—even the "loyal" Negro servants had vanished. As the once pampered Dabney girls faced the novel prospect of housework, it looked like a major victory for General Sherman's boast that he would force every Southern woman to the washtub.
But this time the General had met his match. "He shall never bring my daughters to the washtub," Dabney thundered. "I'll do the washing myself!" And he did. Dabney was now 70 years old, but for the next two years he scrubbed away, grimly satisfied that here at least he was foiling the hated Yankee.
There were other consolations too, as the people of Mississippi struggled to recover. There was relief that the war was over—whatever their original feelings, most Mississippians were heartily sick of destruction. There was also hope that the state could get back into the Union rather painlessly; President Andrew Johnson had decided to carry on Lincoln's lenient plans for restoration. Best of all, there was the land. Mississippi's towns might lie in ruins, but her matchless asset was the soil itself. If only cotton could get going again....
But that was the problem. If the key to prosperity was cotton, the key to cotton had always been slaves—and there weren't any slaves any more. Over 380,000 freedmen aimlessly roamed the state, living where they chose, eating off the federal troops, nearly all of them at loose ends.
The former owners had no influence. Most Negroes felt this was what freedom meant—no work. And there were plenty of people around the Union Army camps who advised them not to go back to their old masters. There were even rumors that Washington soon would be dividing up the plantations—forty acres and a mule for everyone.
Actually Washington was never more at cross-purposes. President Johnson suffered from being a states' rights Democrat from Tennessee, and as his prestige waned so did the chances for his lenient program. The Radical Republicans in Congress were winning control over national policy, but beyond a thirst for revenge, they had no clear-cut plans at all. As late as October 1865 the Radical leader Thaddeus Stevens was asking his friend Charles Sumner if he knew of any good books on how the Russians freed their serfs.
The Negroes themselves could be of very little help in solving their problems. Over 95% were illiterate. In the old days it had been illegal to teach the slaves to read or write, and now they were hopelessly ignorant. Few had any idea of citizenship, law, suffrage or responsibility. Hauled before a court for stealing a bag of corn, one ex-slave happily camping on Jefferson Davis' plantation was asked if he wanted a jury trial.
"What's that?" was all he could say.
From the white Mississippian's point of view, the Negroes seemed dreadfully immoral too. Informal alliances had been the custom among plantation slaves, and the freedmen couldn't understand why all this was changed. Of 240,000 in a cross-section of Mississippi counties, only 564 applied for marriage licenses in 1865. Petty stealing was another plantation tradition; and there seemed nothing wrong with it now. Chickens and corn meal were never safe, and horse thieves at Olive Branch stole 16 mules in the space of two weeks.
The whites felt cornered and helpless. For years they had done as they wanted with these people, and now the tables were turned. They were generally outnumbered, and in the rich cotton areas the margin seemed appalling—Bolivar County was 87% Negro; Issaquena County had 7,000 Negroes, only 600 whites.
But most frightening were the Negro troops. When the U.S. Army's XVI Corps went home in August 1865, 9,122 of the 10,193 Union soldiers still in the state were Negroes. Their mere presence seemed to invite the most hideous trouble. In Jackson Major Barnes, commanding the 5th U.S. Colored Infantry, urged the local Negroes to defend their rights even to the "click of the pistol and at the point of the bayonet."
And incidents did happen. William Wilkinson was murdered at Lauderdale Springs by five of his former slaves for selling his plantation—they claimed it was rightfully theirs by Christmas. This sort of bloodshed was rare, but it was enough to set off the whites.
Terror bred fantastic rumors. The Natchez Courier warned that the county's Negroes were supposed to rise on New Year's Day. In Yazoo City the date was Christmas. The Brandon Republican set no date but reported, "They are evidently preparing something and it behooves us to be on the alert and prepare for the worst." There was nothing, of course, to any of these reports, but each rumor hardened the feelings of the whites.
They soon developed a fierce callousness toward the Negro, no matter how harmless he might be. On a quiet Sunday afternoon in Natchez an elderly freedman protested to a small white boy raiding his turnip patch. The boy shot him dead, and that was that. In Vicksburg the Herald complained that the town's children were hitting innocent bystanders when using their "nigger shooters."
Nor was it just the specter of Negro supremacy that aroused white Mississippians—Negro equality was just as bad. "God damn your soul, get off this boat!" raged the captain of the Memphis-Vicksburg packet, Christmas morning, 1865. The greeting was directed at a Negro couple who had dared ask for first-class passage. As their luggage was pitched ashore, the captain turned back to his work muttering, "They can't force their damned nigger equality on me."
Even when the principle of equality was acknowledged, the practice must have mystified the beneficiaries. "Take off your hat, you black scoundrel, or I'll cut your throat," a Mississippi state legislator yelled at his former slave; later he explained, "Sam, you've got just the same rights as a white man now, but not a bit better, and if you come into my room again without taking off your hat, I'll shoot you."
The case of Negro suffrage showed that even token equality was too much. In 1865 President Johnson—already fearing for his generous Reconstruction program—urged Provisional Governor Sharkey to make some gesture toward Negro enfranchisement. It might allay Congressional doubts, for instance, if Mississippi gave the vote to those who could read the Constitution, write their names and who owned at least $250 in property— perhaps 5% of the Negro population. Governor Sharkey couldn't have been less interested.
But the greatest anathema was Negro education. It was not so much a question of integrated schools; it was a question of any schools at all. At Oxford an angry band drove off the missionary assigned to the local freedmen's school, even though he was a Southern man. At Okolona someone fired four shots at Dr. Lacy, the old Episcopal minister who was trying to teach the town's young Negroes.
"If any man from the North comes down here expecting to hold and maintain radical or abolitionist sentiments," warned the Nation's correspondent, "let him expect to be shot down from behind the first time he leaves his home." Visitors were shocked by the sheer violence of the state's reaction. Lulled by a carefully cultivated tradition of moonlight and magnolias, they forgot that life in Mississippi had always been closer to the frontier than the Tidewater.
Excerpted from The Past That Would Not Die by Walter Lord. Copyright © 1965 Walter Lord. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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