Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoir #6: Governor Barnett and the Ole Miss Riots

“One of the most disturbing incidents that occurred during this period was the integration of Ole Miss. We had been reading stories about efforts underway to get blacks into the University, and then on September 3, 1962, a federal district judge ordered the school to admit James Meredith. The governor, Ross Barnett, who was a firm believer in segregation, immediately went on television saying that we would fight the ruling by the court.

“Ole Miss played Kentucky in a football game in Jackson on September 29, and Russell and Pam [Roberson, Sara’s niece] went to the game. At the half time the governor addressed the crowd and Russell compared the cheering rally that followed to being ‘just like a mob scene in Germany during World War II.’ The crowd chanted ‘Never, never, never’ while they waved the Confederate flags. He said, ‘I was scared to death because I had seen what a mob could do, and I just knew we were going to have bad trouble if they tried to get Meredith into Ole Miss.’ He said he did not stand to cheer Barnett because he did not approve of the way he was trying to get the crowd even more excited. ‘It was almost like he was saying, “OK, boys, get your guns and let’s go.”‘

“The next night the riot broke out on the Ole Miss campus, two people were killed and Meredith was admitted to Ole Miss. A lot of the students went home because their parents were afraid for them to be on campus. My friend, Bill Street, with the Commercial Appeal, covered the story for the paper along with several others on the staff. He said it was one of the most frightening things he had ever covered, especially since they [the rioters] seemed to be making the newsmen the targets for much of their anger. When some redneck screamed at Street and asked him what he was doing there, Street answered, ‘I’m here to git that damned n—-r. I had loosened my tie and tried to look like one of the gang,’ he said, ‘because I though that was the only way I would escape.’

“Of the two hundred people arrested that night, most were not students. They had come in from everywhere to help incite the riot. By the next morning several hundred Federal troops had been sent into Oxford and Federal marshals stayed on the campus to guard Meredith.

“There were many people who did not agree with Barnett’s methods in handling the situation, but most were afraid to speak out. Again, there was always that fear that if you did not agree it would appear that you were supporting integration. My neighbor, [redacted], was visiting one afternoon and the Ole Miss fiasco came up. She said, ‘Do you know that [her husband, redacted] has a cousin who was at that game [Kentucky v. Ole Miss] and did not stand up to cheer the governor when he made that speech?’ I shocked her, I am sure, when I said ‘and you are looking at another one,’ referring to Russell, ‘who didn’t stand up either because he was so sure that Barnett was inciting a riot.’ I figured I would be put on the Citizens Council list of persons to be watched after that.”

About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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