James L. Robertson is a shareholder in the WiseCarter law firm in Jackson, Mississippi. He is a graduate of The University of Mississippi (1962) and Harvard University, where he earned his law degree in 1965. Robertson has served on the faculty at The University of Mississippi School of Law and as a justice on the Supreme Court of Mississippi from 1977-1992. He was also a visiting professor of law at Fordham University in New York in 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.
Thoughts since hearing of the extra-curricular but on-campus activities of 30 to 40 Ole Miss students, late into the night of the 2012 presidential election.
I wish Bert Thompson had been chancellor on Wednesday morning, November 7, 2012.
Mr. Thompson was the principal of Greenville High School in the late 1950s. He was a tough guy. We were sure his initials “W. B.” stood for Wall Buster. Brick walls. His countenance could be not unlike that of a pit bull.
I began my senior year at GHS in the fall of 1957. A year later, I would be an Ole Miss freshman. In early September 1957, I did something stupid.
The President of the United States had ordered troops to Little Rock to make sure that a handful of African-American students safely integrated Central High School. Arkansas was just across the river from Greenville.
I was outraged at the federal invasion of Little Rock. My friends and I fed off each other. I let it be known that I thought the United States flag that students raised every morning in front of GHS should be replaced by the Confederate flag. Not being able to find a Confederate flag, that night I hooked a fuel smudge pot from a construction site on to the cord, lighted it and raised it to the top of the flagpole. It burned the cord, so that the next morning, no flag could be raised.
I will not forget that next morning. I know exactly where I was in the central East-West hallway, on my way to my next class. Suddenly, Mr. Thompson was standing in front of me.
Understand that Mr. Thompson and I were about the same height. I was never sure whether he had been a guard or a tackle when he played for the 1946 Rebels, or a Marine drill sergeant when he served in WWII, maybe all three. He wasn’t smiling.
Mr. Thompson put his hands on my shoulders, firmly but not rough. “Son, I fought for that flag. I’m proud of that flag. And I do not appreciate one damn bit your doing anything that dishonors that flag.”
It was over. Mr. Thompson walked past me to wherever he was going. I wasn’t worth wasting any more of his time. I was the lowest of the low, the sorriest form of life that lived that day.
O’Neill Out-Faulkners Faulkner
What happened on campus a little after midnight on Wednesday, November 7, reminded me of September of 1957, of the late Bert Thompson, and of my having acted like an ass. It also resolved part of a literary dispute I’ve had with myself for years.
On March 18, 2008, then candidate Barack Obama, politically embarrassed by his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, confronted history in an oration on race that ranks with Lincoln’s famous Cooper Union speech on slavery in February of 1860. Invoking a Faulknerian perspective, Obama reminded us of country lawyer philosopher Gavin Stevens’s insight, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
I was in awe of Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature during my early days at Ole Miss, though at the time I had read only a few of his short stories. I learned that Faulkner was the second such American Nobel laureate, and I became curious about the first, Eugene O’Neill, particularly as I learned that many think O’Neill’s best work was done after receiving his Nobel Prize in 1937.
In the millennium year 2000, I first saw O’Neill’s last play and was struck by the words: “There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.” This line that sounded so Faulknerian came from Jim Tyrone, the semi-autobiographical protagonist in O’Neill’s last work, posthumously published.
I have wondered whether Faulkner or O’Neill said it first? And did the second to say it know what the first had said? O’Neill wrote “Moon” in the late 1940s, but it did not see the light of day until much later. Faulkner published “RFN” in 1950.
I still don’t know all the answers. I do now know O’Neill said it better. Stupid students behaving badly in the dark early Wednesday morning made that clear enough.
No, it was not a riot, as on September 30, 1962. As best I’ve been able to learn, no one was harmed, no property damaged. The lawyer in me counsels that I pass no individual judgments without more facts. I understand the several hundred students were dispersed in less than an hour. None of this comforts me.
There were that night enough expressions of racial hatred by enough Ole Miss students for me to see a bit of the past happening all over again, now.
Where Have You Gone, Bert Thompson?
A wise man many years ago, in a not dissimilar context, shared an insight I find helpful. “Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity.” I’m prepared to cut the Ole Miss kids involved that dark Wednesday morning that much slack.
I only wish the Bert Thompson who confronted me that morning in September of 1957 had been chancellor for a day, and on that Wednesday morning had grabbed by the scruff of the neck every student who behaved so badly the night before, blasted him with a verbal two by four, and made him for a moment know he was a stupid lowlife, as I was 55 years ago.
I know about the “We Are One Mississippi” candlelight walk the next night, and of much more credible evidence that, in this world where all is relative, the Ole Miss community has since 1962 taken more steps forward than backwards.
Sober experience has taught me along the way a profound respect for the ambiguity of all things human, particularly man himself. It is a lesson my reason will not let me expel. It counsels me in times like these.
In the late 1960s, with respect and awe, I watched [by then] Dr. W. B. Thompson, Superintendent of the Greenville Public Schools, lead the first voluntary school desegregation in Mississippi.
Today, my high school alma mater and so many other public schools suffer a de facto racial isolation far more insidious and intractable than the de jure segregation a half century ago. Of course, “There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now,” is not an absolute. But there is enough ominous dark truth in O’Neill’s Faulknerian insight that we must not ignore just how much remains to be done.