Dick Gentry, the author of a new book on the Ole Miss riot of 1962, “Under Fire At Ole Miss” (Amazon.com), has a different point of view about the controversial appearance of Major General Edwin Walker during the conflict that dangerous night.
Before lighting into Walker, let me first say I am disappointed and disgusted with the shocking vandalism by the three frat punks from Georgia who are believed to have disgraced themselves and the university with the Meredith statue incident. Once again, there is another sad bookmark for some news elements to chortle about in the history of the university and Mississippi.
Lifelong bachelor Edwin Walker, a West Point graduate who commanded Special Forces in WWII, was also the commander of the U. S. troops who suppressed civil unrest and facilitated the integration of Central High School in Little Rock in 1957. As a civilian, he was present at the Ole Miss riot on September 30, 1962. A real hero, he was also a little bit spooky.
Walker was a campaigner against federal government interference when he learned that James Meredith planned to integrate Ole Miss against the wishes of Governor Ross Barnett. From his home in Dallas, Walker issued a call to arms for patriots to join him in Oxford to assist Barnett in facing down Kennedy and his U.S. Marshals. I believe some who were against the integration embellished his call for support.
It was viewed by some as a call to arms for physical resistance to integration. Others suggested there would be armed supporters by the thousands at Ole Miss. Didn’t happen. But he was there.
When General Edwin Walker arrived, a small crowd gathered on the east side of The Grove beneath a Confederate statue and a street lamp. It was maybe an hour or less after the first tear gas volleys. Close friend Jack Bowles and I stood within five or 10 feet of Walker as he remonstrated against the intrusiveness of the federal government.
In addition to being students, Jack and I were ex-Marine buck sergeants. We had respect for generals of any stripe. The general said he was there to support the governor and Mississippi against the intrusion of the federal government. Pretty mild. When he paused for a moment, Jack shouted at him: “Don’t forget the National Council of Churches!”
Walker paused, looked down at Jack and nodded his head, but without conviction. Did he know that the Council had chided the university earlier for its steadfast refusal to admit Meredith? Jack had no problem with Meredith’s admission, but like many Southerners, he thought of the Council as a Communist front. Communists in any form were not popular in Mississippi.
The FBI was maintaining surveillance of Walker through informers, according to the agency’s documents which I read years later. Although “not sure of one of the informant’s reliability,” the informant reported the day before the riot that Walker was organizing a group to go to Ole Miss from Dallas to resist any federal troops that tried to enter Oxford. I don’t believe Walker was stupid enough to attempt that.
When the general finished his remarks, he invited the small gathering to approach the Marshals and present a list of grievances–mainly the demand that the federal government immediately bow out of Mississippi’s sovereignty. I don’t recall the general mentioning Meredith’s name. We fell in step behind him as he marched through The Grove toward the line of Marshals.
Some clowns in the rear either didn’t get the word or didn’t care because when the general and his cadre approached the blockade, something was tossed at the Marshals. Walker and his fellow arbitrators wheeled about and fled for relative safety in the darkness as another barrage of tear gas canisters was unleashed.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered Walker arrested and charged. He wanted him committed for psychiatric evaluation. I don’t know if he was evaluated or not, but he paid a $50,000 bond, claimed he was a political prisoner and released. He soon boarded a plane for home and received a huge welcome at Love Field. Confederate flags fluttered and a campaign placard read: “Walker for President in 1964.”
Walker was charged with resisting officers; conspiring against federal officers; inciting or engaging in insurrection; and conspiracy to overthrow by force and opposing the execution of the laws of the United States. An Oxford grand jury failed to indict him, and the charges crumbled away.
Walker maintained he never advocated violence against the armed forces gathering at Ole Miss, and since I stood beneath him when he made his “speech” and led the “charge,” I found him non-violent, ineffective, and, except for the circumstances, almost comical.
There was another oddball who was watching the general closely in those days.
About 9 p.m. on April 10, 1963, seven months after our “charge,” Walker was in his Dallas home at his desk trying like many of us to meet the income tax filing deadline.
He was completely unaware that a very dangerous ex-Marine rifleman was crouched only 100 feet away in the darkness. A shot was fired. When police checked Walker’s office, a mangled 6.54 mm bullet was found – the same caliber that killed JFK and wounded Gov. John Connally. It was so mangled it could not be matched to the rifle that allegedly killed Kennedy.
It should have been an easy shot for Lee Harvey Oswald, but he missed. Walker died of lung cancer in 1993.
In recent years, I began to wonder why Oswald would want to want to assassinate Walker, and seven months later assassinate the general’s political nemesis, Kennedy?
Dick Gentry was the Summer Editor of The Daily Mississippian prior to the 1962 riot at Ole Miss. He left Ole Miss shortly after and later graduated with a degree in journalism and business from Eastern Washington University in Spokane, where he was a writer for the Spokane Daily Chronicle. His career also includes editor and publisher of The Caymanian in The Cayman Islands; executive editor of Hawaii Business Magazine; editor of Atlanta Business Chronicle and executive editor of the Birmingham Business Journal. His first job after leaving Ole Miss was sports editor of the Artesia (N.M.) Daily press, where he eventually became editor. He lives in a small mountain town about 50 miles north of Atlanta with his wife and fellow traveler of 54 years, Martha. UNDER FIRE AT OLE MISS is his second book about a Mississippian’s unusual career. His first is AT THE FOOT OF THE SOUTHERN CROSS, the story of a naïve reporter who became editor and publisher of the only newspaper in The Cayman Islands during the rise of the offshore tax-haven industry. Both are available at Amazon.com.