Much has been written about the 1962 riot at Ole Miss, but I believe the absolute truth will never be known. Such is history.
My own report in this space recently about General Edwin Walker’s alleged ‘charge’ against the Lyceum was my own interpretation. I stand by it. However, there are other conflicting reports which have been read and digested by researchers and historians.
Here’s is another version of Walker’s involvement, which I believe was produced after 1991 by the United States Department of the Interior. It came from a 30-plus page application to have the The Circle placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Much of this official report and others conflict with the opinions in my book UNDER FIRE AT OLE MISS.
“Like a hawk watching its prey, Major General Edwin A. Walker observed the peace negotiations under cover of darkness,” the USDI report says. I am not sure what peace negotiations they are talking about. There were possibly voices in the wilderness—The Rev. Duncan Gray Jr., Ole Miss Chaplain The Rev. Wofford Smith and football star Buck Randall. Randall gallantly climbed a flagpole and called for an end to the violence.
Their actions were commendable but ineffective, and there were hundreds of others on campus that night—students and visitors—who also tried to calm the waves.
“…(When) the general materialized in the white light of one of The Circle lamp posts. Someone recognized him and exclaimed, ‘We have a leader now!’ The Reverend Gray also recognized the ‘erratic dragon of right wing extremists’,” reads the report.
“Gray beseeched the general to help him end the siege. The hawk tried to break away from the dove, but Gray continued to pursue the general as they walked toward the Confederate Statue. Perturbed with his pursuer, Walker asked Gray to identify himself. When the reverend replied that he was the rector of the Episcopalian church, the general informed him he was embarrassed to be an Episcopalian.”
I did not hear this exchange. I had not yet reached the arena around the statue.
The USDI report continues, “The general walked up to the Confederate monument to the heroes of Lafayette County that guarded the entrance to The Circle, the symbolic heart of the university…General Walker stepped onto the base of the monument and the crowd fell silent.
“’Don’t let up now, he shouted from the monument…You may lose this battle, but you will have to be heard…You must be prepared for possible death. If you are not, go home now.’
“At that moment, the disorganized mob metastasized in to an organized army of a single mind much to the horror of The Reverend Gray, who had tried to mount the statue and counter Walker’s inflammatory oratory only to be yanked off the statue and beaten within an inch of this life.”
All I can say is that I saw The Rev. Gray walking through groups of students a distance from the monument attempting to calm them. Perhaps he was attacked by someone, but I’m not convinced. I find it hard to believe that anyone that night would have beaten a man of the cloth.
I’m no hero, but if my friend Jack Bowles and I had witnessed that, I have no doubt that we and others present would have gone to his aid. We had already rescued a photographer from a group of ruffians just by shouting, “Leave him alone!”
The report continues: “The massed and unified mob of 800 to 900 marched through The Circle toward the Lyceum with terrifying tenacity. (Attorney General) Katzenbach’s corps, or ‘Kennedy’s Koon Klan,’ as the highway patrol called the Marshals, answered this siege serge with another round of tear gas.
“As everyone retreated to the Circle Flagpole, General Walker called out for someone to ‘Get the fire truck!’ Walker strode The Circle grounds between the flagpole and statue, exhorting his charges to keep up the attack, offering tactical advice, and babbling disparaging remarks about the ‘New Frontier’.” (The reference to New Frontier came from Kennedy’s remarks after his election).
According to the report, about 10 p.m., Walker’s “marauders” returned with the old fire truck, hooked up the hoses and doused the Marshals. Marshals then shot out the tires, captured the driver and disabled the engine. Then the Highway Patrol “abandoned” their posts and in a “dramatic display of flashing lights snaked past the Lyceum and down The Circle, pulling off campus in a great bumper-to-bumper procession.”
Newsweek reported 68 police cruisers in the evacuation; others said 80, according to the report. I recall none of this. Either I was in the restroom, or this account was entirely fabricated.
According to the report the magazine also analyzed the “ramifications” of this development: “Outsiders streamed in—students from high schools and other colleges, many from nearby MSU, toughs with mud streaked jeans and oily, ducktail haircuts…Many with weapons: squirrel guns, 22s, high-powered rifles, shotguns, knives, clubs, blackjacks. The guns brought death during the night.” That’s enough; you get the jist.
As I wrote in my book, I found the timeline that night distorted in every report I read and perhaps my own observations were skewed. I do know for certain that the first round of tear gas was fired shortly after 8 p.m. following President Kennedy’s live television appearance. There was no official timekeeper for the riot.
Here’s another sworn statement from a person named Van Savell during General Walker’s lawsuit trial against the Associated Press. They had accused him of leading a charge and Savell was some type of “undercover operator.”
“Utilizing my youth to the fullest extent, I dressed as any college student would and easily milled among the several thousand ‘rioters’ on the campus…This allowed me to follow the crowd—a few students and many outsiders—as they charged federal Marshals surrounding the Lyceum…”
Walker had assumed command of the crowd, estimated at 1,000 by Savell, and marched toward the Marshals.
“We were met with a heavy barrage of tear gas about 75 yards from the Lyceum steps and went a few feet further when we had to turn back. Before doing so, many of the rioters hurled their weapons—the bricks, the bottles, rocks and wooden stakes toward the Marshals.”
In my report, I thought that someone behind our group must have tossed something that invited the tear gas. Savell testified that the Marshals simply opened up a barrage 75 yards from the Lyceum.
He testified that Walker then returned to the monument and told the crowd, “Gov. Barnett has betrayed the people of Mississippi,” and exhorted the crowd to press onward, telling them not to give up but to go home if they were not ready to die.
Savell then left the area, but took a swipe at the Marshals: “As I walked toward a dormitory with George Bartsch of the Little Rock AP Bureau, we were attacked by Marshals who mistook us for students. We were deluged by tear gas, manhandled, handcuffed and beaten with clubs during a 200 yard walk back to the Lyceum.”
Within minutes the two were recognized by Chief Marshal James P. McShane and released to the freedom of the Marshal’s headquarters.
He then testified, “Within minutes rifle and shotgun fire erupted from the rioting crowd and two men—one a French newsman—were killed. We considered ourselves arrested and glad to be behind closed, heavily guarded doors.” Again, I disagree with the timeline.
The real tragedies of the riot were the deaths of French reporter Paul Guihard and local repairman Ray Gunter. In my research and on-site observations for my book, I came to my own conclusion about how they died and who was responsible. I’m sure this was greeted with skepticism and perhaps annoyance by some who are still trying to solve this mystery. But until I am proven wrong, I believe I have it spot-on.
A final thought on the charge. The number of “rioters” is constantly referred to as one thousand or even two thousand. Had this been true, the Marshals would have been overwhelmed and would have retreated into the Lyceum until the Army and reinforced Mississippi National Guard arrived locked and loaded. God only knows how that would have turned out.
I saw as many as perhaps 1,500 around The Circle that night at varying times, but most were spectators. There was a hard core group of possibly 100 to 150 who got rough with a vengeance. I recall that the Guard arrived between 10 and 11 p.m. because that was the time when, from atop a building, pot shots were taken at me and my friend. Maybe he missed us on purpose.
Things cooled down quickly after the Guard’s arrival. There was more random activity during the night, but it was over as far as I was concerned and I went home to calm my anxious wife.
Walker was arrested early the next morning by the Marshals, but was soon acquitted on charges of inciting a riot and returned to Dallas.
Dick Gentry urges comments on this site in response to his reports. Pro or Con, all are valued!
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.