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Heaton: James Meredith Saved Us All

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If you’ve ever noticed, bestselling books about Mississippi are usually not written by natives. In fact, the current top five best sellers about the Magnolia state are from Illinois, the UK, Florida, Pennsylvania and Memphis, Tennessee. (I’ll give you that Memphis is more Mississippi than it is Tennessee – although this could be my generation’s belief.)

Recently on a mission to Oxford to recharge my batteries for the long and dreary slog of a New York winter, I came across Riot, Witness to Anger and Change in Square Books. Initially, I dismissed it as coffee table fodder. Later that evening at an Overby Center presentation by the authors, I discovered Riot is much more. It is a unique photographic anthology of James Meredith’s experience as the first African-American enrolled at Ole Miss.

Riot contains Ed Meek’s rare photographs, explanations of the photographs by Curtis Wilkie and Ed Meek and quotes from James Meredith and Governor William Winter. These four friends offer us a front-line account of a pivotal moment in American history with JFK, Robert Kennedy and segregationist Ross Barnett supporting.

In the ’60s, if the world wanted to gauge the temperament of the South, it came to Ole Miss. In September 1962, 30,000 federal troops and the world’s news media converged on Oxford to be met by an enraged mob conjured by Gov. Barnett’s statewide cattle-call. As fists, bullets and teargas flew, the Ole Miss students retreated, but the mob held their ground and smashed all the cameras of news crews filming the riot. That is, all the cameras except for Ed Meek’s, whose photographs exist only because he was recognized as a student. After the riot, Ed smuggled his camera onto campus to capture James Meredith’s first week in class – defying Robert Kennedy’s direct order. Ed Meek’s rare photographs were in hidden away in a lockbox until now.

Riot documents a Mississippi driven mad by a handful of politicians who conjured a Nuremberg-like rally around a football weekend – witnesses actually describe the game’s pep rally as hypnagogic, Nazi-like mass hysterics. Remarkable transcripts from White House phone records expose the chicanery between the Kennedy’s and Governor Ross Barnett. In the aftermath of all the intrigue and violence, James Meredith stands firm – and alone.

Today James Meredith is a proud Ole Miss Alumnus and may be found at pre-game tailgates in Ole Miss togs. To the University’s credit, it confronted its past head on and has not shirked in admitting complacency during the events. Between the pages of Riot you will find the political manipulation of a people, the resolution of a few brave Mississippians and the loneliness that James Meredith faced in his first semester.

As a Southern expatriate lucky enough to have retained the drawl of my youth, northerners frequently interrupt to ask me about race relations in the South. Mississippians are kinder, more sincerely warm and generous than any people I know. Mississippi has a rich and unique culture, one that is far ahead of the country in terms of race relations, community pride and mutual respect. Riot is the story of how Mississippians failed on a national stage in 1962, but have since quietly succeed in living together at home.

The politicians, then as now, often incite Americans against one another, leaving us citizens in their wake to get along with each other. Let the politicians argue over what they will, I will still love my neighbor whether white, black, democrat and republican. That’s the way I was raised – I’m a Mississippian.

Tim Heaton is a HottyToddy.com contributor and can be reached at tim.h.heaton@gmail.com.

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