'The Price of Defiance'

July 14, 2009

In 1962, with court backing, James Meredith became the first black person to enroll at the University of Mississippi. His struggle to enroll, and the violent actions by mobs trying to keep him out, led to a legal and political showdown that reached the White House. While there have been previous studies of this period, Charles W. Eagles had access to previously unavailable federal and state records, and personal records, for his new book, The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss (University of North Carolina Press). The book discusses not only Meredith's push to integrate the university, but Meredith's background (and how it set up his historic role) and the (quite critical) history of the university and the state during this period. Eagles, a professor of history at the university he studied, describes some of his findings and their meaning in the e-mail interview that follows.

Q: How do the new materials you obtained change the view of James Meredith?

A: Meredith emerges as a complicated, thoughtful, and in many ways consistently conservative individual, not a stereotypical movement hero or a bizarre crusader. The importance of his family background in Attala County, Mississippi, in particular becomes clear from research in unexplored public records and in James Meredith’s personal papers. His parents, for example, demonstrated personal strength and resilience. They owned their own farm and registered to vote (his father in 1919), and they also protected their children from local whites and the abuses of racial segregation. Documents from Meredith’s years in the Air Force and as a student at Jackson State record his financial support for his aging parents, as well as his developing entrepreneurial spirit through savings and investments and his commitment to continuing his education. His military records and papers for college classes reveal his intellectual and political growth in the years before applying to Ole Miss. By 1962 his family background and his experiences in the Air force had equipped him in unusual ways to challenge racial segregation at Ole Miss.

Materials from the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI, and the U.S. Marshals Service permit for the first time an examination of Meredith’s 10 months as a student at the University of Mississippi. An appreciation for his courage and tenacity results from an understanding of the intense pressures he felt, not the least from constantly harassing Ole Miss students.

Q: How do these materials change the view of the University of Mississippi?

A: Previously unavailable university administrative files provide many insights into the institution’s role in the culture of white Mississippi, especially regarding race relations. In the years after World War II, the university negotiated a series of racial controversies that finally culminated in the 1962 riot. Pressed on all sides by segregationist forces, Ole Miss dealt with disputes over early attempts at desegregation, segregated collegiate athletics, legislative challenges to faculty loyalty, black entertainers on campus, academic freedom regarding civil rights, and religious discussions of race. During the 1950s, the crises of growing intensity and severity caught university administrators between the larger progressive forces for racial change and the state’s intransigent segregationist whites, especially among political authorities. By increasingly yielding to the Citizens’ Council and other white supremacists, the Ole Miss leaders gradually ceded control of the university’s fate to the Board of Trustees, the legislators, and the governor. The university’s culpability for events in 1962 had been determined by its earlier concessions.

Q: How do these materials change the view of the Kennedy administration?

A: FBI, Justice Department, and U.S. Army files more clearly than ever show that the Kennedy administration lacked a well-conceived plan for achieving Meredith’s enrollment at the university. From the beginning it reacted, often too late, to events in Mississippi. It paid little attention to the developments in Meredith v. Fair, the lawsuit to obtain Meredith’s admission, and it failed to consider Governor Ross Barnett a formidable opponent. Later deployment of federal forces to protect Meredith on campus suffered from inadequate communications, manpower, coordination, and resources. The administration hastily improvised ways to provide support for Meredith during his time on campus.

Q: Race remains a contentious issue in American higher education, even if in different ways than in the era your book covers. Are there lessons from the integration of Ole Miss for American higher education today?

A: Historians should be modest about drawing lessons from the past, but the stories of Ole Miss, race, and James Meredith may suggest several points. The problems of race were and remain deep, pervasive, and complex within higher education, just as in the larger society. The legacies of the past do indeed persist and cannot be ignored or avoided, and no simple solutions exist. Universities should recognize the inherent dangers when they interact with volatile political questions. Costly collisions can result as frequently as satisfactory solutions. Institutions of higher learning should protect their independence from meddling politicians. Academic freedom cannot be compromised without imperiling an institution.

Q: What was it like doing research about the history of the university where you teach, especially given the period you were exploring?

A: Though the history told in The Price of Defiance was not always pleasant or flattering for the institution, nobody at the university ever tried to limit or control my research. In fact, the university administration cooperated by making the relevant files freely available. Research at the university was therefore relatively easy. In addition, as a result of my work, the university collected scattered, and sometimes decaying, records and deposited them in the university archive where they are now preserved and available for researchers. And, at my suggestion, the university eagerly sought and happily obtained James Meredith’s personal papers.

Many interested friends and colleagues who knew of my project often expressed special interest in it and impatience with my slow progress. Because some of the participants were still alive, I had to be especially careful in discussing what I was finding.

During the many years of research, I also avoided involvement in racial controversies on campus because I wanted to protect the integrity of my scholarship. For example, the extended discussion and controversy over a campus memorial to the civil rights movement occurred without any public comment from me, though the book’s last chapter reveals my definite opinions about it.

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