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The Price of Defiance James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss (review)

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 18, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 122-125 | 10.1353/scu.2012.0021

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Charles Eagles offers a detailed account of James Meredith’s desegregation of the University of Mississippi as a vehicle for examining “the confluence of race, politics, and higher education in postwar Mississippi” and “the culture of racial segregation, the politics of white supremacy, and the history of Ole Miss” (4). Starting with the university’s pre–Civil War founding as an alternative to northern schools that might introduce southern students to abolitionist thinking, Eagles profiles a number of incidents and people to illustrate some of the ways the school dealt with (and ignored) race in the decades leading up to Meredith’s entry. For example, he features accounts of paternalism—the ways that white students, faculty, and staff could befriend and assist African Americans (none of them students), so long as these interactions remained within the confines of white supremacy; the earliest African American applicants to the university, including Medgar Evers (before he became state field secretary for the naacp ) and Clennon King (who, after arriving on campus to register, was briefly committed to the state’s home for the mentally insane); and the ways segregationists acted to control or banish “dissenters,” those whites who in some way violated the party line of white supremacy and states’ rights.

Eagles synthesizes and quotes extensively from a wide range of sources, constructing a readable narrative that is more descriptive than analytical. In the context of contemporary commentary about a “post-racial” society, these quotes are important. It is essential that we remember the extent to which many white Americans (some still alive and voting) openly rejected racial equality and even token desegregation. In Eagles’s account, we get plenty of exposure to the rhetoric and tactics of segregationists who were explicit and defiant in articulating and acting on their insistence on both segregation and white supremacy. Among those who found integration distasteful, some advocated particularly extreme positions—censoring speakers, firing professors, defying the federal government— while others were willing to consider small compromises rather than risk losing accreditation or seeing the university close. Eagles also makes it clear that, even if they were a distinct minority and even if their challenges were relatively limited, there were some white Mississippians (at Ole Miss and elsewhere) who rejected the racial status quo. Rarely aggressive in advocating integration, these “dissenters” typically called for modest steps in the direction of integration or equal opportunity or pointed out the folly of states’ rights or interposition.

As important as it is to hear all these voices, Eagles relies too much on quotes and storytelling. Given his extensive research and particular expertise in segregationist culture, he is well-positioned to offer more insight and analysis and address key questions. For example, why were some white Mississippians prepared to risk ostracism and their jobs to advocate for integration or equal opportunity while others were prepared to take up arms to prevent it? And how did those who took the most extreme positions shape the state’s (and the nation’s?) response to integration? Instead of answering such questions, Eagles offers tantalizing snapshots. When President Kennedy federalized the Mississippi National Guard, Governor Ross Barnett’s son and son-in-law, along with Senator John Stennis’s son and a number of state legislators, were among those called to protect Meredith and diffuse the white rioters at Ole Miss (340). Unfortunately, these details become an end in themselves, rather than an opening to examine, in this instance, the ways segregationists negotiated the intersections between their personal beliefs and their legal obligations.

Although Eagles’s research is quite extensive, he tends to follow the public trajectory of the story closely and appears reluctant in his use of oral histories, noting that although he conducted and consulted “innumerable” oral histories, he cited them “only when they provide vital information unavailable from other sources” (545). This may explain in part the relative lack of African American voices, which typically show up in Eagles’s book in ways that parallel their presence in the published record. For example, Eagles’s discussion of blacks who were associated with Ole Miss is generally limited to those few who attracted attention from whites and even though a few oral...



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