©Bert Gildart: Recently, Bob Schieffer of CBS News visited Ole Miss University located in Oxford, Mississippi. He reported that his trip (a pivotal life journey, metaphorically) brought back a flood of memories. His comment reminded me that I shared with him a similar journey, and that it also took place the first week of October, 1962–and in the exact same place. What we experienced those few days combined to create a particularly ugly chapter in American history. Several were killed, many wounded–and I was jailed.
Ole Miss can be accessed from Natchez Trace
Mr. Schieffer and I had, however, entirely different experiences while at Oxford. He was a journalist, while I was a floundering college student. Schieffer was there to describe James Meredith’s attempts to break down the barriers prohibiting the enrollment of black people into this Mississippi University. By contrast, I was there because that was a rebellious time of my life, and no football coach back in the little Alabama college I was attending was going to tell me I could not leave campus.
Leave, however, I did, and next day, hundreds of miles away, I found myself arrested and on the inside of a massive detention center in Ole Miss looking out, while Schieffer was on the outside looking in on a city that had gone amok. It’s one two tragic events in which I was personally involved that made national news, and I want to relate those experiences in this and in next posting.
EYE WITNESS TO MURDER
The following year (1963) I was eyewitness to the murder of an innocent young black boy, shot on a backcountry road near Birmingham. It was the same day when four little black girls where killed in a church bombing. Some perverse-thinking individuals thought the killing would stop the efforts of black people to acquire equal rights.
I’m providing recollections of those times not to try and suggest that we share some kind of collective guilt, for there was lots of blame to go around. Nor am I trying to suggest that because of those horrible events we should now redeem ourselves and vote for Sen. Obama.
What I am trying to suggest, is that with a black man now running for the highest office in the nation that we have indeed come a very long way since the 1960s.
For those interested in the specifics of my jail time and of the tragic death of Virgil Ware, which I witnessed, follow along. Today, I’m posting an account of my “jail time,” and on Wednesday, I’ll be posting about a young boy’s tragic death, hard to forget as I was first on the scene.
*INCIDENT ONE, JAIL TIME: The setting is the Deep South and the year was 1962 and the Civil Rights movement was at its height. White extremists hated blacks and the NAACP was trying to force the integration of public schools. At the time I was drifting aimlessly, always looking for excitement–and college was probably the least productive place I could have been.
Hearing that a black man had enrolled at Ole Miss and that JFK had sent 5,000 federal troops and about 1,500 federal marshals to control mass rioting, four other like-minded fellows and I decided that Oxford, Mississippi, was the perfect place to be; and so we made the four-hour drive from Florence State Teacher’s College (now the U. of N. Alabama), partially along the Natchez Trace. A coach at our college told us not to go, but we went anyway.
Parking our vehicle on the outskirts of town, we walked into Oxford–and were greeted with pandemonium. Several black people were attempting to drive vehicles but didn’t get far. Self-appointed riot leaders stalked the courthouse square with cases of empty Coke bottles, handing them out. The crowd knew what to do. Focusing on an elderly black, rioters took their bottles and before he had driven a single block–inching through people mingling in the street–they knocked out every window in the man’s car. They broke the ends off their Coke bottles by smashing them against the curb, and then they thrust them under the man’s wheels. Throughout, I was taking pictures.
From other parts of town, we could hear the occasional sound of gun shots, and soon learned that one National Guardsman had been seriously wounded. Before it was all over, two were dead, 28 marshals had been shot, and 160 were injured.
About this time, the federal troops began to arrive, and we wisely decided it might be time to leave. A National Guardsman advised us of the best route, but as we were leaving we ran into another squad of guardsmen, and because it appeared as though our moves were surreptitious, they fired at us (blanks we later learned), then told us to line up. They marched us down the main street of town, hands over our heads. One of the fellows in our group weighed well over 200 pounds and his size angered one of the guardsmen, who was small. He prodded my friend in the rear with his bayonet, and finally, exasperated, Hugh spun, dropped his hands and knocked the bayonet away from his rear. He was immediately engulfed by half a dozen soldiers, all pointing their rifles and bayonets at him.
About an hour later, we found ourselves in a huge detention room, with hundreds of others who had also been arrested. Our eyes watered profusely from the tear gas that had just been used. We were separated, then lined up literally belly to backbone with hundreds of others, hands clasped over our hands, to await “processing.” We stood for hours, arms going to sleep. Our “captors” knew that and to alleviate the numbness, every now and then a Federal Marshall would tell us that on command and in unison, we were to unclasp our hands, lower our arms to shoulder height, extend them vertically, rotate them–raise them, lower them, raise them… but not to go below shoulder level.
BULLETS IN HIS POCKETS
This was massive crowd control, and the marshals knew well what they were doing. One fellow in line lowered his hands toward his pockets. Immediately, marshals yanked him from line, and quickly discovered he had bullets in his possession. I have no idea what happened to him after that, but the troops and marshals were mad. People were getting hurt!
“Processing” was intended to humiliate us. We were told to strip to our shorts. My camera was taken from me, and then I was told to stand facing a wall and then examined in a most humiliating manner. Later, I was interrogated (as was everyone else), and held in some other center with hundreds of others now deemed safe.
Next day, we were told we could leave. My camera was returned, but without film. Desperately, now, I wanted to leave Oxford, but could not find my four other friends–nor, I later learned, could they find me.
Walking to the outskirts of town, I began hitchhiking back to Alabama. When I finally returned to campus, the Dean of Men placed me on social probation. Because I was already on academic probation, I decided it just might be a good time to take a “vacation.” Several years later I found direction in Montana, and as I like to joke, “Friends, I was on the Dean’s list my entire college career.”
REFLECTIONS ON JAMES MEREDITH
James Meredith was one of the pioneers of the civil rights movement. He graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1963. For a number of years, Meredith continued to work as a civil rights activist, most notably by leading the March Against Fear in 1966, a protest against voter registration intimidation. During the march, which began in Memphis, Tenn., and ended in Jackson, Miss., Meredith was shot and wounded, hospitalized, and then rejoined the march in its last days. In 1967, he enrolled in Columbia University, and in 1968 received a law degree.
That anyone should wag a finger of recrimination at the South would be a mistake, for I have found that prejudice is equally rampant in the north. Here, in Montana, for instance, there’s prejudice against Native Americans–and as we listen to the voices of those on the campaign trail, we’re finding that forms of racism still seem to exist–and that’s it’s not just from the South, my place of birth.
BUT HE’S AN ARAB
“But he’s an Arab,” said the woman to John McCain, speaking of Obama. “No Ma’am,” said McCain, in what may have been his finest moment in the campaign, “he’s not. He’s a decent family man with whom I happen to have some fundamental differences.”
Unfortunately, no voice of reason was present when the large bald-headed policeman in Florida called upon the gathered crowd, advising them to remember who you’re voting for. “Will it be Barrack Hussein Obama?” shouted the rabble rouser in what may have been one of the most incendiary moments in the campaign. “Or will it be John McCain?”
My fear is that people will forget just how far we have come and that when they enter the voting both, ballots will be cast on some deep seated fear or unfounded hatred, rather than on those “fundamental differences,” which Barack Obama certainly has with John McCain.
In my next post I’ll relate the tragic death of 14-year old Virgil Ware.
POST FROM THIS TIME LAST YEAR:
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GOOGLE AND AMAZON ADS AUGMENT OUR TRAVELS
(Here are three excellent books, all of which I’ve read–and can recommend. They relate tangentially, at least, to the subject at hand.)