The Ole Miss Incident: Examining the Past in the Present

Written by Marley Abbott, Graduate Assistant

*Disclaimer: some of the words and images cited in this post may contain offensive language and sentiments.

This past Valentine’s Day, I had the privilege of attending MTSU’s Unity Luncheon with keynote speaker James Meredith. As a massive figure of the civil rights movement, it was an honor to hear him speak during Black History Month, and learn about his work as an activist as we also recognized heroes in our own Murfreesboro community. To some, the civil rights movement seems like a figure of the past, but it has only been 55 years since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Many of the struggles and bigoted beliefs that activists faced during that time are present in 2019. Hearing firsthand the experiences that Meredith went through as the first African-American to integrate the University of Mississippi was an especially emotional moment. Many of those involved on either side of the fight for civil rights are still alive, and their words and actions continue to impact the world that we live in.

unity luncheon 2019

Alissa Kane, myself, and Casey Swank at the Unity Luncheon held in the Student Union Building ballroom on February 14, 2019.

As part of my work as a graduate research assistant at the Albert Gore Research Center, I have been researching the career of Senator Albert Gore, Sr. for an upcoming exhibit. Much of the material that I have sorted through has been constituent mail sent to Senator Gore over the course of his congressional career. One of the largest parts of his collection covers constituent mail concerning civil rights. In the materials that I have gone through, the vast majority of letters oppose civil rights, and their writers seem to find any way to convince themselves that those in support are working against the progress of our country. Some people believe we should not judge those in the past because they were “products of their time,” but shouldn’t freedom, equality, and opportunity be universally understood values as Americans, no matter the time or place?

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James Meredith holding a newspaper with the headline that reads, “Meredith off to enroll; Barnett action blocked.” Photo credit: Bettmann/Corbis/AP

The opportunities and human rights that African-Americans fought for during the 1960s are things that many of us in the present may take for granted. An African-American man wanting to attend university, something that should be without controversy in our current day, caused a huge stir during the 1960s. After riots broke out at the Ole Miss campus in opposition to integration on September 29, 1962, President Kennedy mobilized the National Guard and other authorities to maintain order among the students and the local community. When Meredith began attending Ole Miss on October 1, he was met with harassment yet he persevered and would go on to receive his degree in 1963.

As the riots and controversy surrounding Meredith’s university attendance grew, many outside of Mississippi wrote to their respective representatives to share their opinions on the matter. Here at the Gore Center, we have an entire folder dedicated to Senator Gore’s constituent mail concerning the “Ole Miss Incident.” Included below are several images of these letters that we have in our collection. Click here for the transcripts, or click each image to view larger.

Many who wrote such letters likened any action in favor of integration as “communist tyranny” or evidence of an encroaching “dictatorship.” Some people believed that integration was an attack on white southerners and a loss of southern heritage. While many of the letters voiced concerns over the assumed loss of freedom through the power of the individual states, they did not extend that idea of freedom to African-Americans wishing to pursue the same opportunities as whites. In light of the burgeoning tensions of the Cuban Missile Crisis, many also felt that President Kennedy’s use of force to integrate Old Miss was misguided. One constituent, David Jacks, expressed his strong support for the President’s actions and saw it as a worthy cause toward the principles of “liberty and justice and equality” that our nation was founded upon.

While this folder of constituent mail is just one drop in a sea of thousands of other papers, it is a strong reflection of the opportunities that historical research presents. Having the opportunity to work in an archive and interact with these materials firsthand was a unique experience for me. Attending an event featuring James Meredith and then returning to the archives and reading mail discussing a period in his life was an almost strange sensation; what might seem to others as just another event in history had become a very real, very present story for me.

Reading through the hundreds of letters sent to Senator Gore throughout the civil rights movement made an otherwise far away period in time all the more accessible. Being only 24 years old in comparison to James Meredith’s 85 years, I can understand the tendency for many my age to consider a previous period in history as a relic of the past. However, after reflection, the fact of the matter is simple–this was not that long ago. The people who both supported and opposed this struggle for equality are still present. I’ve asked two of my grandparents, both born in 1948, about their experiences growing up in a small Kentucky town, and they both remember segregation quite clearly. Something that was considered normal for part of their generation at one point is now an almost unfathomable concept. This is why historical research is important. This is why we need to take care to understand where we have come from and where we still need to go. If we do not make an effort to understand our past, we cannot progress into the future.

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