By Robert Hitt Neil, Syndicated columnist
The Picayune Item
My junior year at Ole Miss, we had a football game in Jackson Saturday night. My folks left me a car, and I spent the night with Semmes Ross, a tackle from Jackson. We were ready to drive back after lunch Sunday when a fraternity brother called with news of Damsels in Distress: could we give a ride back to Oxford to his cousin Jean and her roommate? We were gentlemen; they were girls. Of course, we agreed! The roommate was a beautiful freshman with “snapping black eyes,” as my mother said. We went back by way of Brownspur and both parents made doggone sure that I knew that they approved of that pretty girl.
Understand that I’ve always been a little slow around the Fairer Sex.
Semmes and I were in a couple of campus singing groups together, and we treated the girls to two hours of singing (mainly “Ghost Riders in the Sky”) without a thought (male, anyway) of the radio. As we drove into Oxford from Batesville, cars and pickups were parked three-deep on beside the then-two-lane highway. Highway Patrolmen, Sheriff’s deputies, and Oxford police were everywhere, as were a lot of rough-looking men who were going onto the main campus on foot. I drove all the way around the campus, crossed the railroad bridge into town, drove around the Square, then back onto the campus from town. We still had no clue!
We crossed the bridge to campus at the end of The Grove, and a military-style command position was set up just behind the Rebel statue. Clouds of smoke and tear gas obscured our vision. We could hear and see gunshots, people running, throwing bricks. A TV van lay on its side, still afire, and several other vehicles were burning. It was a real nightmare!
The girls lived in Somerville Hall, the closest girl’s dorm to the center of campus, and no vehicle was going to approach it from the Grove street, so I turned down Sorority Row, doubled back the wrong way on the street around the ROTC marching field, and we pulled up to their dorm, all four of us holding hankies to our faces, for here the tear gas was thickest. We escorted Jean and Betsy into the dorm with their bags, dodging gunfire. They said later that they stuffed wet towels under their doors and around their windows to try to keep out the tear gas. A dead man was in the bushes besides their steps the next morning.
Semmes & I maneuvered back to our frat house, where we finally learned what was going on: the Federal troops had invaded our campus, and were by this time besieged in the Lyceum Building. We hurried to join the conflict.
As students, we all knew that a black man named James Meredith had applied to enroll at Ole Miss, and that he had been turned down several times by state authorities. As students, we didn’t give two hoots in hallelujah about that.
You see, our football team was the Number One Team in America! And now our campus had been invaded, and our Lyceum surrounded, by Federal troops, 600 Marshals, at first, armed with pistols and tear gas guns, protected by gas masks and flak jackets, right out in front of God and everybody. Not everyone could throw a football like Squirrel Griffing, our quarterback, but even co-eds could throw a halfa-brick accurately, Southern Belles being what they were back then.
We attacked our Lyceum, determined to root out the Feds inside. No one even cared about Meredith, safe in a dorm half a mile away with his own escort. Then it turned out that all those cars parked around the edge of the highway were KKK folks from at least five states, answering the call to fight against these latter-day invaders of our fair Southland, where the Rebels were Number One! Two drunk sailors from Millington Naval Base commandeered a bulldozer and almost breeched the doors of the Lyceum! Finally, the National Guard, 82nd Airborne, and other units, totaling over 33,000 troops, won the Battle of Ole Miss.
The date was Sunday night, September 30th, 1962 (although the august Encyclopedia of Southern Culture 1st Edition declared it to be “September 31st.”)
That was the night Betsy and I met, 50 years ago. Was that star-crossed, or what!