The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On the heels of a mob, James Meredith integrated Ole Miss. He left lessons for today.

The military veteran’s story from 60 years ago offers a warning: Extreme political rhetoric can fuel violence.

Civil rights movement activist and military veteran James Meredith, pictured in 2018, greets a friend with a Black power salute as he takes a coffee break at a Jackson, Miss., grocery store. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
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Sixty years ago, on Sept. 30, 1962, James Meredith, a Black military veteran, moved onto the University of Mississippi’s campus in Oxford. He intended to enroll in fall classes the next morning, which would formally desegregate the student body. As Meredith settled into his dormitory at Ole Miss, a massive crowd attacked the hundreds of U.S. marshals assigned to protect him. The assault lasted for hours and ceased only when President John F. Kennedy mobilized the military. Hours after the mob dispersed, Meredith finally enrolled, officially desegregating the university on Oct. 1, 1962.

Meredith’s enrollment is a milestone worthy of commemoration and celebration, while the “Battle of Oxford” that preceded it serves as an important reminder of America’s long history of mob violence. The 1962 attack on the U.S. marshals has stark parallels to other violent mobs in U.S. history, including the one that descended upon the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. In moments like these, people who feel ignored by political institutions are more likely to embrace violence to protest, pressure or remove the groups or authorities they oppose.

Historian Paul Gilje has shown that mobs are part of a centuries-old tradition of political violence. Since the 1600s, some Americans have formed violent mobs to coerce public officials, institutions and ethnic and racial groups into a variety of demands — from waiving excise taxes to forcing Black and Chinese residents out of certain neighborhoods and towns.

Despite this history, the American South entered a distinctly new age of political violence after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which prohibited legalized racial segregation in public schools. Most White southern politicians signed onto the 1956 “Southern Manifesto,” which deemed Brown an unconstitutional attack on states’ autonomy and called for resistance to school desegregation and federal civil rights programs. For White southerners holding or seeking office, defying federal authority became a way to channel and legitimate their White constituents’ antagonism toward racial equality and the national government.

Like many vocal segregationist officials, Gov. Ross Barnett (D-Miss.) set the stage for violence when he openly fought Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi. Meredith applied to the university in January 1961, but faced stonewalling and rejection for months. With support from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,, he sued the university for denying him admission on the basis of race.

While the university and state government fought back in court, vigilantes tried to pressure Meredith into dropping the case. Meredith suffered threats, intimidation, vandalism and even arrest for trumped-up charges of fraudulent voter registration. “My greatest concern was for the safety of my family and parents,” he noted in his 2012 memoir. Meredith’s relatives supported him despite receiving threats of their own.

On June 25, 1962, federal judge John Wisdom ruled in Meredith’s favor, but Barnett kept fighting to bolster his own political status. The state appealed the case, which ended on Sept. 10 when the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Meredith and called for his admission to the university.

Three days later, Barnett gave a radio address that presented White Mississippians with two options: “Either submit to the unlawful dictates of the federal government or stand up like men and tell them ‘NEVER!’ ” Barnett’s preference for the latter was clear. Championing the discredited legal theory of interposition, he claimed that state officials could essentially bypass the federal government’s will and instead uphold Mississippi’s own laws that kept the university segregated.

Barnett shepherded increasingly desperate efforts to block the university’s desegregation. In one stunt, the university’s board of trustees made the governor a registrar so he could personally deny Meredith’s admission. On Sept. 27, Barnett surveyed an armed mob in Oxford. Rather than attempt to talk down the mob, he instead convinced Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to cancel a federal convoy bringing Meredith to campus.

Barnett earned ardent segregationists’ admiration, but at the cost of a federal contempt charge. To avoid fines and possible arrest, the governor secretly agreed to a desegregation plan with President John F. Kennedy’s administration on Sept. 30, 1962, which resulted in U.S. marshals ushering Meredith onto campus that evening.

The ensuing mob gradually grew in numbers and eventually turned violent. While Meredith moved into his dormitory, marshals gathered at the Lyceum administrative building that housed the registrar, where Meredith would enroll the next morning. As federal officers congregated, so too did White onlookers. At first, the crowd was mostly made up of students because the Mississippi Highway Patrol had set roadblocks to filter out vehicles unaffiliated with the university. University chancellor John Williams attempted to quell the gathering mob and encouraged students to leave. Some did.

The situation quickly deteriorated, however, as protesters — including many from outside the university — bypassed the roadblocks and joined the crowd. The throng became rowdier, harassing journalists on the scene as well as marshals, whom several in the crowd mistakenly believed guarded Meredith inside the Lyceum. Adding to the violence, several highway patrol officers encouraged the mob and its escalating attacks on the federal marshals. By 7 p.m., some people were throwing brickbats and beating reporters.

Rather than talk down the brewing mob of his supporters, Barnett riled it up. At 7:30 p.m., he delivered a broadcast address that at first plainly denounced violence. The governor concluded the speech, however, by signaling support for continued resistance to Meredith’s enrollment. He asked God to have mercy on the souls of federal officials, whom he accused of trampling Mississippi’s sovereignty and destroying the U.S. Constitution. After his speech, the crowd intensified its assault on approximately 400 U.S. marshals. For hours, the mob set fire to vehicles, attacked journalists and pelted federal agents with rocks, molotov cocktails and gunfire. Barnett did nothing to stop them, and the highway patrol eventually left the federal marshals to fend for themselves.

Barnett was just one public figure who stoked violence against the federal marshals. Former Army general Edwin Walker had begrudgingly followed President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s orders to desegregate Little Rock High School with troops in 1957, but a few hours into the onslaught in Mississippi in 1962, he joined the mob and effectively became its commander. The mob raged through the night, with gunfire killing two bystanders: journalist Paul Leslie Guihard and Walter Ray Gunter, a White onlooker from just north of Oxford. Approximately 160 U.S. marshals suffered injuries and it took the military until the next morning to suppress the rioting. Hours after the crowd dispersed, Meredith entered the Lyceum and formally enrolled at the university.

The mob that fought Meredith’s enrollment is a reminder that political hostility toward federal authorities — which has emanated most often in recent years from the MAGA wing of the Republican Party — is neither new nor without consequence. Just as Barnett fueled violence against U.S. marshals 60 years ago, unduly lambasting government agencies today elevates threats to law enforcement personnel. This lesson was especially clear on Jan. 6, 2021, when President Donald Trump inspired his supporters to attack the Capitol, which resulted in the death of a Capitol Hill police officer.

The 60th anniversary of the Battle of Oxford is a timely reminder that extreme political rhetoric can foment violence.