Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Ghosts of Mississippi


One of the small benefits of being housebound for much of last week was that I had a chance to catch up on my television viewing.  One of the highlights was watching Ghosts of Ole Miss, a documentary that is part of ESPN's ongoing "30 for 30" series.  The film looks at the events of the fall of 1962 at the University of Mississippi, which featured an undefeated football team and the chaos that ensued when James Meredith became the first black student ever enrolled at the University.

Ghosts of Ole Miss isn't a perfect film by any means -- the two halves of the story never quite come together (the football stars don't have much to add about Meredith) and the filmmaker made the unfortunate choice to rely on stylized reenactments of crucial scenes -- but it makes for compelling viewing nonetheless.  In truth, the integration of Ole Miss is such an extraordinary and dramatic moment in American history that it would be hard to make a film about it that wasn't riveting.  Meredith's dignity and courage in the face of violence, the naked racism of the Ole Miss students and Mississippi governor Ross Barnett, the political machinations of President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy...the story has lots of different facets.

I was particularly drawn to Ghosts of Ole Miss because I wrote my undergraduate thesis at Wesleyan University on James Meredith.  Entitled "A Harbinger of Change: The Meredith March Against Fear and the Decline of the Civil Rights Movement," the paper looked at Meredith's decision to walk across Mississippi in 1966 -- a march that became a major civil rights event after Meredith was shot by a would-be assassin.

As part of my research, I actually corresponded directly with Meredith in November 1988.  I spent a half an hour just now looking through my papers trying to find his letter to me.  No luck.  If I were truly intrepid, I could find my letter to Meredith, which, according to a Google search, is contained in his archives at Ole Miss.  I made one pilgrimage to Oxford more than 25 years ago.  Maybe I'll make another at some point to visit my letter.

UPDATE: Another half an hour of searching through old shoe boxes turned up Meredith's handwritten letter to me.  Meredith graciously directed me to a Newsweek story on the March Against Fear while flatly denying that he was ever part of the civil rights movement (he must have been responding to some question that I had posed).   He also included several news clips and public letters that articulated his opinions about the issues of the day, some of which were quite bizarre.  I'm glad I found Meredith's correspondence and resolve to put in a safer place going forward.