STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And now let's remember a milestone in the fight for equal rights. Fifty years ago, October 1st, 1962, the first black student was admitted to the University of Mississippi, which had been a bastion of the Old South.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The town of Oxford is an armed camp following riots that accompanied the registration of the first negro in the university's 118-year history.
INSKEEP: It took some 30,000 American troops, federal marshals and national guardsmen to get James Meredith to class after a violent campus uprising. Two people were killed and more than 300 injured. NPR's Debbie Elliott remembers.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Some historians say the integration of Ole Miss was the last battle of the Civil War. It was a high-stakes showdown between President John F. Kennedy and Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett.
GOVERNOR ROSS BARNETT: I'm a Mississippi segregationist and I am proud of it.
ELLIOTT: Publicly, Barnett promised to block Meredith from the campus in Oxford, despite a federal court order. Privately, he was on the phone trying to strike a compromise with Kennedy.
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BARNETT: I'm on the spot here, you know.
PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: Well, now, you got...
BARNETT: I've taken an oath to do that, and you know what our laws with reference to...
KENNEDY: Yes, I understand that.
ELLIOTT: While Barnett wants to save face by defending Mississippi's segregationist laws, the president says he has a responsibility to uphold federal law.
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KENNEDY: What I would like to do is to this to work out in an amicable way. We don't want a lot of people down there getting hurt.
ELLIOTT: By Saturday, September 29, 1962, President Kennedy was deploying federal marshals to Oxford, and Governor Barnett was making this fiery speech at an Ole Miss football game.
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BARNETT: I love Mississippi. I love her people, our customs. I love and I respect our heritage.
CHUCK ROSS: It was almost like firing on Fort Sumter. History professor Chuck Ross is director of the African-American Studies Program at the University of Mississippi.
A call to arms that, you know, we're getting ready to be invaded, we really want you as a white Mississippian, to respond.
ELLIOTT: By Sunday night, September 30th, hundreds of white students and protesters from around the region flocked to campus and moved toward the Lyceum, the stately columned building where Meredith would register.
ROSS: Marshalls surround the Lyceum. They begin to use tear gas as people begin to throw rocks and bottles, and things just go totally chaotic when it becomes dark, and that's when people begin to shoot.
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ELLIOTT: President Kennedy activates the Mississippi National Guard and calls in Army troops from Memphis. By dawn, October 1st, the riot is quelled and marshals escort James Meredith to his first class, American history. Ole Miss is commemorating the 50th anniversary of integration on campus today with a tribute to Meredith and a series of panel discussions. But the man who made that history doesn't like the idea of marking the anniversary.
JAMES MEREDITH: You know, I got a degree from Ole Miss in political science, history and French. I ain't never heard of a Frenchman celebrating Waterloo. They not only kept me out, they kept all of my blood before me out forever, and I'm supposed to celebrate that?
ELLIOTT: It's not that Meredith, now 79, is bitter. He just rejects the notion that he is some kind of civil rights hero. His new memoir is called "A Mission from God." Meredith says he was at war, fighting for his God-given rights as an American citizen, and the University of Mississippi was the battleground.
MEREDITH: The reason Ole Miss was established was to refine and define and perpetuate the theory of white supremacy. It was the Ivy League of the southern way of life.
ELLIOTT: And for that reason, it became a target of civil rights activists soon after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that desegregated public schools. Slain NAACP leader Medgar Evers applied to law school there and was rejected.
MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: Medgar came before James Meredith. He paved the way for James Meredith to come along and eventually be successful.
ELLIOTT: Myrlie Evers-Williams is the widow of Evers, who was gunned down in 1964. She says when he contacted the NAACP to get help with his Ole Miss application, they asked him to be the organization's leader in Mississippi. The Ole Miss riots occurred at a time when staunch segregationists, and oftentimes violent racists, dominated the political structure in Mississippi. Being for integration meant being on the wrong side of the powerful White Citizens' Councils, the Ku Klux Klan and the State Sovereignty Commission, a spy agency.
White professors on campus who supported Meredith's admission faced intimidation. Marleah Kaufman Hobbs' husband, a political science professor, got death threats. She was a fine arts grad student at the time. Now 89 years old, she remembers when the riots broke out.
MARLEAH KAUFMAN HOBBS: Oh, that night, the cracking of the guns, the planes flying overhead bringing in more National Guard. We didn't sleep at all that night. It was the changing of the world.
ELLIOTT: As the world changed around her, Hobbs was painting a giant abstract called "Burning Man." The painting was recently discovered on campus and is now on display at the University of Mississippi museum.
HOBBS: It's ambiguous. It just represents a fiery mob coming and going.
ELLIOTT: Bishop Duncan Gray Jr., a white Episcopal priest in Oxford at the time, tried to squelch a mob that had gathered atop a Confederate monument on campus.
BISHOP DUNCAN GRAY, JR.: That of course, they grabbed me and pulled me down. I'd been hit a few times before, but that's when I took the roughest beating.
ELLIOTT: Gray says the night forever changed the dynamics in Mississippi's struggle to preserve white supremacy.
JR.: It was a horrible thing, and I'm sorry we had to go through that, but it certainly marked a very definite turning point. And maybe a learning experience for some people. I think even the ardent segregationists didn't want to see violence like that again.
ELLIOTT: There would be more violence in Mississippi, targeting civil rights activists. But never again the kind of violent mob rule that took over the campus of Ole Miss 50 years ago. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
INSKEEP: Here's how much has changed. These days, students at the University of Mississippi can take a course on the turbulent period of integration, and we'll hear more on that tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.