The Peabody Award-winning ESPN documentary series “30 for 30” continues with tonight’s episode, “Ghost of Ole Miss.” The narrative, based on the long-format story by ESPN.com writer and Oxford resident Wright Thompson, who wrote and narrated the 1-hour documentary, explores the intersection in history of the undefeated 1962 Ole Miss football team and the integration of The University of Mississippi. Thompson worked with Peabody Award-winning director Fritz Mitchell on the project. Mitchell started his television career as a researcher for CBS Sports in 1982 and has produced other long-format documentaries for ESPN and PBS.
“I think it’s a different kind of civil rights story,” Mitchell said. “Sports doesn’t intersect that often with civil rights, other than, say, Jackie Robinson or Muhammad Ali. Occasionally, you get a sports story that does cross over and become part of a bigger narrative. I’ve always been fascinated by the civil rights era, and I knew Ole Miss had a lot of great football teams in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, but I had no idea the year James Meredith was integrating the campus that they were on the verge of trying to have a perfect season. And, perhaps, football was one of the reasons why the school stayed open. I didn’t know any of that.”
“Ghosts of Ole Miss” opens with a burning cross, followed by footage of the civil rights era and Thompson watching highlights of the 1962 Ole Miss football team on a film projector. Mitchell describes the documentary as a learning experience through the perspective of Thompson, as he goes on this journey to try and learn more about this period in history.
“Once I grew up and moved away, I began to study the history of the South,” Thompson said in the opening sequence. “The 1962 Ole Miss football team fascinated me. That year, in spite of the school’s near self-destruction over self-integration, or perhaps because of it, they managed the most remarkable season seen in Oxford, before or since. It was also a team not much discussed. They seemed forgotten, and I wanted to see why.”
The documentary is divided into four acts, with the first three set in 1962, similar to Thompson’s long-format story, and the fourth and final act set in current-day Ole Miss, built around the 1962 team’s reunion at the Texas game.
It features personal interviews with “close to a dozen players,” as well as other significant figures including: James Meredith; Dick Wilson, who was student body president in 1962; Dan Rather, who was reporter on the scene in one of his early assignment for CBS News; Henry Gallagher, who was in charge of James Meredith’s security detail; William Doyle, author of “American Insurrection” and “A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America”; former Mississippi Gov. William Winter; Chancellor Dan Jones; former Chancellor Robert Khayat; Overby fellow Curtis Wilkie, who was also a student in 1962; and Associated Student Body President Kimbrely Dandridge.
While Mitchell said the film “focuses on a dark, painful period in Mississippi history,” he thinks the film leaves a positive impression for the audience. Thompson said he found himself emotional watching the finished product, particularly at the end of the documentary.
“I was a little stunned at the power of how much it affected me,” Thompson said. “I think everyone from Mississippi will have that reaction. When you get to the end and you realize what the team represents and you see them standing together, it’s a very emotional moment, at least it was for me. I’m emotional thinking about it now. I think it’s going to really knock people down.”
“Ghosts of Ole Miss” premieres tonight at 8 p.m. ET/7 CT on ESPN, with three re-airingss scheduled for later in the week on ESPN2: Wednesday (2 a.m. ET/1 CT and 9 p.m./8 CT) and Saturday (6 a.m./5 CT).
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