Remembering the Riots: First Hand Accounts

Posted on Sep 27 2012 - 3:00pm by Lacey Russell

A panel of individuals who were on The University of Mississippi campus during the integration riots gathered on Wednesday afternoon for an open group discussion about the violent events that took place on Sept. 30, 1962.

The panel, moderated by associate journalism professor Dr. Kathleen Wickham, was comprised of a retired university administrator, a former faculty member, students who attended the university during the fall of 1962 and a man who was a high school junior in Oxford during the riots. Panel member Ken Wooten began the discussion. Wooten, a retired registrar and admissions dean for the university, was inside the Lyceum to assist the marshals and federal officials who were on site to manage the growing riot. Against the initial wishes of the marshals, Wooten chose to go to the Circle and asked the students to return to their dormitories. He was struck by the scene before him. “The tear gas had already been fired,” Wooten said. “Everyone was bloody and crying from the fumes.” Wooten was then grabbed by the crowd and used as a human shield to push its way past the barricade of marshals guarding the Lyceum. Wooten recalled the state of the Lyceum once he returned that night. “You couldn’t walk down either hall of the Lyceum without having to step over a wounded man with a broken arm or a head injury from a thrown brick or a gunshot wound,” he said. At daylight, when walking across the Circle, Wooten remembered seeing “enough brick, vomit, blood, glass and anything else you can imagine” strewn across the grounds. Lyman Aldrich, who was an undergraduate student at the time, was the second panelist to tell his story. “My gosh, what happened? We’ve been taken over,” was his first thought upon re-entering the campus after returning from Ole Miss’ football game in Jackson. Aldrich thought the tensions erupted due to emotions being stirred up by local and national media. He later saw that stirring in action when a cameraman from a national news organization asked him and his friends to flip a car that had been burned because the camera crew “needed an action shot.” Gerald Wilson, the next to speak, was a university employee in 1962 and was provost from 1969-99. He spent time during the violence in a park where rioters parked their vehicles. He remembered speaking with one man who said, “I would have been here a lot earlier if I could have been. I fought in Korea and I’ll fight for my country again.” The next day at a class in Bondurant Hall, Wilson noticed a problem with residual tear gas coming in through the open windows. Bob Herring, who was a junior at University High School in 1962, spent most of the night roaming campus and watching the events unfold. Herring remembered being at his home on Faculty Row, watching Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s speech on television and hearing the tear gas canisters popping and dispensing on campus. Herring said walking onto campus was like seeing a scene from outer space. “The marshals were wearing gas masks, running around like crazy and chasing people,” he said. Closing comments of the discussion were made by audience member Effie Burt, a black woman who lived in Oxford during the time of the riots. Burt, who graduated with the very first Lafayette County integrated high school class, said that in the months after the riots, her family went to another town to purchase groceries and avoided public situations as a way to protect themselves. The event, which was held in Barnard Observatory, lasted an hour and a half and was a part of the ongoing Opening the Closed Society program being organized by the school’s Civil Rights Committee. A portion of the time was devoted to question-and-answer style discussion between the audience and the panel members.