Fifty years ago on Sept. 30, 1962, the familiar sights of the Grove, the Lyceum and the Circle were grotesque images filled with smoke, chaos and hatred.
Bobby King, a Corinth native who was a journalism senior at Ole Miss in 1962, said Sept. 30 started out just like every other Sunday.
“I was in New Albany having lunch with my girlfriend, who is my wife now, and her family after church,” King said. “I decided to flip on the TV when I heard a bulletin from President John F. Kennedy addressing the state of Mississippi and Ole Miss. The president said that James Meredith was being admitted to Ole Miss today and that he was federalizing troops to maintain order. I told my girlfriend I had to get down there and see what was going on.”
King was already an experienced journalist, having written for The Commercial Appeal, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger. The news was not brand new, as rumors had been swirling around campus that Ole Miss would be integrated.
“The tension had been building through summer and early fall as word of integration loomed over Mississippi,” King said.
King said he arrived on campus around sunset and turned onto Sorority Row en route to his dorm room. He soon found out the riot was well underway.
“As soon as I pulled onto the grounds of Ole Miss, a white man with a gun stepped in front of my car and stopped me; it wasn’t an officer,” King explained. “He asked me where I was going and I told him to my dorm in Powers. He made me pull out my student ID and then he told me to get to my room, lock the door and not to come out until the fighting was over.”
The dorm King stayed in was close to the infirmary, so he decided to wait there for the in- jured from the riot to come in. Around 10 p.m., ambulances and jeeps arrived to take the injured to the campus infirmary. “I started asking people about the riot, and they said several people had been fight- ing in the Grove and most of the people rioting against the marshals were not students but people of interest who felt the need to stop integration,” King said.
On Monday morning, King walked through the Grove to his classes. He realized what had happened and questioned why it happened to his university.
“Walking through the Grove about 8 or 9 Monday morning, it really hit me,” King said. “The stench of tear gas was hanging, hovering above the ground like a dense fog. Cars were still smoldering from being set on fire. Marshals were everywhere. It was almost like a military zone after battle with the military in control. I soon realized this was not about the students; this was about the deep racial hatred throughout the South.”
When King arrived at the journalism building, he spoke with fellow reporters and wrote a story about the riot. Throughout the day, speeches were made on the steps of the Lyceum while Meredith was registering for classes.
“I remember the governor standing on the steps saying integration would not happen on his watch, but we all knew he couldn’t stop it from happening,” King said. “I was aware that people did not want this to happen and were willing to die to stop it.”
Over the next few days, the environment on campus was extremely volatile. Meredith started classes and lived in Baxter Hall, the dorm across from King.
“The only times I saw Meredith, he had a squad of federal marshals in a diamond around him that would move him down the streets to class,” King said. “I believe he took most of his meals in his room because every time he went into the cafeteria it wasn’t a pleasant sight.
“The thing I remember the most was thinking that he had to be miserable with fear when he was exposed out on campus. He probably had a difficult time concentrating on his studies with everything around him. He was subjected to shouts, cussing, harassments and spitting as he walked to his classes every day, and it remained that way through the remainder of the semester.”
King remembered a secret publication called the Rebel Underground, which was printed using a stencil and distributed to secret spots on cam- pus, and he still has the first copy ever distributed. The paper boasted a big picture of a rebel flag and read: “The Rebel Underground is composed of students who resent the Negro James Meredith being forced into our university by federal might.”
“When I read this paper, I thought to myself, ‘My goodness, I can’t believe it’s come to this,’” King said. “The paper had a list of professors who were reported to be communist sympathizers and black sympathizers. It even listed phone numbers of the professors for students to call and harass. They called The Daily Mississippian (then The Mississippian) editor of that time, Sidna Brower, the pink Pulitzer princess.”
After a few months went by, everything started to die down. Students began to accept that Meredith was a part of Ole Miss and that they could not change that.
“None of us realized the national and international scope of what was going on,” King explained. “It wasn’t until I was older that I truly understood the significance of it. It’s something I can say that I lived through and was a part of.”