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An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962 Hardcover – September 18, 2001
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William Doyle, author of Inside the Oval Office, calls the forced integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962 "the biggest domestic military crisis of the twentieth century." In An American Insurrection, he delivers a blow-by-blow account of how the school, popularly known as Ole Miss, was opened to black students for the first time. At the center of the tale is James Meredith, a determined but unusual hero gripped by what Doyle calls "an almost messianic vision of destroying the system of white supremacy in Mississippi." Meredith was one of the first black men to serve in the armed forces following its integration, enlisting right out of high school in 1951. He later decided to seek a college education and resolved to get his degree from the all-white precincts of Ole Miss. Through clever plotting and the assistance of a beleaguered civil rights movement, Meredith won admittance to the school, but his troubles had only just begun. Thousands of segregationists descended upon Oxford, Mississippi, to block Meredith from attending class. Their numbers included students, state police, governor Ross Barnett, and an assortment of troublemakers with no real ties to the university. Through it all, Meredith "succeeded in forcing three new allies to his side: the president of the United States, the U.S. Justice Department, and the most powerful military machine in history."
The story recounted in An American Insurrection is inspiring, and Doyle tells it well. It is also fresh, because it has been forgotten in a way other epic civil rights struggles--at Little Rock and Selma, for instance--have not. Meredith never took his place beside Rosa Parks as a celebrated hero of the civil rights movement; its leaders wound up regarding him as something of an annoyance. As Doyle writes, "Meredith maintained a ruthless, jarring intellectual integrity and courage that considered the traditional discussion of civil rights as an insult to him as an American citizen, as invalid, even preposterous." The key word is "jarring": Meredith spent his later years rebuking the NAACP and working for conservative senator Jesse Helms. Admirers of Diane McWhorter's Carry Me Home and other readers interested in the civil rights movement will enjoy An American Insurrection--and nobody will suppress a smile during Doyle's description of graduation day, when Meredith wore one of the red-and- white "Ross Is Right" badges distributed by his foes. It was hidden under his robes, turned upside down. --John Miller
From Publishers Weekly
When James Meredith was about 12 years old, he had a "young boy's dream of attending the football powerhouse school," the University of Mississippi. But when he became the first black student to register at "Ole Miss" in 1962, a "Byzantine legal struggle" ensued, which Doyle chronicles along with the military maneuvers by U.S. Deputy Marshals and others sent to contain the revolt by radical segregationists and hundreds of student and civilian "volunteers." The episode which Time magazine called the "greatest Constitutional crisis since the Civil War" collapsed into complete mayhem and violence. Doyle (Inside the Oval Office), cowriter and coproducer of the A&E documentary The Secret White House Tapes, makes extensive use of the Kennedy tapes as well as interviews with over 500 eyewitnesses and participants. Unfortunately, his indiscriminate accumulation of detail (the governor's wife wore pearl-frame glasses; the average height of the 503rd Military Police Battalion is 5'10") mars the book. The sketches of Civil War battles (provided by way of analogy to the Mississippi crisis) and of assorted local, state and federal troop movements fail to cohere. Some of Doyle's facts that World War II paratroopers served in "Normandy, Holland, Belgium, Sicily, Italy and North Africa"; references to JFK's "overlapping extramarital affairs and fleeting sexual experiences"; the price tag on Meredith's graduation suit ($85) bring neither depth nor diversion to this unimaginative text. Agent, Mel Berger/William Morris. (Sept. 18)Forecast: Military buffs may relish the logistical detail, but the dust jacket comparison to Black Hawk Down is unwarranted, since this account is unlikely to break out of its niche.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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James H. Meredith, a determined young Air Force veteran, challenged Ole Miss's segregationist policies, and defeated them in Federal Court. Segregationist Governor Ross Barnett, a dead ringer for a stereotype undertaker, vowed to oppose that publicly, while playing games with the Kennedy Administration to avoid disaster, privately. The Kennedys in turn wanted the "Civil Rights mess" off their desks, but they had to act. Amid all this, the wildly crazy Brig. Gen. Edwin Walker became the mouthpiece and symbolic leader of Mississippi racists and segregationists, and he and they converged on the university, in Oxford, to stop Meredith, hoping to re-create Pickett's Charge, but presumably with a better outcome.
Barnett used his state police, came up with state legislation and court orders, and stood in the University's doorway, to try to prevent Meredith and the federal Marshals escorting him from entering the campus. Meredith finally got on the campus, but didn't register. That night, the racists attacked the marshals, and nearly overran them. The police stood by and allowed the riot to happen. Mississippi seemed to stand on the brink of a second secession.
An infuriated President Kennedy federalized the Mississippi National Guard, and sent them in to restore order and protect Meredith. This is the core of the book - the experiences of the military men who put aside their personal feelings (one was Barnett's own son) and did their duty in this grave constitutional crisis to uphold federal law and court orders against segregationists. They did their duty, broke up the riot, protected Meredith, saved the Marshals, and next morning, Mr. Meredith became Ole Miss's first black student (and later first black alumnus).
The writing is superb, the research even better. William Doyle explores the role played by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, the state's "thought police," the white people who dropped their segregationist views then or later, the students and faculty on campus, and the bizarre taped phone negotiations between the Kennedys and Barnett.
What emerges is a fascinating portrait of a major pivotal moment in American history, a story of military men and federal law enforcement officers who put duty before personal feelings, successful efforts to create positive change, and people struggling to cope with those changes. It is extremely well-written.
The book ends on a positive note -- showing that Ole Miss is now a high-tech institution that has moved away from its bitter past. The book was written before the university dropped "Colonel Rebel" as its sports mascot in favor of the Mississippi Black Bear, but makes clear that the school now has a considerable and powerful African-American presence in the student body, faculty, and administration.
Highly recommended for students of American history.
An excellent book . . . that scares the wits out of someone who was really there!
Most recent customer reviews
An excellent, readable account of the events at Oxford,Mississippi that saw James Meredith pit the President of the United States against the...Read more