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These days Oxford, Miss., is best known as genteel southern college town, the former home to writers John Grisham and William Faulkner. It evokes the scent of magnolias, and the roar of the crowd at a University of Mississippi football game.
But in 1962, it was quite a different atmosphere, and the roars were from mobs of protesters, furious that an African-American student was planning to enroll.
Before Ole Miss integration was over, federal troops were called in, hundreds were injured, and two had died. All so James Meredith, a Black U.S. Air Force veteran, could go to class.
The Battle of Oxford, as some call it, was a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights struggle. It showed how strong local resistance would be to integration, and the lengths the federal government would go to see that civil rights were honored.
Today you’ll find a moving monument to Meredith, and a campus that acknowledges its role in the event.
Oxford is about 90 minutes from both Memphis and the Emmett Till sites near Sumner, Mississippi. It’s worth a visit for its history and charming town square. As you arrive on campus, stop at the information office at the Student Union. You should be able to pick up a campus map, and the helpful brochure, Remembering the Events of 1962 on The University of Mississippi Campus.
The Meredith monument and most of the historic sites are located within walking distance.
Meredith, a nine-year Air Force veteran, said he was motivated by John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech to enroll at the university as a transfer student from all-black Jackson State College. After being rejected in 1961, his case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor. Although Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett tried to block the enrollment, Meredith arrived on Sept. 30, 1962, under the protection of federal marshals.
By the end of the night nearly 30,000 troops had been deployed in the city. That didn’t stop an estimated 2,000 white protesters, who hurled bricks, pipes and Molotov cocktails at the federal officials. By the end of the evening, two people were killed, more than 200 marshals were wounded, and 200 protesters arrested.
Start your visit at the Lyceum, the university’s administration offices, which was the center of the conflict. The building, the oldest on campus, dates to 1848, and is the university’s iconic symbol. About 8 p.m. on Sept. 30, the marshals fired tear gas at the crowd. Shots were fired back. You can see bullet marks on the inside of the far right column and the center column, both about 14 feet up. The crowd, which had gathered in the circle in front of the Lyceum, slashed tires and burned cars while Mississippi Highway Patrolmen watched.
With your back to the Lyceum, walk counter-clockwise around the circle, stopping at Shoemaker Hall, which is across from the Confederate monument. A local resident, Ray Gunter, 23, was watching the melee when he was hit by a bullet here and died instantly. Continue around the circle, and then follow the sidewalk past Ventress Hall toward the Student Union. Paul Guithard, a reporter for the French news agency, Agence France-Presse was found moaning in the bushes near the patio. He had been shot in the back, and died a few hours later.
Completing the circle, walk behind the Lyceum and find the Meredith memorial, which shows the courageous student striding confidently through an archway. When it was erected in 2006, Mississippi Gov. William Winter spoke at the dedication. The marker, he said, “tells us not only where we have been, but where we are going.”
Now, cross over to the library, which is just to your left, and go to the second floor. In the lobby are several cases with artifacts from the turbulent times. Telegrams to then-Gov. Barnett make it clear that Mississippians were split on the controversy.
Some urged him to fight the federal mandate: “Do all you can do in your power to stop it,” reads one. But another from an alumnus and Chi Omega sorority member insisted that he let Meredith enroll. (While you’re up here, take a moment to visit the University’s fascinating Blues Archives, which is just to your left.)
Other campus sites to visit include nearby Bondurant Hall, where Meredith attended his first class, “Colonial American History,” on Oct. 1. Even then the young man probably knew that he too would be remembered in history books.
On the other side of the campus, it’s worth driving by Baxter Hall. Now the campus telecommunications center, it was once a men’s dormitory and where Meredith stayed. On the night of the riot, he slept here, safely away from the mayhem across campus. During Meredith’s time on campus, crowds used to gather around the building, chanting for “Jamie” to come out and play. In the end, though, Meredith prevailed, graduating less than a year later with a degree in political science.
But his story doesn’t end there. A few years after graduation, Meredith undertook a march from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi, to highlight Black voting rights. While on his journey, which he called a “March Against Fear” he was shot. And then later, he went to work for one of the country’s most conservative politicians, Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Today Meredith rejects links to the Civil Rights movement, saying he was only a citizen demanding his rights.
Oxford’s hotel and motel options include many national chains, and local B&Bs. Room rates are highest and availability toughest during home football game weekends. But here are some great options:
Stay at a fun playful boutique hotel inspired by the University. Book a room at The Graduate Oxford
For a well-maintained chain motel near university sites, book the Hampton Inn Oxford Conference Center
In recent years Oxford’s reputation has expanded from literature to cuisine.
- Much can be attributed to chef James Beard Award winner, John Currence, the owner of City Grocery, Boure, and Big Bad Breakfast, the first two located on or near the Square.
- And for an unforgettable, and unhealthy snack, try the famed fried Chicken on a Stick at the Lindsey’s Chevron, 321 North Lamar Boulevard, 662/234-9104
But man cannot live on fried snacks alone, Oxford’s Town Square is also home to one of the country’s best independent book stores, Square Books, which has a deep selection of regional titles.