The Battle of Ole Miss

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SACRAMENTO CITY COLLEGE

THE BATTLE OF OLE MISS AS IT RELATES TO THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN EXPERIENCE AND AMERICAN HISTORY

A TERM PAPER SUBMITTED TO PROFESSOR K.R.V. HENINGBURG

DEPARTMENT OF HISTORY

BY MONA SALIMI

SACRAMENTO, CA 19 APRIL 2010

James Meredith’s successful campaign to gain admission to the Univeristy of Mississippi, ‘Ole Miss’, and desegregate education in the state most resistant to integration of educational institutions, has become a crucial episode in civil rights history. Ole Miss transformed Mississippi politics and contributed to a cultural shift in the region, as well as invigorated local civil rights activists and those in neighboring states 1. The historic showdown between James Meredith and the University of Mississippi gives perspective on the place of African-Americans in U.S. society in the 20th century; breaking down the multi-layered narrative of “the Battle of Ole Miss” sheds light on the social, political, and economic forces that shaped and interacted with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

The civil rights movement, which increased in size during WWII (NAACP membership grew from 50,000 to 500,000) gained momentum in 1954 with the Supreme Court Case of Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Court ruled that segregation of schools was unconstitutional2. By 1956 Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, Oklahoma and Missouri had moved to desegregate their schools, but for Southern white Americans for whom white supremacy (which segregation upheld) was deeply embedded in cultural values and social conventions, integration was a non-option3. Many Southern whites regarded it as the Second Reconstruction. In Mississippi officials responded with a plan to “equalize” schools, the legislature created the State Soverignty Commission,

1

Frank Lambert, The Battle of Ole Miss: Civil Rights V. States' Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 2010), page 163-166. 2Faragher, John Mack. Out of many: a history of the American people. 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2005), page 795. 3

Hine, Darlene Clark, William C. Hine, and Stanley Harrold. The African-American odyssey. 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2011.)

whose implicit duty was to stamp out threats against “racial integrity” in order to protect the “sovereignty” of the state4. Despite repeated attempts made to desegregate colleges and universities in the state of Mississippi, by 1961 when James Meredith submitted his application to Ole Miss, no progress had been made.

To understand the lack of civil rights progress in Mississippi prior to the Battle of Ole Miss it is necessary to understand the state of fear in which African-Americans generally lived in Southern states. Following the collapse of Reconstruction in the 1870s, the state of Mississippi drafted a constitution in 1890 that armed them with the constitutional authority to enforce a racial caste system, Jim Crow, that relegated bottomclass status to African Americans. Violation of Jim Crow ettiquette or laws, “uppity” behavior (such as owning a car), and demands for civil rights were met with violence and terrorism5. In the mid-20th century Mississippi was a made up of small towns and rural communities - Jackson, with a population of ~100,000 was the largest city in the state - social checks-and-balances maintained “the way of life”. Most black people were uneducated, in a constant state of peonage, and had little recourse for justice

Limited politically, and economically, and overpowered socially by whites, the civil rights movement in Mississippi had a slow start. The first attempts at breaking the racial barrier in Mississippi’s colleges and universities were unsuccessful. The failed efforts of Clennon King, who thought his application would be received favorably

4 5

(Lambert 2010, 68) Pilgrim, Dr. David . "What Was Jim Crow?." Ferris State University: Michigan College Campuses in Big Rapids MI, Grand...
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