They Must Draw Their Weapons


This was the ominous condition that the Governor of Mississippi told the Attorney General of the United States must be imposed. In September 1962 Robert Kennedy had phoned Ross Barnett to inform him that James Meredith, an African American having met all the requirements for admission to the University of Mississippi, would arrive at the campus to register at a certain date and time, accompanied by U.S. marshals. Governor Barnett pointed out that only the threat of overwhelming federal force could justify the withdrawal of his state troopers from the university entrance. Accordingly, he said the marshals “must draw their weapons” to make the point.

 

“Isn’t that a bit dangerous, Governor?” asked Robert Kennedy. “Guns can go off.” “Well,” said the Governor, “that’s how it’s got to be.” Hanging up the phone, Bob turned and said, “We’ll have to think of something else.” The eventual strategy centered on an earlier arrival on campus than publicly scheduled. The U.S. marshals would escort Meredith to the Lyceum and remain there with him until his safety could be ensured. Learning of this subterfuge, a crowd of thousands, including both students and outside troublemakers, surrounded the Lyceum and called for Meredith’s deliverance into their midst.

           

From Washington President Kennedy broadcast an appeal for order and compliance with law. To no avail. The cordon of unarmed marshals was bombarded with stones and Molotov cocktails (gasoline-filled bottles with burning rag fuses). An ambulance dispatched to rescue a seriously injured marshal was not permitted to enter the area.

          

The siege was orchestrated under the leadership of retired Army General Edwin Walker. The marshals responded with tear gas in a confrontation that lasted into the night. Ordered by Bob to fly down at once, I arrived in the early morning. The air reeked of tear gas as young soldiers, sent in support of the marshals, patrolled the campus with fixed bayonets to the derisive epithets of a furious crowd of contemporaries. I hope I may never again witness one nineteen-year-old American yell at another, “If you weren’t so stupid you wouldn’t be in the Army!”

           

Invited to attend the thirtieth anniversary of the event in 1992, I exchanged memories with Meredith, who had by then gone to work for Mississippi Senator Jesse Helms. Black students served on the university’s Student Council, and the student body had elected a black homecoming queen. Change was in the air and on the ground.