|ESPN.com: OTL: Ghosts of Mississippi
Wright Thompson discusses the integration of the University of Mississippi with Bob Ley on "Outside the Lines."
In the years that followed, my parents raised my brother and me to leave old prejudices behind. They enforced strict rules that made our home something of an oasis. Respect all people. Understand other points of view. And, of course, no N-word, ever, under any circumstance. That certainly made our house different from many in town. My dad ran the local Democratic Party, so I grew up around whites and blacks, which also made me different from many of my friends. Still, there were things never discussed. We never really talked much about the civil rights era, about things my parents had seen. The South during the '60s was like that cross in our front yard: something they experienced but wanted to shield their children from.
Once I grew up and moved away, I began to study the history of the South. The 1962 Ole Miss football team fascinated me. That year, perhaps because of the school's near self-destruction over integration, or perhaps in spite of it, the team managed the most remarkable season seen in Oxford before or since. The star quarterback, Glynn Griffing, was born near my family's farm, which his uncle managed, and my dad idolized him growing up, wearing No. 15 as a high school quarterback to be just like Glynn. It was the team that made my dad love football. It was also a team not discussed much, just a quick story here and there. They seemed forgotten, their legend small despite big accomplishments, and I wanted to find out why.
A few months back, I dove into the Ole Miss library's special collection, containing records and artifacts from the 1962 riots. Each page changed the way I looked at the place around me, the way I looked at the places inside myself where I love my state and its traditions. Why hadn't I been taught any of this in school? I'd had an entire Mississippi history class in junior high. We talked mostly about Indians. More recently, my aggravation had been stoked by ignorant election e-mails from my great-uncle in Jackson, ones that seemed to be from a time long past.
I came upon a box containing two small notebooks used by the soldier tasked with guarding James Meredith, the first African-American student at Ole Miss. They were Nifty brand, cost a dime and were filled with descriptions of suspicious characters, of license plate numbers and names. I flipped through the pages ... until a familiar name stopped me cold.
My great-uncle, the e-mailer's brother. Last name: Wright.
Two questions went through my mind:
What is the cost of knowing our past? ...
And what is the cost of not?
CHAPTER ONE: THE BATTLE
1. Sept. 25, 1962
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy places a phone call to Ross Barnett, the segregationist governor of Mississippi. They've been talking for weeks now. Every day, it's a different story. Mississippi politicos joke that whoever gets to Barnett last wins the argument. Kennedy is finding this out firsthand. Federal courts have ordered Ole Miss to admit Meredith. Barnett is resisting. A bumbling and unpopular politician -- he'd been booed at Ole Miss games -- he is now soaking in some newfound adulation for standing down the Kennedy brothers. It is a drug, and Barnett's hooked.
"We have been part of the United States," he tells Kennedy, "but I don't know whether we are or not."
There is silence on the phone. Kennedy doesn't know what to say, really. It's 1962. And Mississippi is threatening to secede?
"Are you getting out of the union?" he finally asks.
2. Sept. 29, 1962
The players can hear the noise. They cannot see anything but the locker room walls inside Mississippi Memorial Stadium in Jackson, but they can hear the noise.
It's halftime, and Ole Miss is beating overmatched Kentucky, though just barely, 7-0. What's worse, the Rebels have been uncharacteristically sloppy. Early in the game, bruising fullback Buck Randall, considered by many the baddest S.O.B. on campus, has a touchdown called back because of a penalty. This is not like a team coached by John Vaught, who runs his squad like a corporation. All business, no rah-rah speeches. The critics love to pick on Vaught for his soft schedules, his inability to win a big game, the fact that his team couldn't tackle LSU's Billy Cannon three years earlier with a national title on the line, but nobody ever faults his discipline.
The scene in the stands above the locker room is alive with color, a circus of motion, most of the 41,000 spectators furiously waving Confederate battle flags. The band marches onto the field in Confederate battle flag uniforms, carrying the world's largest Confederate battle flag. The band plays "Dixie." The crowd sings along, waves those flags, cheers. There are no black fans in the stadium and, on nights like these, it's easy to forget the South lost the war. In some ways, that's precisely the point.
A young politician named William Winter looks around and feels like a stranger. How can this be happening? The crowd shakes with indignation, the air filling with Rebel yells, from the mouths of doctors and bankers and lawyers and priests, and Winter thinks: So this must be what a Nazi rally felt like.
The crowd screams for Barnett to speak. Unbeknownst to them, hours earlier, he'd made a secret deal with the Kennedys to have Meredith enrolled. But, once again, he's on the verge of changing his mind. He has been so hated and now is so loved. He can't help himself: The enthusiasm of the crowd is taking him out to sea.
A microphone appears at midfield. A single spotlight swings across the field until it illuminates the governor. Barnett walks to the microphone. The crowd falls silent. He raises his right fist. "I loooooove Mississippi!" he yells.
The crowd roars. Even the moderates in the crowd feel chills. The flag waving grows frantic. One hundred and one years earlier, all but four students at Ole Miss dropped out of school to form Company A of the 11th Mississippi Infantry. The University Greys. On July 3, 1863, at Gettysburg, the unit rose from safety and made a futile rush from Seminary Ridge. Everyone was killed or injured, and history named their suicide mission Pickett's Charge. The school's sports teams would be called Rebels to honor their sacrifice. The young men and women in the stands today are just three generations removed from those soldiers. One of them, senior Curtis Wilkie, received a letter from his mother before the game. She anticipated what the young man might be feeling: Son, Your great-grandfather Gilmer set out to fight the federals from Ole Miss with the University Greys, called the Lamar Rifles, nearly a hundred years ago. He didn't accomplish a thing! See that you don't get involved!!!
Winter grew up listening to his grandfather tell about riding with the Confederate Army. The male students especially, who've grown up with similar stories, feel something move deep inside themselves. Later, most will deny it. But tonight, the emotions are real, and in case anyone misses the connection, the next morning's paper will devote two pages to Robert E. Lee's march north.
Barnett looks out at them and feels the emotions, too.
"I looooooove her people!"
The roar gets louder.
"I loooooove her customs!"
The yelling and screaming drowns him out, and Barnett doesn't say another word. He doesn't have to. He stands at midfield, soaking up the love and adulation, a wide grin spread across his face.
3. The pride before the fall
Mississippi in the fall of 1962 is a doomed civilization at its apogee. Enrollment at Ole Miss stands at an all-time high. The football team has been to five consecutive bowl games, won three SEC championships in the past decade, and gone 27-2-1 in the past three years. In 1959 and 1960, Ole Miss coeds won back-to-back Miss America crowns. Pageant moms around the country send their daughters to Oxford, an invasion of leggy blondes whose influence can still be seen in the state's gene pool.
Of course, that's just half of the story. To be an African-American in this world isn't much different than it was in 1861, and the Mississippi of 1962 has been forming in earnest for 14 years, with segregation becoming more and more formalized. In 1948, President Harry Truman signed the first civil rights legislation. That year, something new popped up at Ole Miss football games: Confederate battle flags. The band started playing "Dixie." Someone commissioned the largest Rebel flag ever for the band to carry onto the field. Vaught, in his second season as coach, gave fans something to cheer about. The football team might not have intended it, but to people in the state, the squad became the last Confederate soldiers. "You see them moving away from this larger national narrative," says D. Gorton, an Ole Miss student who witnessed the Meredith riots and later became a photographer for the New York Times. "They're no longer part of the United States. They really saw themselves as an archipelago. That led to their great football. What else would explain it?"
By 1962, the atmosphere is intoxicating for half the population, toxic for the other. A young African-American boy named LeRoy Wadlington, who'd grow up to be an influential preacher, lives off the highway leading out of town and learns to dread home football games. Fans, many drunk on illegal booze, yell racial slurs at his family as they inch back home. The black community feels under siege.
On the day of the Kentucky game, radio stations around the state play "Dixie" over and over again. Myrlie Evers, whose husband Medgar is head of the Mississippi NAACP, is working in her kitchen, with two radios playing for surround sound, and as the hours go by, she catches herself singing along with the radio: I wish I was in the land of cotton; old times there are not forgotten ... She is horrified. She despises "Dixie," but even she is being sucked in.
By halftime, when Barnett has finished his speech, the state is in a frenzy. Leaflets circulate through the stadium with lyrics to a new song, which also had been printed in that morning's paper. A few people leave in disgust, but many stay and sing:
Never, never, never, never No, never, never, never We will not yield an inch of any field. Fix us another toddy, ain't yielding to nobody. Ross is standing like Gibraltar; he shall never falter. Ask us what we say, it's to hell with Bobby K. Never shall our emblems go From Colonel Reb to Old Black Joe.
That's all Barnett needs to hear. The deal is off. James Meredith will not be enrolled.
4. Sept. 29, 1962
Vaught brings his team out for the second half. He knows the whole state is being pulled into something, and it's his job to keep it from destroying his squad. This group has worked so hard the past few years, and these players seem capable of finally getting it right. Seven times in the past 14 years, he has come within one loss or one tie of a perfect record. It eats at him.
The Rebels go on to beat Kentucky, though they manage just one more touchdown. As the players are pulling on their street clothes, Barnett heads back to the governor's mansion, where he will call Washington to reveal what he'd decided earlier, amid the halftime adulation: no deal.
In Washington, the wheels are turning. Staff members take papers to President John F. Kennedy that, when signed, will federalize the Mississippi National Guard and begin the process of sending U.S. Army regulars to the South, something he'd desperately hoped to avoid.
Kennedy sits down in the Treaty Room to sign and date the document. "Is it past midnight?" he asks.
"It's 20 seconds past 12," a staffer says.
Kennedy nods, signs the order, then writes the date: Sept. 30, 1962. The genie is out of the bottle, and no force on earth, least of all Ross Barnett, will be able to push it back in.
5. Sept. 30, 1962
James Meredith waits. He has been waiting his entire life. When he was just a kid, his daddy told him stories about their family, about how his great-grandfather had been the last legitimate chief of the Choctaw nation. The indignity of that fall from grace cast a shadow on Meredith's early life, and it shaped him, convinced him to leave segregated Mississippi and join the Air Force, sent him to Asia, brought him back home a 29-year-old who wanted to destroy white supremacy. On the day of Kennedy's inauguration, he applied to Ole Miss.
In other words, he has been preparing for this moment for decades, mostly getting his mind ready, reading, trying to find out the secret to ordinary men doing extraordinary things. One thing he read sticks with him. Back in the day, he says, the reigning pope and his army conquered Rome, and after the battle, the pope walked alone into the city, stone cold, to show people that he had no fear of troops or weapons or death. He knew his calm in the face of such danger would intimidate those who wished him harm. For years, Meredith has practiced making the face he imagines the pope's face must have looked like on his lonely stroll into Rome.
Meredith fought in the courts, eventually winning the right to matriculate. For most of September, federal agents were trying to enroll him, but were turned back by politicians. Meredith and the feds thought a deal had been arranged, that the waiting was finally over, but Barnett's call fixed that.
That's OK. Meredith knows how to wait. In his hometown of Kosciusko, Miss., a field of pine trees grows slowly. His father gave them to him when Meredith got out of the military; one day, his dad told him, these trees would be worth something. They grow, inch by inch. As long as something lives, it can reach the sky. Meredith, just a small man -- 5-foot-6, 135 pounds -- with the biggest dreams, finds comfort in that. Sitting at a Naval Air Station outside Memphis, Meredith watches a pro football game on television as the politicians work on yet another deal. Finally, fed up, Robert Kennedy threatens Barnett. The president is going on live television to tell the nation, and Mississippians in particular, that the governor has been promising them one thing while dealing with the hated Kennedys behind their backs.
"You mean the president is going to say that tonight?"
"Of course he is; you broke your word. Now you suggest we send in troops, fighting their way through a barricade."
"Why don't you fly in this afternoon? Please let us treat what we say as confidential."
That's what it takes. Segregation is about to end at Ole Miss. Meredith and head marshal Jim McShane climb into a green, twin-engine Border Patrol Cessna and take off. Destination: Oxford, Miss.
As Meredith and McShane make their way south, Vaught settles into the film room and begins work. Two wins down, seven to go. In six days, the Rebels will face undefeated Houston.
6. The feds arrive
The players return from the game on their own, many going home for a night. On Sunday, they begin the trek back to campus. Buck Randall heads to Oxford from the Delta, through the flatlands, white cotton all around, waiting to be picked. He listens to music, not the news, and has no idea what waits on the other side. He has deep blue eyes, a boxer's nose and a hard chin. Anger bubbles just beneath the surface with Randall, always, though he has trouble explaining it. When Buck was a kid, his father was in the pen, and Buck had to live with a high school teammate instead of his own family. He never walks away from an insult, large or small. Stories, some of them true, about him taking on two and three guys at a time, stacking 'em like firewood, make the rounds of Miller Hall, where the football team lives.
A bunch of the guys ride a bus back to campus from the airport, down University Avenue toward the statue of the Confederate soldier, honoring the students killed at Gettysburg. As they rumble toward the center of campus, quarterback Glynn Griffing stares out a window. Federal marshals have surrounded the Lyceum Building, the oldest structure on campus, where Meredith will register in the morning.
"What are they doing here?" Griffing wonders.
Players wander off to see what the commotion is all about. Sam Owen, a wise guy lineman nicknamed Soup Bone, hangs around at the back of the crowd, taking in the scene. So does Louis Guy, one of the most popular guys on campus. Jimmy Weatherly, a sophomore quarterback who is struggling with wanting to be a musician while everyone else wants him to replace Griffing, watches, too.
Hundreds of students fill the circle of grass in front of the marshals who have gathered near the Lyceum Building. It feels almost like a pep rally, topped by a large dollop of defiance. Coeds ride on the back of convertibles around the street in front of the building, Rebel flags flying from the cars. The familiar chants from the stadium ring out, albeit slightly altered:
"Hotty Toddy Gosh Almighty Who the hell are we? Flim-flam Bim-bam White folks, by damn!"
"Two, four, six, eight ... hell, no, we won't integrate."
"Two, one, four, three, we hate Kennedy!"
As the sun sinks down, casting shadows from the tall oaks and magnolias, things begin to get really ugly. For some, nothing -- not the campus, not the South, none of it -- will ever be beautiful again. The marshals grit their teeth. Darkness settles over Oxford.
It will be a long time before sunrise.
7. A mob scene
The players watch the madness unfold. Some join the mob. One player, a burly ex-boxer turned lineman named Don Dickson, disrupts an interview while a friend smashes the reporter's camera. Mostly, though, they stand to the side, some amazed, others frightened.
The violence increases, as if the dark offers absolution. First, it's a smashed camera. Then a tossed cigarette. The mob surrounds a Dallas television reporter, George Yoder, sitting in his station wagon with his wife in the passenger seat. Someone reaches in and grabs his camera, which is thrown at the marshals. Then the mob turns on Yoder's wife, reaching for her like a scene from a zombie movie, screaming, "N----- loving Yankee bitch!" She is from Jackson, Miss.
Finally, after watching the scene with amusement, some state troopers lead the Yoders to safety. Later, their car will be flipped and burned. The mob closes on the marshals. Missiles come from every direction, starting adolescent, slowly becoming more adult, from rotten eggs to firebombs. A construction site not far away is discovered, and bricks rain down on the white-painted helmets of the marshals, too.
A group takes down the Stars and Stripes and runs up the Confederate flag. The chain snarls at half-staff, where the flag will remain throughout the night, the stars and bars a beacon heralding a long gone moment when a bunch of college boys rose and charged from Seminary Ridge.
8. Mass insanity
Back at the Lyceum, it's a little after 7, and something has to give. A campus security official finds Vaught in the film room: Would the coach be willing to try to calm the crowd? Vaught wanders through the mob for a while, then rushes to Miller Hall.
At 7:30, Barnett goes on the radio to announce Meredith has been brought to Mississippi by force. Before signing off, he issues a warning to the marshals: "Gentlemen, you are trampling on the sovereignty of this great state and depriving it of every vestige of honor and respect as a member of the United States. You are destroying the Constitution of the United States. May God have mercy on your souls."
Twenty minutes later, Marshal McShane orders his men to put on their gas masks. More bricks. A bottle hits a marshal on his arm and liquid splatters on him. It burns: acid from the chemistry building next door. A few minutes after that, as President Kennedy prepares to address the nation, a heavy length of lead pipe bounces off the head of a marshal, denting his helmet. The marshals grip their billy clubs tighter; the students at the front can see their knuckles turning white.
Jojo Wilkins, a senior wide receiver, standing close to the marshals, by a small magnolia tree near the sidewalk, hears someone shout, "Let 'em have it!" All hell breaks loose, the marshals spraying tear gas into the crowd, the rounds sounding like helicopter rotors turning. A haze covers the campus, and tears stream down everyone's face.
Nicholas Katzenbach, deputy attorney general, picks up the open line to the White House inside the Lyceum. Robert Kennedy answers. "Bob," Katzenbach says, "I'm very unhappy to report that we've had to fire tear gas."
"I think I should really go tell the president about it," Robert Kennedy says. "He's just going on the air."
The attorney general runs to the Oval Office, where his brother is just about to go live. He arrives moments too late, just in time to hear the president begin. JFK's words carry over radios of cars parked near the Lyceum in Oxford, adding an eerie new soundtrack: the whoop of the tear gas guns, the screaming of the mob, the cloud covering the campus, with the voice of the president of the United States in the background, urging them to remain calm. "You have a great tradition to uphold, a tradition of honor and courage, won on the field of battle and on the gridiron."
No one listens.
9. "Don't go out"
With tear gas seeping into the team dorm, through the towels beneath the doors and windows, Vaught gathers his players. The sounds of explosions frighten them, as does a new sound: gunshots. Most are hunters, and they listen as the caliber of the rounds slowly rises. While assistant coaches patrol the halls, Vaught says, "We have to band together. We have a purpose. We must keep our poise."
The players get the message. Pull tight. Stay together, no matter what happens. The guys worry a lot that night, about the violence and about their season. Some try to sleep, but the explosions and gunshots make that hard. A few players help wash out the eyes of students who stumble into the dorm. Assistant coach Wobble Davidson, on patrol, keeps reminding the players, "Don't go out." For most people, the fear of Davidson, a former Marine who crawled into caves in World War II, is enough. They don't want to have to run up and down the 65 steps of the stadium, 10 laps in 10 minutes, or do it again.
But Buck Randall wants to go out. Telling him to stay put is like telling him not to eat ice cream. He slips into the night.
10. Face to face with the carnage
The battle is growing desperate. The marshals are running out of tear gas. Bricks and bottles and iron spikes rain down. Gunshots ring out. Thugs drive into town from Alabama and Arkansas and Tennessee and Louisiana, one carload sending two barrels of buckshot into the home of LeRoy Wadlington, the African-American kid who lives off the highway leading into town. His father grabs his own gun and orders his family to lie down in the back of the house.
The Civil War has begun anew, and the North is losing. Later, the events of the night will seem impossible: an Associated Press reporter shot in the back with birdshot. A bulldozer and fire truck stolen and driven at the marshals. A French reporter shot dead. So is a local resident. Dozens of marshals are shot or injured. A sniper sets up on the Confederate statue, first shooting out the lights, then turning his weapon on the Lyceum, pushing the marshals inside, high-powered deer rounds shattering the door and window frames.
During the night, Chief Burns Tatum, head of security for the university, spots Randall in the crowd and pulls him into the besieged Lyceum, where Randall comes face to face with the carnage. In a corridor, shot through the neck, Marshal Gene Same from Indianapolis is bleeding out on the floor as his fellow officers kneel over him, helpless and frustrated.
"Where the hell's the doctor?"
"We're trying to get one!"
"Try, hell. This man's dying!"
Tatum tells the marshals that Randall plays football for the Rebels. That sends some of them over the edge. "Come on, son," a marshal snarls, "we've got something to show you." They push him real close to Same. "You see him? You see him? He's bleeding to death. You get out there and tell those bastards they've killed a man."
McShane decides to send the big football hero out into the mob. "Tell those people to disperse now," McShane says, "or we're gonna start shooting -- students and all."
Randall heads to the Grove, calling for people's attention. Gorton, standing near the Lyceum, will remember, years later, what he saw: "Buck didn't give a 'speech.' He sought people out. He implored. There was a strange quality about that from a tough guy who looked haunted that night. Bear in mind that this was the toughest guy in the Delta. It was the end of an era. He must have lost his mind because Buck Randall was always in favor of mayhem and misery and murder. That's what he loved. There was some badass mother------- around. Of all the badass mother-------, I'd like to nominate him for as mean as they got. Nothing on the face of the earth would scare that guy. But that night did."
Scared or not, Randall tries to explain what they've done. "There's a man in there dying," he says.
A crowd begins to gather and people don't like what they're hearing. Someone yells, "Pull him down!" Another yells, "Murder him!" Every time someone challenges him, Randall snarls, "Come on, boy. Come on. Try it. I'll kill you."
The people who know him, the students, don't get within a dozen feet. The folks who came just to fight sense some major alpha mojo because they don't mess with him, either. But that doesn't mean they intend to listen. They mock him. This goes on for 10 minutes. Finally, Randall gives up. The crowd separates to let him through, and he walks back toward Miller Hall, alone, disappearing into the haze.
11. Oct. 1, 1962
Through the long night, the marshals wait for the U.S. Army regulars. The cavalry, in the form of the 101st and 82nd Airborne and an elite military police unit, is on the way. Troops land in Memphis, Tenn., and head the 85 miles south to the Ole Miss campus. For the first time in a century, the United States Army is invading the state of Mississippi. Black families leave their homes and stand on the side of the highway, silent, as if at attention, watching the Union army speed toward Oxford.
On campus, the troops dismount and rush to rescue the marshals and local National Guardsmen, who are almost out of tear gas again and scared of being overrun, 160 wounded, 28 of them by gunfire. The troops form a wedge and march past the sorority houses, where girls curse and throw books. They march through a storm of bricks and Molotov cocktails, never breaking stride. The precision scares the rioters, as do the shining fixed bayonets. The sound of hundreds of rounds of live ammunition being jacked into hundreds of chambers echoes off the old white buildings, chilling the crowd.
The soldiers march toward University Avenue and, at last, the formation is within sight of the marshals, whose relief comes out as a long, loud cheer. By a little after 5 a.m., the troops have pushed the rioters off the campus. Students, the football team at Miller Hall and Meredith over at Baxter, begin dressing for class, the smell of tear gas still heavy in the air. Marshals slump over in the Lyceum, surrounded by cigarette butts and bloody gauze. Others eat C rations under trees in front of the building. Two men, the French reporter and a local jukebox repairman, lie dead. The campus priest takes down the Confederate flag. The battle is over, and now a state, a school and a football team have to pick up the pieces.
A light rain begins to fall.
CHAPTER TWO: RECONSTRUCTION
1. Oct. 1, 1962
Sam Owen wakes up early, slipping out of Miller Hall. The sun is up, shedding light on the destruction. The walk to the Lyceum takes only a few minutes. Around campus, little puffs of tear gas rise from the grass. It's hard to breathe. He feels as if he has walked into a swamp.
He sees the burned-out skeletons of cars, some of them flipped over, still smoldering, sending black smoke into the air. A bulldozer and fire truck rest at strange angles, as if tossed by a giant toddler. At the Lyceum, chunks of wood have been blown out by rifle fire.
He has never thought about segregation before. Not really. Never broken it down to its essentials: his people keeping another group of people from being free, by laws, by social order and by violence. He has never questioned what he has been taught, that it is good for everyone. This is just the way things are done. He isn't for segregation -- his high school had been integrated, which made his father livid -- but he isn't really against it either.
But this? He didn't know segregation looked like this. For a moment, he just stares, his life divided into two parts now. On one side, this mystical thing: segregation, the Old Mississippi. On the other: the New Mississippi, an honest-to-god war zone, the physical manifestation of hate and fear. He looks back at his life and realizes a Rubicon stands here, and he has crossed it. The cars and the gunshots and the bleeding marshals, all of it works its way through his brain and into his heart.
After checking on his girlfriend, Judy, he finds a pay phone and calls his folks back in Tennessee. He tells them what has happened and that he is safe.
"Do you want to come home?" they ask.
Not a chance.
"We gotta play Houston," Owen says.
2. Will the showdown go on?
The game is only five days away, and thousands of federal troops are camped out on Vaught's practice fields. More are camped outside town, one radio call away from marching on Oxford. Helicopters move men and equipment. Troops screen every car coming onto campus, and they will for months, looking in trunks and under seats for weapons. Meredith goes to class, escorted by armed guards, harassed the entire way. The first walk of the first morning brings frothing crowds. Someone gets right in his face and screams, "Was it worth two lives, n-----!?" Meredith puts on his pope face.
Some politicians are demanding a total shutdown of the school. Straw polls estimate half of Mississippians want the university closed. There is really only one overwhelming reason not to shutter the place: the highly ranked Rebels. No school, no football. Few have more influence in Mississippi than Vaught. Robert Kennedy calls him after the riot: "Coach Vaught, I want you to do what you can to keep the situation calm."
Vaught certainly appreciates the call, the ego boost of the attorney general of the United States needing him. Vaught has a lot of good traits, but he is also vain. He is bald, and hates it, and always wears hats. The team calls him Slick, but only behind his back. He needs glasses but won't wear them. If it's sunny and he can wear prescription shades, he is a great game coach. If not, he can't see the action and sometimes doesn't know who is in the game or what plays are being run. "Vaught was a good organizer," Frank Kinard, member of the '62 team and son of assistant coach Bruiser Kinard, would say years later. "On the day of a game, he didn't know where he was."
Even if the school is to remain open, pressure is growing to cancel the Houston game. The government does the math: thousands of outsiders, pouring into town, gathering in one place, right next to thousands of the hated federal troops. Add in booze, and the passions of a game, and, well, they just tried that a few days earlier. Two plus two equals four.
The game is now only four days away, and Katzenbach wants it called off. Vaught argues with him, during several conversations, until finally Katzenbach flies to Washington to meet with Robert Kennedy. The news out of that meeting isn't good for Vaught: No way in hell is there going to be a public event on that campus.
The game is now three days away. Across campus, Meredith eats his first meal in the cafeteria. One student even walks over and shakes his hand.
The game is now two days away.
Among the players, the rumor mill is going wild. On Monday and Tuesday, they're told the game will be in Oxford. On Wednesday, they're told it will be in Houston. By the end of the week, after contentious negotiations with the government, Ole Miss-Houston is set for Jackson.
The game is now just minutes away.
Once again, the team gathers in the locker room, the same one from just a week before. Everything is different now. Vaught almost never gives pregame speeches, thinks they are silly. But this ... well, he needs to say something. Vaught feels like the entire university is riding on the backs of his team. Vanity? Sure. True? Probably. He needs them to understand, these young guys. He needs them to see. "It is very important that we play this game, boys," Vaught says, "and we have to win it."
The team roars in response and rushes out of the locker room onto the field. Vaught gets chills watching them. The Rebels dominate undefeated Houston 40-7, with Griffing throwing three touchdown passes to Guy. But the most emotional two ovations of the day have nothing to do with the game.
One comes at the beginning, when Barnett enters his box. The other comes when the public address man announces other scores from around the country. Michigan, he tells them, has beaten Army, hated invader of Ole Miss 17-0.
3. Oct. 8, 1962
Two days later, about 6:30 p.m., Meredith heads for the cafeteria for dinner. Most of the students have eaten already and are milling around. A few more arrive, then a few more, until a crowd has formed. Meredith, accompanied by a marshal, sits at a table near a window, working his way through hamburger steak and potatoes. The crowd chants: "Eat, n-----, eat."
A student throws a hand-sized rock through the cafeteria window; it lands three feet away, glass falling on the marshal and Meredith. Troops rush to the scene. The mob hurls the usual projectiles: lit cigarettes, rocks, bottles. Someone lets the air out of the marshal's tires. During the commotion, Meredith, shaken, is hustled out the back.
The insults continue, along with the constant cursing. Effigies hang from dorm windows. Mail pours in, more positive than negative, but the negative is truly vile. Meredith reads every letter.
Two students who eat dinner with him have their rooms wrecked, "n----- lover" painted on their walls with shoe polish. Later, a political science major, a girl named Judith Gardner, makes the mistake of sitting next to Meredith in class. Harassment grows so vicious that she is forced to leave school and her family is forced to move from the state.
One afternoon, two football players stand outside the old union, both boys from the Delta, watching the pretty girls go by. Along comes Meredith, with marshals in front and behind and soldiers nearby. One of the players starts fuming, getting jittery, one thought rolling through his head: "You know, it's sorry that damn n----- being up here with these white girls."
Stunning his teammate, the player jumps out in front of Meredith and hollers, "You black son of a bitch!" Then he rears back to hit Meredith, but a marshal grabs him. The player slugs the marshal and takes off running, through the dining area, bowling over a coed with an armful of books, heads for the back, swinging open the door, knocking back the soldier who'd been waiting for him. The guy runs for Miller Hall as troops search. Breathing hard, he tries to figure out what went haywire. He had never done anything like that before.
His teammate finds him back at the dorm. "Man, what the hell happened to you?"
"I don't know. That wasn't me. I went crazy." He's far from the only one.
4. Oct. 20, 1962
A heavy, nasty rain is coming down, rolling off Vaught's coat, finally soaking through. The final whistle blows, the remaining fans rush to their cars, and Vaught starts the slow walk to the locker room, where he will shed layers of wet clothes. "Man, I'm glad that's over," he says of Ole Miss' 21-0 victory over Tulane on the sloppy field. Despite the one-sided whuppin', the Green Wave players are chatty after the game, talking about how the Rebels aren't as good as they were last year, how they aren't in the same league with Alabama and Texas.
Other observers seem to share those feelings. Ole Miss keeps winning, but the team continues its steady drop in the national polls, some voters citing weak opponents and lackluster performances. After the Tulane victory, the Associated Press poll lowers Ole Miss from fourth to seventh. After beating Vandy a week later, the team stays at seven, probably too far back to climb to No. 1. Mississippians wonder whether there aren't other reasons. An AP reporter was shot in Oxford, you know. Others believe -- hope? -- a victory over LSU will fix everything and put Ole Miss back into the thick of the national title hunt.
The LSU game is just a week away, and all the old anxiety is flooding back. LSU ruined three perfect seasons, in 1958, '59 and '60, and fans and players obsess over this pattern heading into Tiger Stadium. The '59 loss particularly haunts; many considered that year's Ole Miss squad one of the greatest college teams ever assembled. (Decades later, rankings guru Jeff Sagarin would call that group the third best team between 1956 and 1995.) The night of that game, a 10-year-old from Drew, Miss., named Archie Manning cried himself to sleep. Yes, the losses have taken a toll on the psyches of football-loving Mississippians.
The stress of the coming game affects everyone. Vaught locks down practices and begins working on secret plays. On Monday night, students slingshot cherry bombs at the servicemen protecting Baxter Hall. One cherry bomb lands in a military police jeep, scattering several soldiers. When the marshals and soldiers give chase, other students repel them with eggs and bottles. The AP interviews a student leader who blames the chaos on a "general restlessness typical at Ole Miss before its football team plays Louisiana State."
Tuesday is worse. Someone throws a Coke bottle through the back window of the car transporting Meredith, and the glass cuts the face of a marshal. More cherry bombs land near soldiers.
Then there's the flier, several hundred of which flutter to the ground from a dorm window near Baxter Hall:
KENNEDY is out to destroy AMERICA, because he is a sick, sick communist. RED JACK KENNEDY intends to soon commit you to CUBA and Betray you there, just as TRUMAN betrayed the boys in KOREA. Red Jack Kennedy is the most DANGEROUS ENEMY AMERICA has ever had.
Finally sick of the abuse, the troops affix bayonets to their assault rifles and march through the dormitory halls. Two guns, a machete, a tear gas grenade and a cache of fireworks are found. School chancellor J.D. Williams issues a new edict: Any further antisocial behavior will result in immediate expulsions. A pep rally scheduled for that Tuesday evening is postponed.
Two nights later, the pep rally is held. When the rally is over, some 200 students sprint toward Miller Hall, two blocks away. As they approach Baxter Hall, where Meredith lives, all the soldiers snap alert. One adjusts his gas mask and gets the tear gas gun ready to go. But the students race past Baxter and stand outside Miller Hall for a half hour cheering the team, desperate for the No. 6 Rebels to beat No. 4 LSU. For the first time in what seems like forever, Vaught is happy; he thinks this is the healthiest thing he has seen on campus since before the riots.
4. Nov. 3, 1962
The Rebels gather at the tunnel. The concrete walls seem to amplify the noise of Tiger Stadium. Nearby, Mike the Tiger lounges in his cage and, without warming, lets out a hungry growl. Wilkins jumps. "It would scare the living s--- out of you," Billy Champion will say later.
Jitters pass from one Rebel to the next like the flu. A stiff wind blows across the field, 15 miles an hour, coming in off the river. LSU, tough to beat here, takes a 7-0 lead with a little more than two minutes left in the half. Despite the buildup, or maybe because of it, the Rebels look sluggish. Is it happening again? Another promising season lost in Death Valley?
Ole Miss starts a drive of its own, but still seems a bit sleepy. Then one of LSU's defensive tackles pops all-everything lineman Jim Dunaway in the face, bloodying his lip. The sight and taste of his own blood awakens Big Jim, who bulldozes his man the rest of the night, opening up big holes. With 23 seconds left in the half, Griffing has his team at the LSU 10. After a couple of incompletions, Griffing hits A.J. Holloway, who juggles the ball but secures it just as two LSU defenders grab him at about the 3-yard line. As the clock ticks to zero, he breaks free, crossing the goal line. A missed extra point leaves the Rebels down 7-6, but at least they have life.
In the second half, with Ole Miss at the LSU 21, Vaught pulls out the trickery they'd been practicing all week. Chuck Morris swings to the right, faking a run, only to pull up short and toss the ball to Guy 18 yards downfield, the first completion of a halfback pass by the Rebels in four years. Two plays later, Griffing finds Guy again to put the Rebels up for good. (They wouldn't beat a top-five team on the road again for 46 years, until last season's upset at Florida.)
As time runs out, the players run off the field, yelling, "We're No. 1!" The locker room is a madhouse. Vaught stands calmly amid the chaos. What an effort, he thinks. Best I've ever seen. He'd sweated through his shirt out there. This is what they'd worked for, what he wanted. He can't wait for the new rankings to come out. In such a tumultuous year, his Ole Miss Rebels are the best team in the nation. He is sure of it. A reporter asks whether he has any doubt how the wire service polls should go.
"None at all," he says.
5. Nov. 4, 1962
The next day, the students awake tired, hung over but elated, ready to check out the polls. The news isn't good. The victory jumps the Rebels two spots to fourth, but undefeated Alabama and USC are still ahead of them. Both will have to lose for Ole Miss to have a shot at a national championship.
The team stays focused on the one thing it can control: winning. Among players walking to class or to practice or just sitting in front of their metal lockers, the refrain is always the same:
"We ain't getting beat."
6. Nov. 17, 1962
Two weeks later, a sliver of national title hope remains. Ole Miss is ranked third, with USC at No. 2 and Alabama No. 1. With All-Everything quarterback Joe Namath dominating opponents, the Tide look unbeatable. Today, the Rebels have an easy game against the Vols and Bama is taking on Georgia Tech.
Rain falls again before the game, hard, soaking the field. The Rebels are 10-point favorites but play not to lose instead of to win, clinging to a slim lead as the Vols are driving late in the third quarter. Nobody drives on the Rebels -- they have the best defense in the country -- but someone forgot to tell Tennessee.
Defensive back Guy lines up on the right side, worrying about yet another running play, when he notices the Tennessee receiver looking around. Guy thinks: What's he doing? He takes a few steps back, watches the end come out toward him, sees the ball coming and eases in front of it, intercepting the pass 3 yards deep in the end zone. Some 103 yards later, Guy, untouched, reaches the end zone at the other end of the field, securing the victory. When he gets to the sideline, Vaught finds him. "God bless you, son," he says.
Meanwhile, Alabama, everyone's favorite to win it all, improbably loses to Georgia Tech. USC slides up to No. 1, with Ole Miss at No. 2. But the Rebels' good luck doesn't hold. A week later, as they sit idly at home -- Vaught always caught flak for his weak scheduling -- No. 3 Wisconsin beats No. 5 Minnesota and jumps the Rebels in the poll. A national championship seems impossible now. USC needs to lose to a weak Notre Dame team and the Rebels need to beat Mississippi State to a pulp in their season-ending rivalry game to have any chance of sufficiently impressing skeptical AP voters.
7. Dec. 1, 1962
With time running out in the fourth quarter, Ole Miss has the ball just past midfield and is holding a narrow 7-6 lead against Mississippi State. On first down, Vaught sends in Weatherly, who is supposed to run a familiar play, with the back following a pulling guard. But Weatherly forgets they've changed a few details of the play -- the tackle is supposed to pull instead of the guard -- so he's out of position and misses the handoff to Dave Jennings, who hits the line without the ball. Everyone on the field is thinking fumble. But Weatherly still has the ball, safely tucked away, and as he sees State's defensive end crashing toward Jennings, Weatherly turns upfield. Ahead is an expanse of green, 43 yards worth, and it's empty of defenders.
Weatherly runs down the sideline and it's one of the weirdest moments of his life because nobody in the stands catches on for a few seconds and he's running in silence. Finally, the crowd realizes he still has the ball and goes nuts. Weatherly scores and, when he comes back to the sideline, he's laughing. He can't believe what just happened. The first person to reach him is team trainer Doc Knight.
"Doc," Weatherly says, still laughing, "I missed the handoff."
"Don't tell anybody," Knight blurts. "Don't tell anybody."
Ole Miss closes out the game, another one way too close, 13-6. Sam Owen stands on the field as the clock counts down to zero, and their accomplishment hits him. They've gone through an entire season unbeaten and untied, something no Ole Miss team had done before. Louis Guy runs off the field toward the locker room, and, on the way, a 14-year-old named Ray Mabus asks him for his chinstrap. Guy hands it to him, and Mabus takes it home, a treasured possession.
The locker room is quiet. A few hours later, they get the news. No national title. USC beat Notre Dame. The Trojans are 10-0, and they will face No. 2 Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. The winner will be the national champion. The Rebels' final game would be played for pride.
8. Dec. 7, 1962
A cold wind blows through campus. Students wearing sweaters and overcoats carry books pass Meredith. They look away. Confederate flags hang from the windows, but no one screams at him. He isn't welcome -- if he tried to hold the door open, most students would stand in place until he gave up -- but the threats of violence have slowed to a trickle. A forced tolerance has settled over the campus.
At Baxter Hall, the living room in his suite is a marshal's command post, filled with smoke. His bedroom has bunk beds, one neatly made up in Air Force blankets, the other used for storing books and school supplies. There are two chairs and a set of drawers. He has three pairs of shoes and one pair of slippers under the bed. On his dresser is a nameplate with his name and rank engraved in both English and Japanese. Outside, the trees are bare and a fresh coat of white paint covers the Lyceum, hiding the bullet holes.
A few blocks away, at Miller Hall, the football team winds down, too, finishing the semester, waiting on the Sugar Bowl. Vaught sits in his office and worries about his team. A loss and this group of amazing young men will fade from memory, just another Ole Miss team to almost go undefeated. They are so close to perfection yet seem lethargic in practice, worn out. Sports Illustrated predicts the Rebels will lose to Arkansas.
Griffing heads to New York to be on the Johnny Carson show and attend a media function in the Empire Room of the Lexington Hotel, where the great DiMaggio lives in the penthouse suite. Shooting the breeze with a bunch of sports writers, Griffing gets a little taste of how the rest of the world views Mississippi. Indeed, when he and Guy come to the Giants' training camp in the fall, all anyone wants to talk about is Meredith -- in the locker room, at cocktail parties, everywhere. Already the two narratives are becoming connected. Few will ever again talk about their 1962 season without also mentioning the riot.
9. Dec. 31, 1962
Five ... four ...
Bourbon Street's packed, the Ole Miss coaches and fans spilling out of the pregame media party at Antoine's on St. Louis Street to see the last seconds of 1962 tick away. The future is uncertain. How will Mississippi react to the changes that are coming? Will it embrace the future or become more isolated, open hatred turning to silent resentment, burrowing beneath the surface, unnamed? That storm is for tomorrow. Tonight, the brulot, strong French coffee laced with brandy, keeps them warm.
Three ... two ... one ...
It's pandemonium, with horns blowing, and bells ringing, screams, kisses, laughs and, yes, tears.
The next day the Rebels do not get upset. They win 17-13, and it's the Buck Randall show. He'll remember this game years later as one he almost lost. He fumbles a ball and gets beat on a pass play. Others will remember him as the hero. Randall hits the Arkansas quarterback harder than he has ever been hit before. In the third quarter, Randall knocks the guy out of the game for good. The Rebels have done it. They've put together a perfect season.
A few hours later, at the Sugar Bowl banquet, the team gathers in the Roosevelt Hotel, one of the oldest places in town, long a headquarters for Huey Long, and there's no expense spared. The players stare at ice sculptures on the tables. They're given Omega watches. A table is filled with glasses of bourbon. Piles of shrimp are everywhere. And more oysters than they've ever seen. The Rebels line up two and three deep around the oysters, knocking back dozens. They don't want this night to end, so many of the players spread out through the French Quarter, most landing at Pat O'Brien's.
The drinks keep coming, tall glasses filled with booze you can't taste, a dangerous combo, and some people will later remember the police bringing a horse inside to calm things down, but it's all so blurry, so who really knows. A few Rebels end up in the fountain, and Wes Sullivan loses his shoe. Finally, Sullivan and Billy Champion limp back to the hotel just off the French Quarter. The elevator door opens and there's one person inside: Vaught. He looks at his ragged and wet players, Wes missing a shoe. "Where you been?" he asks. "Swimming?"
As soon as they can, Sullivan and Champ get off that damn elevator. The doors shut behind them, leaving Vaught alone. An early-morning flight back to Oxford lies ahead, he's certain, as do more championships, more big wins, more bowls. He rides the elevator up through the hotel, not knowing all of this will soon disappear, fading to a whisper, a distant memory of a different time.
CHAPTER THREE: CATCHING UP
1. June 12, 1963
George Wallace is forced to back down and allow two black students to enter the University of Alabama. There will be no repeat of Ole Miss. That night in Jackson, Medgar Evers pulls his powder blue Oldsmobile into his driveway. His wife, Myrlie, who had found herself singing "Dixie" a year before, waits inside. About 150 feet away, Byron De La Beckwith steadies his .30-06 Enfield, lines Evers up in the crosshairs and pulls the trigger once.
The bullet tears through Medgar Evers' back, crashes through a window and comes to a rest on the kitchen table. Evers staggers for about 30 feet before collapsing. Myrlie screams, "Oh, my God, my God!" She cradles his head as his kids bend over his dying body and beg, "Daddy, get up!"
All-white juries trying De La Beckwith twice fail to reach a verdict. He will finally be convicted 31 years later.
2. Aug. 13, 1963
James Meredith and the other soon-to-be graduates march from the library toward the Grove, passing through the Lyceum, where all the violence had taken place just months before. The last few weeks of class, Meredith wears one of Barnett's Never pins upside down.
His parents sit in the crowd as he walks across the stage, including his proud father, Moses, the son of a slave. Myrlie Evers is there, too. The commencement speaker tells the graduates the South is changing, more every day, and they need to take advantage and not be left behind. Two white women watch the graduates in their hats and gowns.
"Well, I'm glad he's gone," one says.
"There'll be others," her friend replies.
3. Jan. 1, 1964
Another Sugar Bowl, another SEC title. But something seems different. Tailback Mitch Terrell, who'd transferred before the season, realizes that whatever they'd had at Ole Miss is falling apart. He has seen tension on the coaching staff; once, a coach he was close to came into his room and cried, distraught about the infighting. "I could see the house of cards, coachwise, fixing to fall," Terrell would say later. "I knew there were strong personality conflicts there and it wasn't going to last."
Ole Miss hasn't won an SEC title in football since.
4. Dec. 5, 1964
The final score stuns those in the stadium: Mississippi State 20, Ole Miss 17. For the first time since 1946, State has beaten the Rebels, the final blow to a devastating season. Ole Miss began the season highly ranked but collapsed, losing to Florida, Kentucky and LSU, finishing the season 5-5-1 after getting beat by lowly Tulsa in the Bluebonnet Bowl.
Weatherly gets much of the blame for the bad season. Fans lash out at the quarterback's well-known music career. To them, bad coaching or recruiting didn't derail the Rebels. Rock 'n' roll did.
5. Nov. 6, 1965
In Texas, they call Houston halfback Warren McVea "Wondrous Warren." He is the first African-American to play against the Ole Miss Rebels, and on this day, he is uncoverable: catching touchdown passes of 80 and 84 yards, leading the Cougars to a 17-3 upset of Ole Miss.
Robert Khayat, the kicker for the Washington Redskins, is watching the Rebels from afar. Not long ago he was the big man on campus: star of the '59 football team, elected Colonel Rebel, an honor given to the most popular male student. But he sees the Rebels refusing to recruit African-American players and realizes the dynasty is fading. People won't remember Ole Miss for the dominant teams and the Miss Americas and the Sugar Bowl victories.
They will remember it for a long night in 1962.
6. March 18, 1966
Robert Kennedy walks into the packed basketball arena on the Ole Miss campus. He has been invited to speak and so many people want to listen that the administration had to move it here. When the crowd of more than 5,000 sees him, they give him a standing ovation.
During his talk, he makes fun of the bizarre phone conversations he'd had with Barnett. The crowd roars with laughter. Later, the former governor will lash out at Kennedy, claiming he lied about those phone calls. He calls Kennedy "a hypocritical left-wing beatnik without a beard."
7. Oct. 17, 1970
The old program has one gasp left. With Archie Manning at quarterback and a return to the Sugar Bowl the year before, Ole Miss is once again highly ranked, fourth in the nation, and undefeated through four games. They're talking national championship again. They've got historically weak Southern Mississippi next. But USM has an African-American running back named Willie Heidelberg who runs wild through the vaunted Rebels defense. Vaught calls the 30-14 loss the worst defeat in Ole Miss football history. He doesn't sleep that night, watching film of their next opponent instead. On Tuesday night, after three long days, he feels nauseated. "Boys," he tells his staff, "I'm sick. I've got to go home."
A few hours later, he turns to his wife in bed. "Something's wrong with me."
"How do you feel?"
"My arm's aching and I have a nauseous feeling in my chest."
He is close to a heart attack, and he spends a week in a hospital in Memphis. After he gets out, the chest pains increase, so he goes back in. Except for a brief eight-game return three years later, Vaught's coaching career is over. The season falls apart, too, with Manning breaking his arm and LSU blowing out the Rebels 61-17 in Baton Rouge. There is no Sugar Bowl bid; Ole Miss has never been to another one. No national championships. Vaught returns to his farm.
He will never recruit an African-American player.
That year, the Mississippi public school system is integrated.
Kenny Dill was the heart and soul of the '62 Rebels. Many blame the disastrous '64 season on his graduation; with him gone, there was no fire. No passion. He loved tough, hard-nosed football; he punched a teammate so hard during spring ball in '62 that he broke the guy's facemask, the guy's face and his own hand.
Like many students, he learned something the night of the riot, a lesson about what politicians should do. He moved back home to West Point, Miss., after leaving Oxford and, in 1973, he runs for mayor. He wins, grabbing a chunk of the black vote -- perhaps because black voters believe a young guy might be more willing to listen to their concerns.
Dill decides to be the mayor of everyone. He opens a dialogue with local NAACP officials, makes sure they know to call him anytime there is a concern. He goes about making West Point one city, not like other places in Mississippi, where integration will kill towns that don't know how to turn two communities into one. He restarts the Christmas parade, which had been canceled because whites didn't want blacks looking at their Santa. He brings basic services, such as roads and electricity, to black neighborhoods that have been left behind.
9. "Midnight Train to Georgia"
After college, Jim Weatherly leaves Oxford and goes out to L.A. He takes along a band, and they play all the bars, the Whisky A Go Go and the rest, competing with bands such as The Doors for gigs. He does a USO tour of Vietnam with Nancy Sinatra and appears in a movie. Eventually, the band breaks up, and Weatherly is down to his last seven grand. He feels listless and makes plans, when the money runs out, to go back to Mississippi and become a football coach.
One day, through connections he made in his weekly flag football game, playing with movie star Lee Majors, Weatherly begins writing hits for Gladys Knight and, on Oct. 20, 1973, one of his originals becomes the No. 1 song in America. He named it "Midnight Plane to Houston," but Knight wanted a different state and mode of transportation.
"Midnight Train to Georgia" remains one of the most popular songs of all time.
Years later, he'll be sitting in his home studio in Nashville, playing different versions of the song on the big speakers. Behind the keyboard, he takes my notebook and quickly draws the famous busted play from the Mississippi State game. Even now, he can see the look on the defensive end's face.
10. Sept. 30, 1982
Twenty years later, Meredith is invited to speak at Fulton Chapel on campus. The atmosphere is tense. During his speech, he says "Dixie" and the Confederate flags must be disassociated from Ole Miss. A large group of white students storms out of the speech and, outside, chants "Hotty Toddy" and sings "Dixie."
11. April 22, 1982
John Hawkins is elected the first black cheerleader in school history. In an interview not long afterward, he says he will not carry the Confederate flag onto the field, as all cheerleaders have done before him. "While I'm an Ole Miss cheerleader, I'm still a black man. In my household, I wasn't told to hate the flag, but I did have history classes and know what my ancestors went through and what the Rebel flag represents. It is my choice and I prefer not to wave one. ... I am a black man and the same way whites have been taught to wave the flag I have been taught to have nothing to do with it."
12. April 18, 1983
Rumors are flying. The newly released yearbook contains a picture of white-robed Klansmen with Confederate flags. White students hear that black students are going to burn their yearbooks in protest. The yearlong debate about the future of the Confederate flag at Ole Miss, one that brought the Grand Wizard of the Klan to a football game and students collecting signatures on a petition to keep the flag, is coming to a head. That night, about 600 white students march to Hawkins' fraternity house, waving Confederate flags and yelling racial slurs.
A bit of 1962 is in the air. The students chant the same words their parents chanted a generation before: "Two, four, six, eight ... hell, no, we won't integrate."
University security and Oxford police officers break up the crowd before a riot can break out. The next morning, the student leader of the "Save the Flag" movement announces he no longer wants the job. Like many of his generation, he'd grown up believing the flag was a symbol of a great athletic tradition and school spirit. That night outside the Phi Beta Sigma house, he saw something darker, something Mississippians like to believe no longer exists.
The day after that, the chancellor holds a hastily schedule news conference, announcing that the University of Mississippi will no longer be associated with the Confederate flag and that no one connected to the university will carry or display it, including cheerleaders. The chancellor receives death threats and, the next fall, it seems as if every fan in the stadium is carrying the Stars and Bars.
13. Jan. 12, 1988
Ray Mabus is inaugurated as the youngest governor in the country and is featured in a New York Times Magazine story about the new guard changing the old Mississippi. He is the kid who wandered on the field after the 1962 Mississippi State game and asked Louis Guy for his chinstrap.
Afterward, Mabus will serve as ambassador to Saudi Arabia under Bill Clinton but he never forgot his roots: He keeps an Ackerman, Miss., phone book on the coffee table in his office. Later, he will become a senior adviser to Barack Obama's campaign.
He still has the chin strap.
14. April 17, 2001
The issue is put to the voters: Keep the Confederate stars and bars on the state flag of Mississippi or eliminate them? The man leading the crusade to eliminate is William Winter, the young politician who'd been so distraught the night Barnett spoke at the Kentucky game. He was governor of the state from 1980 to '84, when he started the first public kindergarten in Mississippi, fighting for civil rights for all its citizens. Covering the issue for the Boston Globe is veteran correspondent Curtis Wilkie, the Ole Miss student who received the letter from his mother urging him not to fight the Yankees.
On this night, when the results come in, Mississippi votes to keep the Confederate imagery, 65 percent to 35 percent. Mississippi is 61 percent white and 37 percent black.
Winter doesn't give up his dream of creating a Mississippi for everyone. At Ole Miss, the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation does work all over the region, getting white folks and black folks to sit down and talk about the past, and about the anger and the guilt that remain. He points to the 2008 presidential debate in Oxford as a sign that Mississippi is climbing out from the shadow of 1962. "We've been recovering all these years," he says.
The flag vote, though, is a sign of how much those old feelings still exist. In a recent political ad, one candidate for Senate attacked an opponent for supporting the removal of the Stars and Bars. Most Mississippians approve of having the Confederate Stars and Bars on the state flag.
"That tells you something about how far we still have to go, you know?" Winter says.
I want to believe we'll make it.
"Are we gonna get there?" I ask.
"Sure," he says. "We've come an incredibly long way from 1962."
1. "We are not lepers"
From his luxury box, Sam Owen is thinking about a night many years before, when all of this was drenched in tear gas. His iPhone rings -- he has ringtones from quacking ducks to the Ole Miss fight song. It's one of his three sons, Bryan, who played football for the Rebels in the '80s. The years have been good to Owen: He ran a complicated and large company, married that beautiful girl he went over to check on at the sorority house, took his boys to play the Old Course for Christmas one year, even wrote the poem that described the gift himself. He's got it in his will that the Ole Miss Band will play "Dixie" at his funeral; when you write checks like Owen, you can pretty much get a university to do anything you want. He's still a funny guy, known for calling a teammate, telling a joke, then hanging up. He still wears that Omega watch team members got after their Sugar Bowl victory -- had it sent to Switzerland to be cleaned -- and sometimes, he'll Google "1962" ... just to reminisce. These buildings, and this field, take him back, to a time when one South was dying and another was being born. Owen doesn't see that team as the end of an era. He sees it as a beginning.
"That was the bridge," he says. "I tell you what I believe. When you think about it, we were all raised under a system that we look back on now and nobody is proud of it. But guess what? Go anywhere else in this country, in any state, and they've got the same crap. I look at what Mississippi has done and how far it's come. Now you think about it. You walk into Oxford, and you'd never know there was ever a tear gas bomb thrown there."
About a dozen years ago, on a football Saturday, Owen and a group of guys from that '62 team stood around in the Grove, wondering why nobody ever seemed to bring up their perfect season, the only one in school history. "This is ridiculous," Owen remembers saying. "Everybody acts like we're the lepers. They ought to be talking about how we kept the university from closing. Nobody pays attention. It's like you didn't exist."
Right then and there, the guys conceived a monument to honor their team. In 1998, it was unveiled: an archway in the Grove that the team walks through every game day, another beloved tradition. It is called The Walk of Champions, and it was paid for by members of the 1962 Ole Miss football team. They are now remembered.
The players are older now and have drifted apart some. Many of them have new hips, new knees, chronic back pain. Owen recently canceled a vacation to Greece because his back hurt so bad. They've had diverse and mostly successful lives. Mayors. CEOs. A bunch of them went to Vietnam. Others became doctors, dentists, lawyers. They are the outgoing generation of power brokers in the South.
"There is the common thread that runs through here," Owen says. "These would be guys, if you had these fellows in your unit in the army, you'd take the hill."
Joe York for ESPN.comOwen and the 1962 Rebels are now remembered with the Walk of Champions archway in the Grove.
2. The long goodbyes
Fred Roberts and Larry Leo Johnson are sitting in a golf club outside Jackson. Roberts holds a roster, with little marks next to some of the names. "We lost seven guys," he says.
The first to go was center Richard Ross, in a plane crash. Six others have followed, and the survivors always show up, stooped and a little wider around the middle, standing in dark suits at funerals, just as they once stood in light suits at weddings.
One afternoon not so long ago, Billy Champion's phone rang. It was Wes Sullivan, his old roommate and running buddy, Wes Sullivan of the Pat O'Brien's fountain, of hunting squirrels in the Grove. He'd been sick for a long time, a rare blood disease, and he'd fought it hard. Champion and Sullivan talked about the old days for about an hour, Sullivan sounding as good as he had in a while. They talked about the old games and the nights out together raising hell, about a time when both were young and invincible.
Champion hung up and turned to his wife. "I think Wesley just told me goodbye," he said.
Two days later, Sullivan died.
After his heart attack, Vaught stayed in Oxford, on his farm, playing golf, visiting with his old players when they'd come back. The stadium was renamed for him: Vaught-Hemingway. In 2006, at the age of 96, he died. His funeral took up the entire church and an adjacent building. Outside the South, the newspaper story said, nobody paid much attention.
3. Hijacked by history
The Mississippi they knew as children no longer exists. The little towns where they grew up have blown away, cracked open by the decline of agriculture and bled dry by a political system that disenfranchised a third of the state's citizens for a century. Integration meant a chance at equality, but for a lot of guys on the 1962 Ole Miss football team, it also meant that the world they knew as children no longer existed, an effacement of memory, a past shameful and best forgotten in a place where the past is the bedrock of identity. It has left a generation of Mississippians drifting. They have a hard time expressing this, knowing exactly how it sounds, careful with their words, lowering their voices and looking to see whether their wives are listening before whispering, "The blacks ..."
When he returns to his hometown of Greenwood to visit, Buck Randall likes to drive around alone, past his old school, down the streets where he grew up and played. "Where I used to live," he says, "they're all black. Our whole neighborhood. Everything's gone."
Mitch Terrell sits in the lobby of the swank Alluvian Hotel in Greenwood, part of one Delta town's fight against the fate of so many other places in the state. Terrell is getting chemo after having some cancer removed. He's hoping to get his taste back; even the two or three glasses of Old Charter when the sun goes down taste dull. It's given him time, and license, to think. Done a lot of that lately. "All the little Delta towns are going," Terrell says. "Shaw, Drew, Shelby. It would break your heart to drive through Shaw, Miss. Back when I was growing up, it was a thriving place. Now everything's gone."
The guys from the '62 team want their state back, their youth. It's not segregation they miss -- "I'm not a black hater," Terrell says -- but a thriving place existing before the collapse of the rural economy. They're not economists. They haven't really thought about how segregation effectively ensured that Mississippi would have to claw its way into the 21st century. Instead of working to enfranchise black citizens quickly, many towns began figuring out new ways to segregate. Many towns opened all-white, private high schools. I went to one and never shared a classroom with anyone of color there. Problem is, my hometown of Clarksdale can't really support one successful school. Now it has two, and both struggle. Mississippi's children sink further behind, pulled down by the residue of past prejudices.
Sometimes, I worry we've already made our decisions and have no hope of undoing them. There is just such a profound disconnect between whites and blacks from that era, and many have taught their children and grandchildren so many unfortunate lessons, handing off old ideas to the young. Even something as simple as "Dixie" creates an unbridgeable gap. I'll be honest. I like it when the band plays it. It reminds me of my daddy, and I cry a little bit when they play it slow. All the former players share that sentiment. "I have never thought one thing negative when I hear that," Owen says, "just how much I love Ole Miss and that Grove and those trees." Then I talk to Wadlington, for whom the song brings back different memories: Ole Miss fans driving past his home after a game, blaring "Dixie," waving flags, screaming at his family. "I remember," he says. "I remember the cars. I remember the flags. I remember being the brunt of a lot racial slurs."
The guys from that team have a hard time understanding the other side's point of view. They feel as if their past and their accomplishments have been hijacked by history, and it bothers them in ways they know better than to say aloud. They just want the little grocery stores and the guy pushing burgers off a griddle and the safe streets back. They want to remember when it was OK to be proud of Mississippi.
Terrell starts to cry, wipes his eyes, apologizes for getting emotional. "I hate to think what my grandchildren are gonna grow up in," he says. "I know you can't live in the past, but I sure like to recall it."
4. Buck Randall: knocked down but unbowed
I pull up to Buck Randall's home in Clinton. This is my second trip here and, after hearing so many stories, I'm a little scared of him. He has done hard work since leaving football, including a stretch repossessing cars, carrying a piece for protection. The first time I met Randall, I had to help him stand up, his socked feet sliding on the floor, him sinking back into the couch. That made me sad. He'd been the most feared man in the Delta, but time hasn't been kind to Randall. He has had five operations on his knees, then had them both replaced, suffers from chronic back pain, had three heart attacks, had a stroke, has diabetes, wears a hearing aid. "I hurt every day," he says. One thing has remained untouched by time: His eyes are still a brilliant shade of blue.
I've returned to ask Randall a hard question. See, all the stories about the riot start with him being dragged into the Lyceum. There's no real explanation about why he was there or what he was doing. His teammates snicker when telling the story, hinting they know exactly what he was doing out there. Reporting a story makes you myopic sometimes, and I've come to believe that I need at least one member of that team to admit being an active member of that riot. Then I can ask whether they've repented, whether that night has changed them at all. My best chance, I figure, is Randall. Was he throwing bricks? Was he that football player the priest negotiated with? One history book says he was.
So I get to his house, and see his wonderful wife Sandra, who takes such good care of her husband. I talk with him about the old days. "Hell," he says, "it seems like I've been fighting all my life."
Finally, I ask him. What was he doing when Chief Tatum grabbed him?
"I went over there in front of Lyceum," he starts, "before the riot broke out."
That's as far as he goes and, sitting in his home, I stop, too. The past few weeks have been hard on me. I found a photo of a young man screaming at Meredith. The face looks familiar. I think it's a family member. I show it to my mom; she says I'm wrong. I'm not sure. But I do not ask the relative; I do not press. There are questions that Mississippians won't ask because we are not prepared to hear the answer. So I decide, looking at Buck Randall, that it is unfair for me to demand a confession from him that I am not willing to demand from a family member. Some things seem best left buried.
5. The self-proclaimed most significant man alive
I pull up to James Meredith's home in Jackson. He raised cash for his house, in a middle-class neighborhood, by cutting down and selling those trees his father planted.
Time hasn't been that kind to Meredith, either. He was shot in 1966 making a "Walk Against Fear" across Mississippi. Martin Luther King Jr. finished the walk for him. He's gotten a reputation for being a bit off. Tell someone you're going to see Meredith and you'll get a look that says: Have fun with that. He worked for Jesse Helms. And David Duke. Nobody could figure out what he was thinking there.
Sitting in a little room off the side of the house he has turned into an office, he says, "You see, what most people have never understood is why ... the Ole Miss school thing, the white-black school thing, has such force and power ..."
He is interrupted by one of his granddaughters, who wants some milk. Meredith finishes his thought -- "it's about not accepting white supremacy" -- then walks slowly to the house to get her a glass of milk.
When he returns, he holds forth, about the books he has read, about reading "War and Peace" in Russian, about Churchill, about the great moments of Western civilization, about Barack Obama. He says he has hope for Mississippi because his going to Ole Miss killed the tree limb of white supremacy and it has been dying ever since. It's still hanging on to the tree, he says, but it's rotted and hopeless. Mississippi will one day be different. As he talks, I think I understand the weirdness people associate with him, the grandiosity. He's not crazy. It's just that, in his mind, he's one of those people who've changed the course of history. When he talks about Churchill, it's not as if he's discussing some distant leader but, rather, an intimate. A peer.
He remembers his actions, and the wave they unleashed on the South, and, well, he has been chasing greatness ever since. What's the second act when you change the world at 29?
"Not only am I more significant than Barack Obama," he says, "I'm more significant than anybody living. I ain't never not thought that, but you are the first person, and if you hadn't told me you were from Clarksdale and 31 years old, I wouldn't have told you. You're the first person I've ever told that. It doesn't really matter after a time whether it's true or not. Tell you the truth, most of the things that guided me, I never knew if they were real or imagined. I got to where I couldn't tell the difference at all between a dream and something I thought up wide awake. To me, it was the same thing. Became the same thing."
As we talk, a roach crawls out onto the floor, headed toward his shoes, then moves away, making its way around the room. The weirdest thing happens. He doesn't mention it. Neither do I. My eyes stay straight ahead. It just seems unfair to make him stop talking about Churchill and his own historical significance to address a roach crawling around his small, cluttered office.
6. "Nothing ever lasts forever"
Glynn Griffing makes a familiar walk, from the dining area toward the Lyceum. The former star quarterback, who was born near my family farm, is wearing gray slacks, a blue shirt and a blue tie. He's 68 now. It's a beautiful fall day, and the leaves are turning, the coeds showing their legs, the lights of the football stadium peeking above the tops of the buildings. He looks at the faces coming and going and can't believe he ever looked that young. An Ole Miss football player, a burly African-American, passes him and doesn't pause to look at the older man sitting near the flagpole. Once upon a time, Griffing was the most famous person on this campus. Time marches on. "Nothing ever lasts forever," he says. "I knew it wouldn't last forever. But I never expected it to end as quickly as it did."
He remembers the night of the riot, the Confederate flag flying where he's sitting now, the tear gas. Now there are white and black faces here, walking together, going to the same classes, living in the same rooms. There have been so many changes. Robert Khayat, the former football star, is now the chancellor. One of the first things he did was make fans stop bringing the Confederate flag to the stadium. He, too, got death threats. He banned Colonel Rebel as the official mascot. He has overseen the university through millions of dollars in improvements and spearheaded the campaign to bring the presidential debate to Oxford. Understandably, Khayat is proud of the new Ole Miss.
Griffing stands, walks past the James Meredith statue behind the Lyceum that Khayat installed. There's a quote on it: "Yes, Mississippi was. But Mississippi is." That seems about right. He walks slowly, in color, not in black and white like those old photographs, a man who once knew glory but doesn't dwell on it. He's through talking to me about the past. The tear gas has faded away. He moves along the sidewalk beneath the oaks and magnolias. Nobody glances twice.
Reporting this story took me places I'm not sure I wanted to go. I've always loved Mississippi, but each new layer I unearthed made that love a more difficult and complex thing to maintain. I read James Meredith's hate mail. Not photocopies, the actual letters. I found my relative's name in the notebook, though never an explanation of why, and later, a photo of another great-uncle urging citizens to fight the feds. I realized for the first time how these symbols of Ole Miss football -- the flag and "Dixie" and even "Hotty Toddy" -- were once used as weapons. How for a third of my fellow Mississippians, those images bring back fear. I found myself wishing I didn't know any of this. That scared me.
But I did know, and now I had an answer to a question first asked in the library: What is the cost? I won't ever look at a Rebel flag the same again. Although I like "Dixie," especially when it's played slow, if it were never played again, I would be OK with that. Strangely, my biggest fear was that I'd be unable to enjoy Ole Miss football games, that I wouldn't be able to forget the images in my head from a time when these games served as a symbol of something else.
This past fall, the Rebels went a month without a home game, and that's when I did most of the library work on this story. I began to worry about the Auburn game. What if it was ruined for me? That morning, I got to my seats and searched inside for the first pangs of discomfort. I'm not sure what this says about me, but I still liked being there. Yes, it's OK to love Ole Miss football. It's part of me, just as the events of 47 years ago are. We are all of these things. They are our history. They are us. I didn't just feel shame researching this story. I felt pride in that group of guys, in Glynn and Sam and Louis and the rest. I am proud to have met them. I am fully aware that this will be the second story I've written ending with the Ole Miss band playing "Dixie." The first ran two years ago, an ode to Southern football, and that song made me think about my family. I still mean every word of that, as I do what I'm writing now, and believe that both can be true. Difficult and complex are not necessarily bad things.
Kickoff's close. I look up at the south end zone and see, in gigantic letters, "1962 National Champions." Seems some obscure poll voted the Rebels first. I read all the local coverage of that season, and there was no mention of this poll. But there it is, in huge letters. There's such a blurry line between fact and fiction about 1962 that nobody seems to mind that the university has rewritten history. Not only do we not like to talk about the past but we like to rearrange it to fit with our own ideas of what should have happened. This strikes me as dangerous: If we don't look at our flaws and culpability and learn from them, we seem doomed. The truth? The 1962 team was good, really good, especially considering the obstacles, but that year, USC was better.
The sign also brings me to the final question: What is the cost of not knowing? Many of the students here have no idea what really happened that night in front of the Lyceum. They know what I knew: brushstrokes and a few comfortable anecdotes. Maybe their families are different, but in my family, it wasn't discussed. I suspect their families are not different. Students here mostly believe what their parents believe; it's the reason the Daily Mississippian was the only daily student newspaper in America to endorse John McCain. Thoughts are handed down like monogrammed cuff links and engraved shotguns.
The band starts playing "From Dixie with Love." The moment's coming, one that makes me cringe, for the black students who have to hear it and for the white ones who have no idea what they're actually saying. The song speeds up near the end, and the crowd shakes once more. I don't know when this began, or why, but as it finishes, many of the students, some of them the grandchildren of those here in the long fall of 1962, yell, The South ... will ... rise ... again!
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com. He was born in Clarksdale, Miss., and lives in Oxford.