Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Night of Remembrance

I watched a television program last night – an ESPN “30 for 30” presentation called “Ghosts of Ole Miss,” and it reminded me of where I was and what I was doing during the period covered by the documentary.

“Ghosts of Ole Miss” is about the integration of the University of Mississippi in September 1962 by James Meredith, 29, the first African-American to enroll and attend the university. It is also about the almost-forgotten 1962 Rebels football team that won the National Championship that year. The feature was written and narrated by Wright Thompson, who personally witnessed some of the events.
Alabama’s segregationist Gov. Ross Barnett had pledged that no black person would ever attend Mississippi while he was governor. President John F. Kennedy and Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy were equally determined that Meredith was going to enroll.
It was the State of Mississippi residents and students against the United States of America Army and the National Guard. It was the Civil War all over again, complete with fixed bayonets. There were fires in the night, clouds of tear gas, horrific injuries from gunfire and beatings, even deaths, during the face down. It was a war zone.
The early ‘60s were a shameful period in American history, with continued horrible segregation and treatment of African Americans. Being a freshman at the University of Hawaii in a state where races lived in harmony, it was hard to fathom how such hatred could exist. But exist, it did.
James Meredith persevered, and there was talk of closing the university. But the 1962 Mississippi football team – the Ole Miss Rebels – gave everyone a reason not to close the school. It kept on winning and was a source of pride to Mississippians. They beat Arkansas in the Jan 1, 1963, Sugar Bowl, finishing the season undefeated, the first-ever Ole Miss team to do so. They won the National Championship, but were somewhat disdained, thanks to national disgust over the way Meredith was treated.

This year, on the 50th anniversary of their accomplishment, they got their due recognition by the students. Good for them.
Back in 1962, over at the University of Hawaii, residents of my dormitory – Atherton YMCA House – were simply appalled. We wanted to do something, and the best we could come up with was the writing of letters to James Meredith supporting his cause and encouraging him onward.
The Associated Students of the University of Hawaii wanted to send a delegation to Mississippi to observe the situation, but they were denied the funds in an overwhelming vote. Hence, the letter-writing campaign.
I wrote a letter – a couple of handwritten pages – talking about how difficult it was for me to imagine what he was going through, since although I am in an ethnic minority, I didn’t experience anything close to what he was going through. My letter was one of those chosen to represent A-House and to be sent to Mississippi. It was a good feeling.
Did he ever get the letter? I have no idea. I do know he got tons of hate mail calling him everything in the book, all the racial slurs and expletives you can imagine. So maybe the letters of support weren’t really read. I hope they were.
It was painful to watch “Ghosts of Ole Miss,” even for someone who spent that year thousands of miles to the west, separated from Ole Miss by an ocean and three-quarters of a continent.
If you get a chance to see a rerun of the program on ESPN, do so. It’s not really a sports story, it’s a story about our nation and its continual growing pains. Watch it. Especially if you are too young to remember the events of 1962. It’ll be worth your while.

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