As I have noted in earlier posts, the National Park Service has committed to drawing connections between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. This post is about those connections.
In January of 1961, James Meredith, believing that he had a “Divine Responsibility to break White Supremacy in Mississippi,” applied to the all-white state university. His inevitable rejection led to a lawsuit that eventually reached the U. S. Supreme Court. In September, 1962, an Alabamian, Justice Hugo Black, handed down a ruling that upheld an earlier Circuit Court ruling that Meredith must be admitted without further delay. Governor Ross Barnett responded on statewide television, “We will not surrender to the evil and illegal forces of tyranny.”
The 37 year-old head of the U. S. Department of Justice, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, had been supportive of Meredith’s cause almost from the beginning. The response of Governor Barnett to the Court’s ruling drew battle lines between the federal government, the Governor, and the forces of white supremacy and segregation in Mississippi. Robert Kennedy began a series of phone conversations with the Governor that delved into the relationship of the state to the federal government. At one point Kennedy pointedly said: “Governor, you are a part of the United States,” to which Barnett replied, “We have been a part of the United States but I don’t know whether we are or not.” Kennedy asked, “Are you getting out of the Union?”
Unable to persuade the Governor that the Department of Justice intended to enforce the Court’s orders, Robert Kennedy eventually had to involve his brother, President John Kennedy. In the meantime, truckloads of white supremacists were coming into Oxford to stop Meredith from entering the University. The Kennedy administration began to worry that a few federal marshals wouldn’t be sufficient to protect Meredith. The last thing the Kennedys wanted to do was send in troops, but even phone conversations between the President himself and the Governor did not bring about the desired results.
At midnight Norbert Schlei of the Office of Legal Counsel came to the White House with a proclamation ordering persons obstructing justice in Mississippi to cease and disperse and an executive order federalizing the Mississippi State Guard. Kennedy took Schlei into a small study on an upper floor, sat down at a table and read the documents. After a moment he asked, “Is this pretty much what Ike signed in 1957 with the Little Rock thing?” Schlei pointed to a few refinements. Kennedy signed, snapped off the light and headed into the hall. Then he paused and rapped the table with his hand. “You know,” he said, “that’s General Grant’s table.” They said good night. As Schlei went down the stairs to tell waiting reporters what had happened, Kennedy suddenly sprinted to the top of the balustrade and called down to him, “Don’t tell them about General Grant’s table.”
The situation in Oxford grew considerably worse, without the full knowledge of the President. Meredith and the federal officials and marshals charged with protecting him and ensuring his registration to the University, found themselves holed up in the Lyceum, under siege by an angry armed mob after the state police were withdrawn. The federal marshals fired tear gas in response to thrown bricks and bottles and gunfire. Despite reports of deaths, and injuries to themselves, they were under strict orders not to shoot except to protect Meredith’s life. The President was reluctantly asked to send in the Army, but the Army took five hours to arrive. It was a wildly harrowing night for the federal officials in Oxford and for Robert Kennedy, who felt personally responsible for the Army’s delay.
Despite the violent resistance, Meredith was enrolled, and eventually graduated.
When I read about President Kennedy’s reference to Grant in Arthur Schlesinger’s Robert Kennedy and His Times, I wondered what exactly his thoughts were that night in the White House. Was he thinking just about General Grant’s role in putting down the rebellion? Or was he thinking about President Grant’s efforts to bring civil rights to all Americans?