The Magazine

Ole Miss in the Trent Lott Era

What did you do in the race war, Daddy?

Dec 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 16 • By RICHARD W. CARLSON
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I WAS OFTEN BOTHERED about what happened to my gun during the James Meredith riots at Ole Miss. Quite a few people were shot during that crazed Sunday night in the fall of 1962. Two civilians died, and 168 U.S. marshals were wounded when bullets flew into the Lyceum Building. No one ever knew who was responsible. I always hoped my gun didn't play a part. I found out almost 30 years later.

I returned for my second year at Ole Miss in late September 1962, a New Englander straight off a summer job as a cop in Ocean City, Maryland. I hitchhiked from the Maryland shore to Oxford, Mississippi, in a day and night, catching a ride from two libidinous honeymooners. (I drove while they made out furiously in the back seat.) I never gave a serious thought to my police gun and a box of ammo sitting next to me in my sea bag. The country wasn't into liability yet. The pistol was big and old, but powerful--a .45 caliber Webley six-shot revolver--and I was used to toting it around.

When I arrived, Ole Miss was thrumming with excitement. James Meredith was due on campus in a few days. Everyone knew who he was: a 29-year-old military veteran, a Negro who had been turned down for enrollment by the university and governor the previous year because they didn't want Negroes, and who now had the support of the Kennedy administration. Bobby Kennedy and the U.S. Justice Department were planning to enroll Meredith by force.

I was a veteran, too. I had spent the previous year at Ole Miss under an NROTC program for enlisted sailors and Marines who'd graduated from the Naval Academy Prep School. So the South and its ways weren't an entirely new experience. Even so, Mississippi was in a cultural world pretty much of its own.

There were very few Yankees at Ole Miss that year, maybe a dozen or so undergraduates. I knew them all. Five of us lived in a farmhouse we rented about a mile from school. We had all moved from our dorms, in part because of hostility from some of the Ole Miss men.

They didn't like Yankees. Their fathers and grandfathers didn't like them either. Yankees had done bad things to the ancestors they felt a direct connection to even after all those years. Yankees had burned this town, and those houses, and had raped some of the women. They could show you where the houses had been and they knew some of the women's names.

Yankees still stood out 100 years later at Ole Miss. They dressed funny, wearing Bermuda shorts and no ties and no socks with those stupid loafers. And they were always trying to make moves on the women. Between the women and the no socks, there was a lot to hate about Yankees.

One of my roommates really drove them crazy. His name was Jim Murray, a shambling, sloppy, bear of a guy from Philadelphia. (He later wound up in San Francisco, where he became the guitarist for the Quicksilver Messenger Service.) Murray played the banjo. His repertoire consisted mainly of proletarian folk songs, crooning and strumming about the toils of Tom Mooney or Joe Hill and the Wobblies. He was a bit of a charlatan. The girls loved him.

Murray was plunking his banjo one night in his dorm room, warbling into a tape recorder so he could savor his own singing, when the window shattered. A bullet thudded into the wall near his head.

A lot of people didn't like Murray's singing, and I was one of them, but this seemed too serious a criticism. The bullet appeared to have come from an upperclassman's dorm. Murray had beaten a redneck senior silly the week before because the man kept ragging him about not wearing socks to class with his scuffy Bass Weejuns. Murray was lazy and laid back but he was also huge and very tough.

Soon after that, we rented the farmhouse for $60 a month. We took most of our meals on a neighboring dairy farm. The farmer was known to diners, friends, and relatives as, no kidding, Dirty Charlie. The name fit. Dirty Charlie looked like he never bathed and had crusted over. His wife was fat and cheery and a terrific cook.

Dinner was served at four. If you weren't on time the door was barred and you didn't eat. Charlie was dirty, but he was never late. You pulled up to the long kitchen table, with Mrs. Charlie's senile and toothless mom and a half-dozen grubby kids, and tucked in to bowls of chicken fried steak, gravy, plump fried chitterlings, sweet potatoes, turnips, collard greens, okra, pickled beets, corn bread, fresh butter and fresh milk and a deep-dish fruit pie for dessert--all this, with coffee, for exactly $1 each, cash, no checks.