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Mississippi and Meredith remember

James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962.
James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962.

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OXFORD, Mississippi (CNN) -- By the time he reached the University of Mississippi four decades ago, James Meredith had already served his country, giving the U.S. Air Force nine years.

But when the military veteran sought to continue his college education at the campus here, the all-white school, local and state courts, and even the governor, Ross Barnett, tried to stop him because of the color of his skin.

After the U.S. Supreme Court on September 10, 1962, ruled in his favor, an angry mob threatened both him and the school.

"You gotta understand -- the state of Mississippi was in rebellion. It had rebelled against the United States," said Meredith. "Now that has been a very difficult story for America to tell, but that's what actually happened."

The law was clear the university had to integrate and the federal government had to enforce the law. Meredith would force both the state and the federal government to obey the law.

"I was engaged in a war. I considered myself engaged in a war from Day One. And my objective was to force the federal government -- the Kennedy administration at that time -- into a position where they would have to use the United States military force to enforce my rights as a citizen," he said.

From the distance of 40 years, it is hard to imagine how hard white Mississippi fought back on October 1, 1962, to keep a black man out of school.

To protect him, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent 123 deputy federal marshals, 316 U.S. border guards and 97 federal prison guards.

start quoteI have applied for admission to the University of Mississippi. I have not been accepted and I have not been rejected. Delaying tactics are presently being used by the state. . .end quote
-- James Meredith, in letter to Justice Department

They had been ordered not to shoot and could use only tear gas against a mob that would grow to 2,000 and that attacked them with guns, bricks, bottles and Molotov cocktails.

As the violence grew, President John F. Kennedy then sent 16,000 federal troops to the campus.

"As we were marching up there, they would throw rocks at us and call us nigger lovers. Wanted to know if we were there to put our nigger brother in college," former U.S. Army military police officer Ted Cowsert recalled.

"There was a lot of gasoline burning, a lot of automobiles burning on campus. Every concrete bench was broken, being thrown at us," Cowsert said. "I spent time in Vietnam. I'll take that any time over Ole Miss."

Before the riots were over, two people were dead, 28 marshals were shot and 160 people were injured, including Cowsert.

"People have forgotten about it, but it was, as I say, the last battle of the Civil War, actually fought on this campus that night," said U.S. Senior District Judge Constance Baker Motley, who was Meredith's first lawyer from the NAACP.

Time heals some wounds, but not all. University officials have spent two years preparing for the anniversary of the ugly page of Mississippi history. The school has invited back to the campus as many of the soldiers, marshals and police it could find.

Waiting to greet them were the symbols of the Old South. A statue honoring Confederate dead welcomes visitors at the main entrance to the campus. And the Confederate battle flag, still a part of the Mississippi state flag, waves in front of the building where Meredith was finally enrolled.

"I think that what happened at Ole Miss 40 years ago can be a burden. But it should also be a responsibility -- a special responsibility to take a leadership role in studying race relations and promoting racial reconciliation and remembering our past to good effect," said Charles Reagan Wilson of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture.

Perhaps just remembering the past would be a place to start.

"I think it's important. I don't really know much about, but it's important because it affects the university," said freshman Stephanie Twiford.

In so many ways the state of Mississippi is different, and in some ways it is still the same.

"I know that my grandmother and great-grandmother, who still live in the Delta, and still like to think themselves better than the blacks," said freshman Kimberly Simmons.

On campus, too, so many things have changed, but to the eye of black students some things remain the same.

"I know a lot of students who will not attend the university simply for the things they have heard," said James Thompson, president of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.

These days, at age 69 and rail-thin, Meredith owns a tiny used car dealership in Jackson.

But his mind still drifts back two generations ago, to the anger, the rioting, the victory that was not his alone. Meredith was the first black student, but not the first black person on campus.

"I noticed in the hallway a black janitor and I wondered why he was standing there. And he had a mop under his arm. And as I passed him, he turned his body, twisted his body, and touched me with the mop handle. Now this delivered a message and the message was clear: We are looking after you while you are here," Meredith remembered.

He wrote of those years on campus in his book, "Three Years in Mississippi."

In 1966, Meredith was shot by a sniper during his solitary March Against Fear, a walk from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson to encourage blacks to register to vote.

Meredith went on to get a law degree from Columbia University.

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