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The reality of racism 40 years ago

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MAXWELL
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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 6, 2002


SAN ANGELO, Texas -- As far as I could tell at the time, Sept. 30, 1962, was just another charmed day in the lives of happy teenagers.

My friends and I walked around the western edge of the black cemetery and through the woods on our way to school. This was our usual route. The morning was sunny, and we found a few juicy scuppernongs that had survived the summer and the busy fingers of the little kids. The five of us, all star football players, lollygagged along the path that led us to the deep-rutted dirt road alongside our football practice field.

We were excited because we were preparing for the biggest game in the history of our school, Crescent City's all-Negro Middleton High. We were playing mighty Central Academy in Palatka. We walked across the field and daydreamed of whipping C.A., the nickname of our cross-county rival.

As we settled into our homeroom and as Miss Howard called the roll, our principal, Mr. Burney, came on the intercom and ordered grades 10 through 12 into the cafetorium. After the three classes were seated, we noticed the television in the middle of the stage.

I could not imagine what was so important that Mr. Burney would let us watch television during a school day. The last time such a thing had happened, I was in seventh grade, when Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers, beloved by Negroes everywhere, were playing the Yankees in the seventh game of the 1956 World Series.

Mr. Burney's words are forever burnished in my memory: "You young people need to see what's going on in Oxford, Mississippi. Now pay attention."

He turned on the black-and-white set and sat in the rear of the room. First, we saw President John F. Kennedy's face and heard his familiar voice -- a voice that inspired trust in Negroes. He had ordered federal troops to Oxford to help a little skinny Negro named James Meredith enroll in the University of Mississippi.

Meredith would be the first Negro to enroll in this bastion of Jim Crow.

Next, we saw the scowling face of Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, and then we heard his voice. He passionately declared himself a "segregationist," and he vowed that no Negro would ever attend Ole Miss.

My usually rambunctious schoolmates and I were stone silent as we watched dozens of outnumbered U.S. marshals try to push back a white mob of hundreds. Then, on the TV screen, we saw all hell break loose. Chants of "nigger" became action. Molotov cocktails, bottles and bricks rained down on the marshals.

We watched the scene in horror. These were white people fighting other white people because of Meredith -- a Negro.

"Everybody pay attention!" Mr. Burney yelled in the semi-dark room.

He did not have to remind us. We were transfixed.

Before calm was restored -- after troops arrived from Fort Bragg's Company A 503 MP Battalion and the Mississippi National Guard -- two rioters had been killed and 200 others injured.

We had seen angry whites in Crescent City, but the fury we witnessed that day on TV filled us with dread. Jim Crow suddenly was a real entity. He wore an evil face. And that face was white.

For the first time in my young life, I was afraid for the future. Within a year, many of my classmates and I would be going away to college. What would happen to us?

That afternoon, a pall fell over our football practice. C.A. was no longer our most important enemy.

The next day, Justice Department attorney John Doar and federal marshals escorted Meredith to Ole Miss, where he registered as the university's first Negro student.

I went away to college the next year but not with the hopefulness I had felt before witnessing the Meredith nightmare. Everything had changed. I had seen a side of America I had only read about or had heard my elders describe.

That experience probably led me to the civil rights movement and eventually to Mississippi, where I helped register blacks to vote. The events of that day showed me that America was a place of profound hatreds, a place capable of murder because of race.

Today, during the 40th anniversary of the Meredith/Ole Miss confrontation, I remind myself that racial harmony is a fragile thing -- perhaps an illusion. I know that a Jasper, Texas, can happen at any time, that we have not seen the last of the dynamics that surrounded the O.J. Simpson trial, that many school boards nationwide have no African-Americans, that the U.S. Senate remains lily-white.

Much has changed since my friends and I innocently walked to school on the morning of Sept. 30, 1962. Beneath the surface, however, much remains the same.

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