I was not-quite seven years old the night of the Meredith riot. It was warm enough that the windows at my parent’s house were open. We lived on Eagle Springs Road, which goes up the tallest hill on the north side of town; the bottom for Toby Tuby Creek runs between that hill and the hill on which most of the town sits (if you know Oxford, Price Street comes off the hill on North Lamar and goes down to the bottom as it runs to the Molly Bar Road). Because that hill Eagle Springs ascends faces the hill on which the town and University sit, sounds carry across from the campus– football games, concerts in the Grove, riots and gunfire…
So, my dad was practicing law just off the Square (where I practice now, on Jackson Avenue) and was an adjunct professor at the law school. At the time, the law school was located in Farley Hall, which now houses the Journalism Department. My father was close to Bill Murphy, a constitutional law and labor law professor, and the Dean of the law school, Bob Farley, who ultimately left Mississippi because of their views that the Supreme Court desegregation decisions in Brown where the law of the land.
Dad was on campus when the riot started, over at Farley Hall. Later, I heard that he organized law students he knew to take down tag numbers of cars that were coming into the area, and the tag numbers were given to the FBI.
Meanwhile, I was at home with mom and my brother (aged 5) and sister (aged 3). One of my most distinct memories– a memory that I’m reasonably sure is not based on later family story-telling, but on what I remember from the time– was hearing what sounded to all of us like gun-fire while watching President Kennedy on television calling for calm, too late.
My mother was understandably anxious about her husband’s safety. From across that Toby Tuby bottom, tear gas canisters and gunfire sounded pretty much the same, so what we heard was shooting on campus where my father was. That’s my memory of that night.
I’m not sure whether I remember, or was told, about the planes coming into the airport all night full of soldiers. I’m sure I remember being excited by riding as my father drove through military checkpoints in the succeeding days (there was one pretty close to where Price Street met Vivian Street, I am pretty sure, near where Will Hickman then lived). And I remember going out to the airport and seeing all the military transport planes lined up, wing-to-wing, out there.
I remember enjoying being off from school (the second grade; I was in the first grade at Bramlett Elementary). And then, a lawyer from Houston, Mississippi, who had been one of my father’s law clerks, and was an officer in the National Guard troops who were nationalized to contend with the riots, took dad, my brother, and I on a jeep ride through the national guard camp south of town on Billy Ross Brown’s farm on what is now Old 7 south of the hospital. I came away with great prizes: being able to say I’d ridden in a military jeep, and a box of Army c-rations, which, when school came back into session, I somehow smuggled back to school to show to friends.
As a six-year old, I had no idea what all this was about until much later. My next encounter with the collapse of Jim Crow was in the seventh grade, when a very few “freedom of choice” children enrolled in the all-white school– one, Alva Green, who sat in front of me in math class, and when one of the first Black teachers was assigned to teach science in the white school I attended. That’s another story for another time.