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U.S. Marshals Service

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The U.S. Marshals and the Integration of the University of Mississippi: 

40 years ago, deputy marshals safeguarded a man’s education goals and carried out a president’s orders

History is often made when one person stands his ground and demands his dream.  But history needs its enforcers.  And when James Meredith sought to legally become the first black  person to attend the University of Mississippi 40 years ago, the duty of upholding the federal law allowing him to do so fell upon the shoulders of 127 deputy marshals from all over the country who risked their lives to make his dream a reality.

A bold challenge Race relations in the United States were plenty tumultuous in 1962. While the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of 1954 made public school segregation illegal, some states resisted the change, and the federal government did little to interfere.

That changed when Meredith set his sights on becoming the first black person to attend Ole Miss.  According to one biographer, Meredith was dissatisfied with race relations in the South, and in a calculated move he applied for admission.

However, the university, citing administrative technicalities, refused his application numerous times over the course of the next several months. This prompted the would-be student to write a letter to Thurgood Marshall, then head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s
Legal Defense Fund.James Meredith and U.S. Marshals

In the letter, Meredith wrote that he knew the “probable difficulties involved in such a move as I am undertaking and I am fully prepared to pursue it all the way.” Marshall and his organization backed Meredith wholeheartedly. In his book, “An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi,” author William Doyle stated that the NAACP’s backing was a key component in Meredith’s eventual success.  Doyle also noted that two other factors were equally important: John F. Kennedy, seen as the first president to support civil rights, took office in January 1961; and the Brown ruling was still the official law of the land.

Kennedy, who scored a narrow election victory with the help of many black voters, would indeed turn out to be sympathetic to Meredith’s cause, but the same could not be said of Mississippi’s  governor, Ross Barnett.  In a statewide television broadcast, Barnett stated, “[Mississippi] will not surrender to the evil and illegal forces of tyranny ... [and] no school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your governor.”  Later, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Meredith attending classes. But Barnett was still defiant. He went on to call Meredith’s attempt to enter Ole Miss “our greatest crisis since the War Between the States.”  Photo above right: Chief Marshal J.P. McShane (right), Assistant Attorney General John Doar (left) and Deputy Cecil Miller (in Background) escort James Meredith to classes at the University of Mississippi .

The job of seeing to it that Meredith was safely admitted to the school clearly fell upon the federal government, and soon enough, President Kennedy sent deputy marshals into the fray.

Three times, Chief U.S. Marshal J.P. McShane led a small contingent of deputies — without loaded guns — to register Meredith. But in each instance, they were stopped by state politicians and state troopers who were taking orders from Barnett. Finally, President Kennedy escalated matters by ordering a much larger group of deputies — 127 — to get the job done. To
increase the numbers even more, McShane swore in over 300 U.S. Border Patrol agents and close to making them special deputy marshals and bringing the total number of federal law enforcement officers for this assignment to 538. The stage was set.

Welcome to Ole Miss : 'white' students

Meredith was the first black student to attend 'Ole Miss' and was registered at the school after a violent confrontation between students and Deputies.  One hundred and sixty Deputies were injured - 28 by gunfire.  For the next year, Deputy Marshals provided Meredith with 24 hour protection, going everywhere he went on campus, enduring the same taunts and jibes, the same heckling, the same bombardment of cherry bombs, water balloons, and trash, as Meredith did.  They made sure that Meredith could attend the school of his choice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Continued:  Page One | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six | Seven | Eight

Read about the past | Trouble Brewing | Holding Firm | Continued Protection | Robert Kennedy's Statement
The Present: 40 Years Later | The 40th Year Commemoration | Message from Director Benigno Reyna

 
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