I heard about Charles W. Eagles book The Price of Defiance–  James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss after it was the subject of a panel discussion at the 2010 Mississippi Bar Convention. I’m glad that I did.

Here is the description of the book from the inside flap of the cover:

When James Meredith enrolled as the first African American student at the University of Mississippi in 1962, the resulting riots produced more casualties than any other clash of the civil rights era. Eagles shows that the violence resulted from the university’s and the state’s long defiance of the civil rights movement and federal law. Ultimately, the price of such behavior–the price of defiance–was not only the murderous riot that rocked the nation and almost closed the university but also the nation’s enduring scorn for Ole Miss and Mississippi. Eagles paints a remarkable portrait of Meredith himself by describing his unusual family background, his personal values, and his service in the U.S. Air Force, all of which prepared him for his experience at Ole Miss.

Attempts to keep James Meredith out of Ole Miss were at the epicenter of white Mississippi’s effort to maintain segregation and, more importantly, white supremacy. The opponent to Meredith’s attempt to enroll at Ole Miss was the State of Mississippi itself, led by Governor Ross Barnett. 

In the early 1960′s it was a crime in Mississippi to attempt to overthrow segregation. Judges, politicians, TV stations and most newspapers vehemently opposed both racial equality and desegregation. Segregationists used terms such as “mongrelization” of the races and whatever other scare cards they could dream up to frighten white people.

But by 1960 white supremacy was probably more about power and money than racist ideals. Thinking whites had to know that once African-Americans could vote and had equal access to education that whites would lose their monopoly on political offices and patronage. Putting it bluntly, a bunch of dumb rednecks were going to be out of a job. Plus, the "help" might balk at continuing to work for slave wages.  

African-Americans who opposed the “Southern way of life” risked death. Whites who opposed the system risked being ostracized by whites and getting run out of the state. A white student who ate in the Ole Miss cafeteria with Meredith had her whole family run out of the state. As a result, there was a silent tolerance of the brutal system much the same way that Germans allowed the Holocaust twenty years earlier. 

Ole Miss was caught in the middle of the controversy. Eagles explains how the chancellor and administration ceded control of racial matters to politicians and their appointed trustees. Although it’s easy to criticize them now, the chancellor and administration would have been run out of town had they opposed the politicians who controlled the University.

Eagles persuasively argues that everything from Oxford being a back-water town until the boom in the 1990′s to Ole Miss not winning an SEC Football title in over 40 years can be traced to the national scorn caused by the resistance to Meredith.

Reading this book evoked a lot of sadness for me. The “Southern way of life” was so unfair and oppressive for so many Mississippians. Over half the people in Mississippi were African-Americans until around 1930 and Mississippi has always had a huge black population. The system existed from until the end of slavery until people my parent’s age were grown adults. Including the slavery years, there were 150 years of slavery and white supremacy. We are less than 50 years from the Civil Rights Movement. 

The names of many of the players in the dispute will be familiar to Mississippi lawyers. Retired 5th Circuit Judge Charles Clark was one of the lawyers who represented the State in opposing Meredith’s efforts, and Jackson lawyer Bill Goodman was one of the attorneys who advised Governor Barnett during the crisis. Again, it’s easy now to criticize lawyers who represented the State, but that was a different time and people who did not live through it should not take a holier than thou view of something that they didn’t live through.   

Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Jimmy Robertson makes an appearance as a writer and editor for the Daily Mississippian in the early 1960′s who took the controversial position that—God forbid—Ole Miss schedule teams that included African American players. Pretty ironic that it was so controversial given the fact that now before taking the field, every Ole Miss coach and player touches the statue of former player Chucky Mullins (an African-American). Jackson resident the Reverend Duncan Gray Jr. was a rector in Oxford in the early 1960′s and was a rare progressive voice among white Mississippians.  

Given how far Mississippi has advanced, it is easy to overlook the courage exhibited by individuals like Meredith, Robertson and Gray, who put themselves in harm’s way by voicing opposition to white supremacy. But if we are being honest, few of us can say with certainty that we would have exhibited such moral courage during that era. Indeed, look at how many people who did not. 

There is still racism in Mississippi, as there is in most parts of the country. But the notion of white supremacy is dead except for with complete nuts. In my experience, even people who are racist because of their general views about African-Americans believe that everyone should have equal access to education, job opportunities and political office. Otherwise, you would not see African-Americans elected to political office in majority white districts. But it does occasionally happen.

In conclusion, The Price of Defiance is a fantastic book that makes you think about how far Mississippi has advanced, but also the depth of the hole that we are digging out of. The book should be required reading for all Mississippi lawyers and all students at Mississippi’s colleges and law schools.