Major funding for American Experience is provided by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation. National corporate funding is provided by Liberty Mutual and the Scotts Company. American Experience is also made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by public television viewers. Funding for the re-release of Eyes on the Prize made possible by the Ford Foundation and the Gilder Foundation.
In 1954, the Supreme Court said black children would go to school with white. The South said, never.
In the name of God, whom we all revere, in the name of liberty we hold so dear, in the name of decency, which we all cherish, what is happening in America?
Was this the start of a new civil war?
[MUSIC – "KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE PRIZE"]
Desegregation is against the Bible. I find my scripture for this in Genesis 9:27, where God did segregate and separate the three sons of Noah, sending one out to be a servant while the other two remain in the Tabernacle. I say that God has given nowhere in His Bible any right to man to end the curse that he's placed upon any human [INAUDIBLE].
All the people of the South are in favor of segregation. And Supreme Court or no Supreme Court, we are going to maintain segregated schools down in Dixie.
It wasn't funny then. It's still not funny. But suddenly we have the 14th Amendment that took 100 years, brought on by the Civil War, suddenly must be complied with. Equal treatment under the law. And that was a resistance. They are not going to get equal treatment. What do you mean? Go to school with my little darling? Now that is why resistance.
In the late 1950s, the battle for civil rights was fought in the classrooms of the South. The Supreme Court had ruled in a case called Brown versus Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. Many Southerners saw the decision as an attack on their heritage and traditions. The battle lines were drawn.
I think we were not really quite prepared for the extent to which the South would resist the implementation of the Brown decision. In fact, the shutting down of the NAACP in Alabama, the resistance evidenced in places like Virginia and Arkansas, the legislative investigations committees in Florida and in other states, really frightened us.
And the white resistance could also be violent. In February, 1956, a black woman named Autherine Lucy was quietly admitted to the all-white University of Alabama. But the night after she arrived, students and townspeople began a riot.
–six, eight, we don't want to integrate. Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate.
The university suspended Lucy temporarily, it said, for her own protection. And Autherine Lucy sued, claiming that mob rule was being allowed to overturn the law.
What's brought about these actions, I feel, is that lawless elements outside the campus set themselves over and above the law. Their actions brought great discredit to our nation.
The charge has been made, and made by some fairly moderate people, gr gradualists you might call them, that the NAACP, whose general counsel you are, is moving too far, too fast, that following the decision of the Supreme Court, you would have been well advised to let things move along gradually for awhile, that you can't overthrow the prejudices of 300 years overnight.
You can't, or maybe you can override prejudice overnight. But the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, 90-odd years ago. I believe in gradualism. I also believe that 90-odd years is pretty gradual.
Autherine Lucy won her case, but the Board of Trustees expelled her anyway, for saying the university had used the riots to keep her out. Across the South, the Lucy case gave resisting whites hope. If they were willing to use violence to fight the law, it seemed they could keep black children in black schools. And it seemed the federal government would not step in. After the riots, the president spoke only of extremists on both sides. He worried, like much of the country, about moving too fast on school integration.
I personally believe if you try to go too far too fast in laws in this delicate field that has involved the emotions of so many millions of Americans, you're making a mistake. I believe we've got to have laws that go along with education and understanding, and I believe if you go beyond that at any one time, you cause trouble rather than benefit.
It was over year before the black community would find its chance to fight back, here in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957. Little Rock was a moderate southern city in a moderate southern state. By 1956, both the state universities and the city buses were integrated. Its school board made plans to desegregate slowly. The first year, 1957, nine black teenagers would attend one school, Central High. Little Rock's black leaders were hopeful.
We have a very enlightened group of people in Arkansas. And they have accepted everything else. They accepted bus integration without any fanfare, and they are, they will take the school integration as just another going to school.
The black children were not getting a chance, and they needed it. They needed it more than anyone, and we were very strongly in favor of that and could see that integration would improve it. But we did, at that stage, have fears, and they were, I guess, just natural, inborn emotional fears. And so we needed some help from the officials, the state officials, the county and the city officials, and primarily from Governor Faubus as to what he told the people, whether it was the law or not.
Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas was a moderate by Southern standards, a man the black community had supported. But in his last election, he'd faced tough opponents, and he knew he'd need the segregationist vote if he wanted to be reelected. The night before school opened, Faubus made a decision.
I have, therefore, in accordance with the solemn responsibility and the oath of my office, taken the following action. Units of the National Guard have been and are now being mobilized with the mission to maintain or restore the peace and good order of this community. Advance units are already on duty on the grounds of Central High School.
The Arkansas National Guard ringed the school, with orders to admit only the white students. It shocked the country. State troops were now being used to prevent enforcement of federal law. At the center of the crisis were these nine teenagers, selected by the school board because of their excellent grades. The first day, eight of the nine went to school together, accompanied by their parents and ministers. They expected some harassment but no real trouble.
You could cut it with a knife, the tension outside the school, where these people who had come in from other parts of the state, other states– there were license plates from all other states that were there, people who come in and were outside our school.
The eight children and the adults with them were turned away by the National Guard. The ninth student, Elizabeth Eckford, had missed the call to gather with the others before school. Elizabeth Eckford walked alone, and met a mob.
Can you tell me your name, please? Are you going to go to school here at Central High? You don't care to say anything, is that right? This girl here, who is the first Negro, apparently, of high school age to show up at Central High School the day that the federal court ordered it integrated. She was followed in front of the school by an angry crowd, many of them shouting epithets at her.
Why it has to be the most frightening thing, I mean, because she had a crowd of white people behind her, threatening to kill her. She had nobody. I mean, there was not a black face in sight anywhere. Nobody that she could turn to as a friend, except that this woman came out of the crowd and guided her through the mob and onto the bus, and got her home safely.
The black parents and the NAACP went back to court. The leader of the state organization, Daisy Bates, became the students' strongest supporter. The national NAACP saw this case as a showdown for desegregation, and they assisted the local lawyers.
Well, we consider this case important as one of the segregation cases, but in addition to the fact that this one involves the appearance of the National Guard on the scene. And for the first time in any of our cases, it's the action of the governor that eventually will have to be brought into court.
Then you see it as a state-federal conflict of authority?
Oh, I don't think there's any question about that.
The question was whether the federal government would assert its authority. The pressure on the president increased. Defiance of federal law seemed to be spreading, from Little Rock here to North Little Rock, to Nashville, Tennessee, and to Charlotte, North Carolina. Some people blamed Eisenhower for this resistance, saying his lack of leadership on civil rights encouraged the extremists.
President Eisenhower's position was that he was the president of all the people. He felt that his role was to talk to the moderates throughout the country, including the southern states. He felt that, and was told by many advisers, that Governor Faubus could be reasoned with, and that an amicable solution could be found to the Little Rock crisis.
In mid September, the president and the governor had a meeting at Eisenhower's vacation home in Newport, Rhode Island.
The president thought that he had persuaded Governor Faubus to go back and allow the black children to enter the high school peaceably. And it was quite a surprise to him, and he felt let down, when the Governor Faubus decided against allowing the black children to enter the high school.
Eisenhower had convinced Faubus that ultimately, the state could not resist federal authority. Faubus changed his tactic. He simply removed the National Guard, leaving only city police in an explosive situation as the Little Rock Nine entered Central High School.
We entered the side of the building. Thousands of people out front. And we were entering the side, and I could just get a glimpse of this group, and then the car, I could hear on the car radio, I could hear that there was a mob. And I knew what a mob meant. And I knew that the sounds that came from the crowd were very angry. So we entered the side of the building very, very fast.
We just got a report here on this end that the students are in. They're trying– turn the camera down that way. You can see from here some of the action occurring down there.
The three of us represented the black press. That was all. And we were on the mall in front of the school, and the word got to the crowd outside that "the niggers are in the school. " Then they said to us, "You come out here as a decoy, and let other people slipping in to the side of this building." So I said, "Hello no," like that, you see.
The crowd turned on Hicks and on his companions, Moses Newson and Alex Wilson.
Somebody had a brick in his hand. And instead of throwing the brick, because he was too close, he hit Alex Wilson up beside his head with this brick. Cliff Wilson was more than six feet tall, an ex-Marine and he went down like a tree.
The mob was getting past the wooden sawhorses because the policemen would no longer fight their own in order to keep, to protect us. And so someone made a suggestion that if they allowed the mob to hang one kid, they could then get the rest out. And a gentleman, whom I believe to be the assistant chief of police, said, "How you gonna choose? You gonna let them draw straws?" He said, "Ill get them out." And we were taken to the basement of this place. And we were put into two cars, grayish-blue colored Fords. And the man instructed him, he said, "Once you start driving, do not stop. "
The rioting was headline news. The nation and the world saw, unmistakably, the face of resistance. Finally, President Eisenhower realized he had to act, and he did, quickly. That night, he sent in the paratroopers of 101st Airborne Division.
An extreme situation has been created in Little Rock. This challenge must be met, and with such measures as will preserve to the people as a whole their lawfully protected rights. If resistance to the federal court order ceases at once, the further presence of federal troops will be unnecessary, and a blot upon the fair name and high honor of our nation in the world will be removed. Mob rule can not be allowed to override the decisions of our courts.
My fellow citizens, we are now an occupied territory. In the name of God, whom we all revere, in the name of liberty we hold so dear, in the name of decency which we all cherish, what is happening in America?
We got into the Jeep, into the station wagon, rather, and the convoy that went from Mrs. Bates' house to the school that had a Jeep in front, a Jeep behind. They both had machine gun mounts. And then the whole school was ringed with paratroopers and helicopters hovering around. We marched up the steps with this circle of soldiers with bayonets drawn. I figured that we had really, we had really gone into school that day. And walking up the steps that day was probably one of the biggest feelings I've ever had. I figured I had finally cracked it.
And there was a feeling of pride and hope, that yes, this is United States. Yes, there is a reason I salute the flag. And it's going to be OK, you know. If these guys just go with us the first time, it's gonna be OK. The troops did not, however, mean the end of harassment. It meant the declaration of war.
[MUSIC – RAY CHARLES, "WHAT'D I SAY"]
It was the beginning of a school year like no other at Little Rock Central High.
When we got in the school, they then assigned us an individual soldier to walk us from class to class. He waited outside the classroom, and every time the bell rang and classes changed, he would walk us. We'd have our own personal guard walking us to the next class.
The troops were wonderful. You know, there was some fear that they were dating the girls in high school, and that– I don't care what they were doing. They were wonderful. But they couldn't be with us everywhere. They couldn't be with us, for example, in the ladies' bathroom. They couldn't be with us in gym. You'd be walking out to the volleyball court, and someone would break a bottle and trip you on the ball. I have scars on my right knee from that.
Of course, we couldn't have a normal school. But we had to have as close to normal as possible, and you couldn't follow every student around with a guard into the– you know, the stories where that the male guards were going to the restrooms with the female black students. You couldn't do things like that, and you couldn't sit with them at the cafeteria. There wouldn't be any integration if you did that. So I'm proud of what we did, and what we didn't do.
Do you think you could get used to going to school with colored children?
Yes sir, I think so. I mean, if I'm going to have to do it, I might as well get used to it.
Well now, what about this? Do you think that the trouble is with the students here in the high school and in the schools of Little Rock, or is it with the parents, or is it with outsiders? Where is the trouble?
I think it's the parents. I mean, I saw, you know, all these crowds out here and the man kicking that Negro and everything.
And you don't sympathize with that sort of action at all?
No sir, I don't.
What do you think?
Well, I think it was just downright unAmerican. I think it was the most terrible thing that's ever been seen in America. I mean, yeah, I guess I'm sounding patriotic or something like that, but I always thought that all men were created equal.
And I began to change from being somebody who was, considered myself a moderate, who, if I had my way, would have said, let's don't integrate because it's the state's right to decide, to someone who felt a real sense of compassion for these students, and felt like they deserved something that I had. And I also developed a real dislike for the people that were out there that were causing the problems. It was very unsettling to me.
I never anything to do with any until we came here. I mean, we just– they never lived, well, what you'd say close enough to us, so I was just never around them, really.
Isn't that part of what makes it difficult, when you've lived 16 or 17 years of your life and then start doing something different all of a sudden?
Well, I think, like if a Spanish or a Chinese person came here, it wouldn't be hard to get along with them. It's just that the Negroes are what you might say more different to us than a Spanish person might be.
It's early morning here at 1121 Cross Street in Little Rock, and a new school day is dawning.
You'd better hurry. You're going to be late for school.
Here I come.
As usual, the girl in the family is running a little late. The girl is Melba Patillo, 15 years old and–
You know, I worried about silly things like keeping my saddle shoes straight, what am I going to wear today? The things that a 15-year-old girl does worry about, you know, but also which part of the hall to walk in that's the safest? Who's going to hit me with what? Is it going to be hot soup today, is it going to be so greasy that it ruins the dress my grandmother made for me? I mean, how's this day going to go? And then, you know, you get out and you get to the car. And then we'd joke we'd kind of play with each other, and your stomach would go back into its seat. But then again, we get to the head of the NAACP Daisy Bates' house. And we'd have to face a press conference.
Ms. Bates, how do you feel with your work, both with the school authorities, with the city authorities, and with the military authorities, that the situation is developing now?
Very well. The military authorities have been very nice to the children, as well as the school board and the city police.
By Thanksgiving, the Little Rock Nine had become seasoned veterans, giving sophisticated statements to the press at a dinner held by Mr. and Mrs. Bates.
My name is Gloria Ray. I am thankful for having a chance to fulfill my educational desires, and for being a citizen in a country where the federal government respects and protects the rights of all its people.
My name is Terrence Roberts, and I'm a Seventh-Day Adventist. And I would like to say that I know that communists enjoy taking advantage of situations such as these to twist the minds of peoples of the world. But I'm thankful that in America, their actions are being foiled through the efforts of many democratic-minded citizens.
I'm Minnijean Brown. I'm thankful for the many people who have stood by us and worked diligently in our struggle for a perfect democracy, and–
At school, the black teenagers were still being harassed by a few determined whites. Shortly before Christmas, Minnijean Brown struck back.
For a couple of weeks, there been a number of white kids following us. A series of hassles, continuous calling us niggers. Nigger, nigger, nigger, one right after the other. And Minni was, Minnijean Brown was in the lunch line with me. And there was this– I was in front of Minni, Minni was behind me, and there was this white kid, fella, who was much shorter than Minni. Minni was about 5 foot 10. And this fellow couldn't have been more than 5' 5", 5' 4", and he reminded me of a small dog yelping at somebody's leg. And Minni had just picked up her chili.
I could just see her little head click. She consciously said to herself, no, Minnijean, if you do this, you know you won't be here. But then, this was the time of the year when we all didn't want to be there.
And before I could even say, you know, Minni, why don't you tell him to shut up? Minni had taken this chili, dumped it on this dude's head. It was just absolute silence in the place. And then the help, all black, broke in to applause. And the white kids, the other white kids there, didn't know what to do. It was the first time that anybody, I'm sure, had seen somebody black retaliate in that sense.
When Minnijean was kicked out of school following the chili incident, maybe 15, 20 students brought cards and gave them out that said, "one down, eight to go. " When school was out in May, they still hadn't given up the fight. They came out with a two-color card that said, "Ike go home! Liberation Day, May 29, 1958, " which was graduation day. They were still fighting the battle even then.
On May 29, 1958, Central High School prepared to graduate 601 white students, and Ernest Green.
We still didn't know whether some outsiders might roll in from some other states and firebomb the place. So we were a little nervous about it, as was Ernest. And he stood around and joked with the students. We were all joking together there, waiting to process in. And I do remember that as the students' names are called, and they get up and go across the platform and receive their diploma, that I really held my breath when Ernest's name was called.
There were a lot of claps for the students, you know. They talked about who had received scholarships, who was a honor student and all that as they call the names out. When they called my name, there was nothing. Just the name. And there was this eerie silence. Nobody clapped. But I figure they didn't have to, because after I got that diploma, that was it. I had accomplished what I had come there for.
[MUSIC – "I'M SO GLAD"]
Ernest, what's it been like this year? Has it been what you expected or–
Well, from the beginning it wasn't quite what we expected, but adding all things together and putting all the sides together, I think it's turned out to be– well, I would say an interesting year. I guess that would be an understatement, but when you put all the sides together, we've had some nice times as well as some rough times. And I think all in all it's worked out rather nicely.
By the time school ended, I had sort of settled into myself, and I could have gone on for the next five years. It didn't matter anymore. I was past feeling. I was– I was into just that kind of numb pain where you say, hey, I can make it. Do whatever you'd like, and it just doesn't matter anymore. But I came home, and by myself I walked to the backyard, and I burned my books. I burned everything that I could burn. And I just stood there crying, looking into the fire, and wondering whether I would go back. But not wanting to go back.
Melba Pattillo didn't have to face that decision. The next year, Governor Faubus closed down all Little Rock's high schools to halt integration. Faubus was so popular that year, he easily won his third term as governor.
Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate. Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate. Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate.
Faubus's tactic was also used in Virginia, where the governor closed down school after school.
There will be no enforced integration in Virginia. I have the highest respect for the President of the United States. But if troops are sent into Virginia, they will patrol empty schoolhouses.
Governor Almond closed schools in Charlottesville, in Norfolk, and other towns, and he called for unyielding rejection of integration. The federal courts were also unyielding, ruling again and again that this resistance was unconstitutional. But while the court cases were fought, the schools stayed closed, and the children, especially the black children, paid the price. So the crisis in school desegregation continued. In the fall of 1960 in New Orleans, four little black girls were sent to first grade in white schools. It caused a city-wide riot. This was six years after the Supreme Court's ruling, and segregation was still a fact of life across the South. But in those six years, desegregation had become a fact of political life. Schools were an issue that touched all Americans, black and white, and national leaders were beginning to recognize that.
Can we honestly say that it doesn't affect our security and the fight for peace when Negroes and others are denied their full constitutional rights, when we who, when we in this country–
This kind of rhetoric raised black hopes that the new president would lead the nation in a new commitment to civil rights. In 1961, a black man named James Meredith would test that commitment when he filed suit for admission to the University of Mississippi. His lawyers were Jack Greenberg and Constance Baker Motley of the NAACP.
When the Meredith case was filed, it coincided with the Freedom Riders' arrival in Mississippi, which, of course, was not a good context in which to bring that suit. But those were historical developments which we could not control, because it was a genuine revolution on the part of black people.
James Meredith called it "a new spirit among blacks" as sit-ins and freedom rides spread from other southern states into Mississippi. That spirit was part of Meredith's own readiness to face the struggles he knew were ahead.
What made you decide on Ole Miss?
Well, I thought that I should get an education in my own state, and of course Ole Miss, to my knowledge, is the best university in the state. And also it's the only school that offers the courses that I'm particularly interested in.
When you say you were interested in going to the University of Mississippi even as a boy, were you aware at that time that Negroes did not go to the University of Mississippi?
Well, I've been aware for a long time of the so-called place for the Negro, yes. I've been aware.
Therefore, you've wanted to overcome this barrier since you were a boy?
I think that the facade that he would present to the public was one that was somewhat cold, somewhat cocky. But it was necessary to do that in order to protect himself. Because after all, he was a human being with feelings, with fear.
Friends, I'm a Mississippi segregationist, and I am proud of it.
Mississippi, from its governor on down, was the most militant of the segregationist states. It was the home of the Citizens' Council, a group formed specifically to defeat integration. In 1955, the Citizens' Council had helped crush the first attempts at desegregation in the state by using economic threats and violence.
We must eliminate the cowards from our front lines. You did not elect me governor of Mississippi to bargain your heritage away in a smoke-filled hotel room.
The governor took a very active role in talking about the threats that the state would make on its blacks who would try to enter the school. It was an effort to instill fear in the heart of blacks, and it was also an effort, and a very successful one, to arouse fear and a kind of frenzy in the white community to fight back.
Myrlie Evers's husband, Medgar Evers, was head of the state NAACP. Evers himself had once tried to integrate Ole Miss, and now he counseled James Meredith. It was a long, hard legal battle. Finally, after nine months, the district court ruled there was no policy of segregation at Ole Miss.
It was so unreal for Mississippi to argue, and for the judge to hold, that there was no policy of segregation at the University of Mississippi. Everyone in the state of Mississippi, and I'm sure almost everyone in the entire country, knew that there was segregation in the state of Mississippi. And for the university to assert that there was no segregation, and for the court to find that there was no segregation, was just like the land of Fantasia.
The Court of Appeals reversed the decision, ruling Ole Miss must accept James Meredith. The question then, as in Little Rock, was, who would enforce the order? A question the court asked directly to the president's representative.
It was always clear as crystal, and I personally made a commitment, knowing the president would back it up, to the Fifth Circuit sitting en banc, all nine of them, that whatever force was necessary to make their order effective would be applied.
I have made my position in this matter crystal clear. I have said in every county in Mississippi that no school in our state will be integrated while I am your governor. I now call on every public official and every private citizen of our great state to join with me in refusing, in every legal and every constitutional way, in every way, every manner available, my friends, to submit to illegal usurpation of power by the Kennedy administration.
The conflict was crystal clear, but the politics were not. The president and his advisers were determined Meredith would go to Ole Miss. But Kennedy was also determined to avoid direct involvement which could cost him key southern democratic support. The president wanted a political solution, and caught in the politics was Ole Miss. The Board of Trustees supported Barnett. Most of them did not want to integrate, but they didn't want to see the university shut down because of James Meredith.
Well, none of the students– I think I speak for all of them– want the school closed. And I think if it is closed, it would be too much pressure on Mr. Barnett, and he will have to open it within a day or two anyway.
Do you think if the school had to be closed, it would affect the Rebels, the football team?
Yes, that's one bad thing about it. All of the students are really looking forward to all of the football games. And then, if the school is closed, we want the ball games played anyway.
On September 20, the conflict came to a head when Governor Ross Barnett flew up to the Oxford campus of Ole Miss. There, in defiance of the federal court order, he personally turned James Meredith away. His actions were legal, he said, based on the pre-Civil War doctrine of interposition
The doctrine is that a state may interpose itself between the national government and some action that is thought to be imposed upon the state or some of its subdivisions by the federal government. The supremacy clause, which provides that in case of a conflict between the nation and the states, the nation, the law of the nation prevails, makes hash of the doctrine of interposition. And any lawyer worth his salt knows that, and Barnett was a lawyer who made a good living, still making a good living out of the law, and he knew better than that.
Five days later, on September 25, armed with more court orders on his behalf, James Meredith tried again to register at the University of Mississippi, this time at its Jackson office, and this time accompanied by John Doar of the Justice Department and US Marshal James McShane.
This is Hagan Thompson at the state office building in Jackson. James Meredith has just arrived in the custody of federal officials, and apparently making his way up to the tenth floor to register. And in they go, and we'll switch now in just a moment. The crowd is booing lustily inside the Woolfork building. We have a crowd of several thousand inside and out.
Again, Governor Barnett was waiting. I took an oath when I was inaugurated governor of this state to uphold and to try to maintain and perpetuate the laws of Mississippi. Gentlemen, my conscience is clear. I'm abiding by the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Mississippi and the laws of the state of Mississippi.
I've got to admit I was surprised when I got to the door of the regents' office, and when the door opened, there was, on the threshold was the governor of the state of Mississippi there, blocking the door. I've got to say to you that I didn't anticipate that. And he had a proclamation, and he read it, in which the end line was, I refuse to register you under the authority of the laws of the state of Mississippi. So we left.
Once again, a governor's action had created a constitutional test. Now the question was, would President Kennedy use the US Army, as President Eisenhower had? Kennedy was still reluctant. Instead, he tried secret telephone negotiations with Governor Barnett.
Well now, you don't understand the situation down here.
Well, the only thing is, I've got my responsibility. This is not my order. I just have to carry it out, so I want to get together and try to do it with you in a way which is most satisfactory and causes the least chance of damage to people in the Mississippi. That's my interest.
All right. Would you be willing to wait a while and let the people cool off on the whole thing?
Couldn't you make a statement to the effect, Mr. President, that under the circumstances existing in this city, that there would be bloodshed. You want to protect the life of James Meredith and all other people. And under the circumstances at this time, it just wouldn't be fair to him or others to try to register him at that point.
Well then, at what time would it be fair?
Well, we could wait– I don't know. It might be, in two or three weeks it might cool off a little.
Well, would you undertake to register him in two weeks?
Well, now, you know I can't undertake to register him myself, but you all might could make some progress that way.
Well, we'd be facing [INAUDIBLE] unless we had your support and assurance would be–
But I'm going to cooperate.
If the federal government had told Governor Barnett, we're coming in and we're going to maintain order and we're going to register Meredith, they would have had my complete respect and cooperation. They didn't do that. And by the same token, the governor was so obsessed with the idea of maintaining our way of life, that that was the ultimate objective. And with those two points of view, and with the two political leaders trying to make each other look as good as they could, the situation just got out of hand.
The situation in Oxford was becoming very tense, as hundreds of people streamed into the area to defend Ole Miss and the southern way of life.
We had had reports throughout, not merely the students but of all kinds of people pouring in in cars in order to prevent Meredith from being admitted to Ole Miss. One has to remember also that that was the squirrel hunting season in Mississippi, so there were literally hundreds, thousands, of guns. Every pickup truck had a couple of guns in it, so the situation was really very dangerous.
Saturday, September 29. The Ole Miss campus was deserted as the students flocked to Jackson for the football game against Kentucky. The halftime speaker was Governor Ross Barnett.
I love Mississippi. I love her people. Our customs. I love and I respect our heritage.
The next day, Sunday, September 30. Finally, President Kennedy decided the time had come to enroll James Meredith at Ole Miss. He sent several hundred US Marshals to the campus to prepare, and he announced he'd make a special speech to the state that night.
Sunday evening when I flew down in a government plane to the airstrip at the University of Mississippi, and we had marshals already down there. We had about 400 or 500 marshals sworn in, from the prison guards, from the Border Patrol, from the US Marshals Service, from any other place we could find reasonably trained law enforcement officers. And they were themselves an irritant to the students who were returning from a football weekend, and we had no place to sort of hide the marshals. We were around the Lyceum building, which was the center of the campus, and unbeknownst to us, a sort of a tradition and a place of great honor.
Students came, and of course they saw the marshals. I know I got angry when I saw the marshals. It just, it seemed a betrayal. It made me mad, you know, why are these people here? We haven't done anything, and people have behaved themselves. And, you know, what is going on? And I caught myself really, with some of these feelings.
After the marshals had secured their positions, James Meredith was flown in to Oxford Airport and driven to a secret location at Ole Miss. The crowds didn't know where he was, but they knew he was on campus. And at 8 o'clock, just as the president went on the air, Ole Miss turned into a battlefield. Very few people heard the president's words.
Americans are free and sure to disagree with the law, but not to disobey it. For in a government of laws and not of man, no man, however prominent or powerful, and no mob, however unruly or boisterous, is entitled to defy a court of law. The eyes of the nation and all the world are upon you, and upon all of us.
The marshals were ordered not to use guns against the rioters, who were shooting and throwing Molotov cocktails, and the rioters were targeting the media, smashing cameras and attacking reporters.
There was one freshman girl that had been this little flower of Southern gentility when I had met her. And she came up to me, and her face was absolutely contorted, and I almost didn't recognize her. And she was absolutely furious, because she had picked up a brick and thrown it at a marshal, and it had only hit him in the head and scratched him, and she had not put his eye out.
Well, you see, we've got to get order up there, and that's what we thought we would have.
President, please, why don't you give an order up there to remove Meredith?
How can I remove him, Governor, when there's a riot in the street, and he may step out of that building and something happen to him. I can't remove him under those conditions.
People are wiring me and calling me saying, well, you've given up. I had to say, no, I'm not giving up, not giving up any fight.
Yeah, but we don't want–
I never give up. I have courage and faith, and we'll win this fight. You understand. That's just the Mississippi people.
I understand, but I don't think anybody in Mississippi or anyplace else wants a lot of people killed.
Oh, no, no. I'll–
And that's, Governor, that's the most important thing.
–I'll issue any statement any time about peace and violence.
While the president and the governor argued, the riot worsened. Finally, Katzenbach asked the White House for troops. It took hours for them to arrive, and during the night, 35 marshals were shot, and two people, a French journalist and an Oxford worker, were killed. But by dawn, the army had restored order.
Of course the president's going to win in the end. He's got the whole armed forces of the United States. He can call in the Air Force, he can bring Navy ships up the Mississippi River, he can call out the Army, as he did, he can drop parachuters in. I suppose he could shoot missiles at Oxford, Mississippi. So he's going to win at the end.
I recall driving to the campus, and I guess when I got to the circle was when I really saw the impact of the riot the previous evening. I reported to my office. As I recall it, there weren't very many of the staff there. Many of them were too afraid to come to the campus on Monday. And later, James Meredith came to my private office, and I accommodated the registration there.
It wasn't a cause for laughter and champagne, but it was a cause for some relief. And it was the fact that that was over with. I mean, in a way, Oxford had become the symbol of massive resistance and the final gasp of the Civil War, if you want to look at it that way. And it was over. It had ended.
Sir, there's been a great deal of turmoil and conflict. Two people have been killed. Do you have any feelings of guilt? Have you given it any second thoughts?
I'm very sorry that anyone had get hurt or killed. But of course, I think that's an unfair of me. I don't believe any of you believe that I had anything to do with it.
How are you getting along in school, sir?
Just fine, just fine.
How are the students that you've been talking to? Has there been any reaction?
No, just acting like students, I suppose.
Is this a kind of a lonely life for you, despite all these people around you?
I've been living a lonely life a long time.
It was a lonely victory for James Meredith, but it was a victory for him and the country. The Constitution had held and been reaffirmed in a major crisis. Thousands of black people felt the victory and saw James Meredith as an example to follow, a symbol, like the Little Rock Nine, of their own power to move the nation.
Major funding for American Experience is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. National corporate funding is provided by Liberty Mutual and the Scotts Company. American Experience is also made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by public television viewers. Funding for the re-release of Eyes on the Prize made possible by the Ford Foundation and the Gilder Foundation.
Many people are going to think they know what the story is about, but they do not. We all can learn from this period of history. The Civil Rights Movement was a miracle. It was a time, an historic time– 10 years, an eye blink– where we went from basically a segregated system of apartheid in an American version to a relatively free society, and we did it without enormous amounts of violence. And the people who did it, did it by picking up the weapons of nonviolence and direct action. And in so doing, they created one of the great models for the world in how one carries out successful social change. It begins when people stand up, when people decide, no more.
People have asked me where the notion for Eyes on the Prize came from. It came from a lot of places, but one of the places is from Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist who said, better than 130 years ago, that "those who profess to favor freedom but deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want the rain without thunder and lightning, and the ocean without the mighty roar of its waters. This may be a moral struggle or a physical one–" he was talking about the Civil War– "moral struggle or physical one or both, but it is a struggle, for power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, it never will. Find out just what the people will submit to, and you will find out the exact amount of injustice and wrong that will be visited upon them, and that will continue until it is resisted with words or blows or both. For the limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress." The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. It was that notion of people beginning to rise up against oppression that gave birth to the first inklings of Eyes on the Prize.
My first memory of civil rights really revolves around the story of a 14-year-old boy– he was my age– named Emmett Till who went south for the summer from Chicago to deep Mississippi. He was killed, and for many years, it became, for many of us, it was a time that we understood our vulnerability in this society. And I always thought that was the story. But as we began to make the shows and the series Eyes on the Prize and looked further into the story of Emmett Till, we came across another story, equally if not more powerful. And that was about his uncle, Mose Wright, who, being a native Southerner who had watched what happened to black men who stood up against that system segregation, stood up to identify the murderers of his nephew. And as he understood, he could never go back to his house after that testimony.
It was that standing up, that act of courage, that started this notion of civil rights movement, of people beginning to fight back against oppression. Another memory is those seven youngsters walking up the steps at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. Again, kids my age going into high school. One of the things you learn as you watch this is the cost to the kids. Those kids went through an enormously difficult time during that period. And as we move from the story of Little Rock and the Little Rock Seven and to the story of James Meredith, the first black student in the University of Mississippi Law School, you see, again, that there's an enormous personal cost to being the person that steps forward first. People did it, they did it willingly, and they did it courageously.
It's important that people understand that the nation was watching this on television. They came to understand this confrontation through the stories of the march on Washington, to the events in Albany, and some of the most famous images in Birmingham of the dogs attacking the demonstrators. And in this case, the television was showing the great morality play that was the Civil Rights Movement. And as it came forward, we began to share not only the celebrations of the 1963 march on Washington, but we also shared the grief and the loss of the four little girls in Birmingham from a church bombing. So we were in fact becoming a nation around this story, and television was growing up.
I always knew summer would be the end of the first part of the series, because I was there. I was there because my job called for me to be there. I worked for the Unitarians, and one of the ministers who went south to help out with the marches was killed, James Reeb. Jimmie Lee Jackson had already died. And we went down, and we had one last march, the march that was, in fact, going to make it. And I fell in love with the people of Selma, because we were walking toward the bridge, and I had a bad leg so I was falling further and further behind. And on both sides of us were Alabama state troopers and all the attendant people from the town, who were not friendly. And it was entirely possible I was going to fall back and the crowd was going to leave me behind. And some people from Selma saw what was happening, and they came, and they sort of surrounded me and marched with me, as a sort of informal honor guard. And I was always grateful.
But there was no question issues were at Selma, because you understood there were cameras all over the place. There were airplanes. There were army. There was Alabama state troopers. There were villains of the level of Jim Clark and Al Lingo. There were heroes like King and the people of Selma. You look at this and you say, this is going to be great television. I really did. It's the only time in my life I've ever been prophetic.
After the success of the Eyes on the Prize I series, I thought it would be easy to raise the money for the second part of the story, Eyes II, but I was, as sometimes happens, wrong. It became very difficult. And it became difficult because we were, one, moving out of the South. The story was becoming national. It was becoming next door, and it frightened people.
And we were beginning to talk about other issues, issues like equal opportunity, economic opportunity. We were talking about schools, neighborhood schools. We were talking about the kind of full participation that black Americans were pushing hard to achieve. And the voice that became the most significant in that struggle was the voice of a man who had been in prison, but who had literally transformed himself. His name was Malcolm X.
The movement had been marvelously successful at creating a national constituency. People wanted to be on the side of those people who were persisting for their rights, for the right to vote, down there. All of a sudden, things began to happen. Black power was a notion that they heard, didn't understand, but didn't like. They saw that people were now talking about being in their town looking at their schools, looking at their jobs, and the fear level went up enormously. So what had been very much a national constituency in favor of the movement's objectives now increasingly grew hostile and frightened. And it created a very different political landscape for the movement to go forward.
I probably have taken the most static about the Ocean Hill-Brownsville story, which continues to irk and continues to disturb. The people who lived that history still feel passionately about it. The question was, who is going to control the schools in basically a black section of the city? But the school board and the school teaching population was largely white. And a point at which the people of the city, mostly minority, got control of those schools created an enormous amount of friction that came down, oftentimes, around racial lines and created wounds, particularly in the black and Jewish communities, that are still not solved even to this day.
If I have one image of the show it is walking into a cutting room and watching the editor, a black woman named Lillian Benson, terrific editor, crying. Cutting away, feverishly doing her job, but crying. And it was inevitable, if you sat and watched the images of this man, both Martin Luther King Jr. and then Bobby Kennedy, you cried for the loss of the King, the man. And in looking at Bobby Kennedy, you cried for the loss of the country's opportunity by the death of these two people. We would have been a very different country if they both had lived and both had survived.
There are many difficult issues when you start to handle heroic figures, and you have to be willing to tell the truth. You have to be willing to take some heat. Because these heroes, as they should be, are precious to people, but not to the exclusion of an accurate portrayal. And I think we had to struggle with ourselves about, well, how much truth do we put forward? What's necessary for people to understand? I always felt it was critically important that they understand this notion that leaders aren't born full and whole. They get they get created, and Dr. King surely did over the life of the movement.
This movement has begun to transform people. You had black youngsters who grew up, as I did, in middle-class environments, always, oftentimes living in integrated worlds, always being told that that's the way one should be, and ignoring, never being told, being held aloof from the wonderful richness of our history as a people. We only knew our history with Tarzan movies, and then the cannibals. And you think of how awful that is. It sounds silly today, but the reality was, most people, unless you were extraordinarily lucky, had not been told. And it began first in almost silly ways. It began first around hair and cosmetics, and treating ourselves differently. But that became a much more substantive change internally with people who were beginning to sense themselves as different human beings and different kinds of Americans.
If you were in the movement, there was always talk about somebody watching. Somebody as an informant. They had the phones bugged. And it became almost a joke, because you didn't, you weren't anybody unless you had your phone bugged. And I don't think any us, a lot of us didn't take it seriously. You know, it just, it would seem incredible that our government was not only monitoring and, in fact, watching many of the events of this period, quite innocent events. But they were also sending in people to become members of organizations.
People have asked what it all meant, and I'm not sure I've fully absorbed it yet, except it was an experience far beyond my expectation. It has been a remarkable experience. First, coming in contact with the people who made the history, who were on both sides of the issues, to meet the scholars and the advisers who kind of freely gave of themselves because they wanted the story told as well. We had a chance to, I think, touch history ourselves in capturing and creation of these programs.
If I had a legacy to leave, the relationship with the people who made these programs with me, who often led the way while I followed. My relationship with people who helped pay for them in guerrilla fundraising, if you will, to get them done. To see the eyes of people who were in the history, pro and con, who, we captured their moment accurately. Nobody ever called Eyes on the Prize on a bad fact, because we spent an enormous amount of energy working at that. There's very little else I could ask of it, but, of course, I will. Maybe those countries that haven't seen it will, and maybe it'll be there for generations yet born. And God help us, I hope that it helps prepare a certain kind of citizen to take advantage of some of the hard-earned gains so now we can really move this country into a true democracy in the 21st century.
[SINGING] Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.