‘RIOT: Witness to Anger and Change’ is a history lesson all Mississippians share
BY R. J. MORGAN
Ed Meek’s new book, “Riot,” is an uncomfortable trip down memory lane for those old enough to have lived through the Civil Rights Movement … and an education for those of us who aren’t.
The book details, in 160 pages of images and reminiscences, James Meredith’s admission as the first black student at the University of Mississippi.
And, of course, the ensuing riot.
On the Sunday before Meredith was to be enrolled (third attempt) at the university, federal marshals commandeered the Lyceum, the main administration building on campus. Students showed up to protest the intrusion, and eventually a rag-tag army of grown segregationists, who saw this as the next defining battle in a long and bloody race war, joined them from across the South. As day turned to night, the crowd became a violent mob.
And the rest, to the eternal torment of sane folk everywhere, became history.
Meek was there, a graduate student working in the university’s public information office. While other journalists were dodging bullets or running from rioters intent on smashing their cameras, his “one of us” student status allowed Meek to shoot images virtually unabated.
The results are a captivating collection of photographs, starting with the days leading up to the riot and continuing throughout the long and bloody night.
The black and white images capture the subtext of the times.
Also included are pictures from Meredith’s early days as a student on campus. Under strict orders not to photograph Meredith in any of his classes, Meek of course did just that. He shot 12 images of Meredith attending one of his first classes, capturing the mass exodus of all the other white students – and the teacher.
Meredith was left alone in the empty room. It’s a powerful image.
Meek – worried about retaliation for going against a direct order – locked the negatives of that day in a safety deposit box for over 30 years.
For Meek, for Curtis Wilkie who wrote the introduction, and for former governor William Winter who wrote the afterward, “Riot” is a war reel. A living memory of a time when social order broke down at a venerable and respected place that each of them have called home.
But for me, and those of my generation, this book is something else.
For a lad raised in the shadow of the state capital, I grew up about as far removed from the Mississippi of the Civil Rights Era as was possible.
I was born in September 1983, in Jackson at University Medical Center. The nursery that night was integrated, as were the daycares and elementary schools of my youth.
My family moved to Grenada, just as I was starting kindergarten (something Mississippi didn’t even have in 1962), and for the four years we lived there my best friend was an athletic black kid named Trey Baker. In addition to constantly beating me in our annual field day races, he also learned to read before I did.
In high school, I ran with a mixed-race crowd of stereotypical teenagers, and we worked through the lingering social issues of the time together. There were black student body presidents and black homecoming queens, and these events seemed very un-riot- worthy. Looking back, I think we were united as a group in part by our desire to strike out a different social course from our parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
As an act of rebellion, we were inclusive.
Of course that’s not to say that the Mississippi of my youth as a utopia or that racism didn’t exist at Pearl High School in the late 1990s. It did. But it certainly wasn’t mainstream. And from the flashpoint of 1962, those tides continue to perpetually ebb.
So for me, “Riot” is a history lesson. A portrait of a time in our history almost incomprehensible to those under 40.
Never discussed the Meredith riot at home, and only glossed over it in school. What little I learned of it in passing, I dismissed as being an “Ole Miss issue.”
And I hated Ole Miss.
I grew up in a deeply-maroon Mississippi State household. My dad was a graduate (I would later become one too), and on Saturdays we took equal parts pleasure in hearing the news of MSU victories and Ole Miss defeats. If there was a race riot in my home state that was a black eye for all involved, I was glad it had happened in Oxford instead of Starkville.
But the hard truth is this: all Mississippians, not just those who tailgate in the Grove, share the history of our racism. None of us are exempt.
In fact, though Mississippi State integrated peacefully in 1965 with the admission of Richard Holmes, there were many Mississippi State students who rallied against Meredith in Starkville and some drove north to Oxford to partake in the riot. One story contained in Meek’s book says a few were even treated to free gasoline from a white service station owner on the way.
Details like this just off the pages of “Riot.” The book is narrated almost entirely by snippets of news coverage, quotes from a variety of eyewitnesses and transcripts of White House phone records.
This in-the-action narrative, combined with the sharp storytelling of the photos, gives “Riot” the fast-paced excitement of a spy novel. Through Meek’s lens, the reader can follow the tumultuous events as the scene shifts from the campus into the adjoining town over the course of the sleepless night.
For readers who lived through the era, this book will stir many emotions. For younger readers, it will answer many questions. Reflecting on the events of 1962 can help put some of our more recent struggles into context.
In many ways, the fog of federal tear gas has never lifted from here. And the long-smoldering fires that raged that day still stoke up from time to time.
“Riot” is like looking into a viewfinder from high atop a skyscraper.
Distant images can seem almost too close.
Ronnie “R.J.” Morgan is Instructor and Director of the Mississippi Scholastic Press Association at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media