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Bad Times
by Thomas Givens


Gusty Russel Scattergood has had good book reviews here at USADS. I don't do book reviews, but I read a lot and I’d like to mention three excellent books I have read recently.

The first is AN AMERICAN INSURRECTION, The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi by William Doyle, published by Doubleday. This book is about the integration of Ole Miss (The University of Mississippi), and James Meredith’s admission as the first black student there.

In the summer of 1962 I was a claims adjuster with United States Fidelity and Guaranty Company, working in Jackson, Mississippi. Our offices were on the 12th floor of the Plaza Building. We looked right down on the Woolfolk State Office Building where Governor Ross Barnett had moved the Registrar's office for the enrollment of Meredith. That's when and where Barnett uttered that infamous line as Meredith and U.S. Marshal Jim McShane walked in, asking, "Which one of you is Mr. Meredith?"

We didn't go down there, but watched all the excitement from above.

I was also at the Ole Miss-Kentucky game when Ross gave his rabble rousing speech, having already agreed to Meredith's being enrolled. All the trash was getting ready to assemble on the campus of Ole Miss. You will just have to read the book. I could not put it down; it is gripping.

When the trouble started on campus, there were only some U.S. marshals and border guards who were completely surrounded by this mob, but they couldn't use their weapons, only tear gas. One or two were seriously wounded, and the mob kept coming in. President Kennedy called out the National Guard.

The first unit on campus was the unit from Senatobia, Mississippi, and the commanding officer of that unit was none other than my good friend Bill Callicott, local Insurance agent for USF& G. I had to call on Bill on a regular basis when I was working out of Clarksdale, Mississippi.

The U.S. marshals and border guards were by themselves by the Lyceum building, surrounded and in mortal danger. The book pointed out the marshals and border guards had some reservations about the loyalty of the National Guard coming to protect them. They didn't have to worry--the Senatobia Guard, against great odds, and along with later units that came in, did their duty, coming under great danger themselves. The author feels they should get some sort of medal. I agree.

My ex-wife got her Masters degree in Education the same day Meredith got his degree and I was there, August, 1963.

Another good book related to these turbulent times is SONS OF MISSISSIPPI, A Story of Race and Its Legacy by Paul Hendrickson. (Alfred A. Knopf).

This is a story about sheriffs from Adams, Leflore, Jackson, Alcorn, Calhoun and Claiborne counties who convened on the Ole Miss campus prior to the riot, ostensibly to aid and abet those opposed to integration. They left campus before the riot and did not return; however, a picture was taken of them that appeared in LIFE magazine. The sheriff from Adams county is wielding a nightstick and the others are gathered around him.The book chronicles what happened to them and their offspring after this picture was made in 1962.

My old friend Ben Collins, police chief in Clarksdale during these troubled times, is mentioned. The Emmit [sic] Till case is mentioned and there’s quite a bit about Sumner and Greenwood, well-known Mississippi Delta towns.

Another good book is DIXIE, A personal odyssey through events that shaped the Modern South by Curtis Wilkie (Scribner). Wilkie talks mostly about the troubles in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He was a reporter for the Clarksdale Press Register and a student at Ole Miss when the riot occurred. There are a lot of references in this book to the police chief, Ben Collins, whom I knew well, and several lawyers whom I also knew well. Curtis gained national fame after he left Clarksdale and began working for the Boston Globe.

As I said, I worked as a claims adjuster in Jackson, Mississippi. One of my co-workers there was a member of the Tupelo National Guard unit. He was called out and had to enter the Ole Miss campus in the early hours of the insurrection. He was a veteran of the Korean War. He told me later he had been on the front lines there, in all sorts of stuff, but he had never been more scared than that night they drove onto the Ole Miss Campus. He said mess was coming from everywhere.

It's hard to believe I lived through all that--was right in the middle of some of it.

And now, one more story:

When I worked as an insurance adjuster there in Jackson, I watched all the sit-ins, freedom riders and marchers, even lived there when Medgar Evers was shot. USF&G put me through law school, and after I graduated from law school I was transferred to Clarksdale, Mississippi. This was in July, 1964.

I was a registered voter in Hinds County, Mississippi. Now, one of the first things I do when I move is move my voter registration. So being the good citizen, as soon as I got around to it, I went down to the Coahoma County Circuit Clerk's office to register. I can't remember the clerk’s name now, good old guy, but I told him I wanted to transfer my registration. He said he was sorry, but it was not that easy. I had to take the test. I told him I had taken the test, paid the poll tax and done all that stuff, and plus I was white, as he could plainly see. He said we don't discriminate here in Coahoma County--if you register to vote, it don't matter who you are or what you are, you take the test.

I took the test . . . and damned if I didn't pass and become a registered voter in that great county.


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Write Tom Givens at Delta Judge


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