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Sunday, October 7, 2012

James Meredith: Still at War, 50 Years On

James Meredith arrives on the Ole Miss campus, guarded by U. S. Marshalls

For us queer people, especially those like your Head Trucker who have lived well along into the afternoon of life, the progress of our struggle for equal rights and the equal protection of the laws often seems to be moving at a snail's pace. And yet we can take heart to some degree that such progress is always slow to come, for any group asserting its claim to the fullness of citizenship. The reason being, people in every age and clime are all too often fearful of losing their grip on the comfortable division of society into Us and Them.

This and other reflections may come to your mind too when you watch this excerpt from a BBC interview with James Meredith, who on October 1, 1962, became the first black person to register at the University of Mississippi, an event that was a major milestone in the Civil Rights Movement.

This excerpt from Episode 2 of the documentary Eyes on the Prize fills in the background of the Ole Miss riots, in which two people were killed, more than 300 injured, and 35 federal marshalls shot by snipers on campus.

Those of you who didn't grow up in the South should note that this kind of conflict and violence was local and infrequent - not an everyday thing, as you might think. Your Head Trucker remembers the days of segregation vividly from his childhood, the separate restrooms and drinking fountains and all the rest.

Yet, despite living, you might say, the first 20 years of my life in a small city of nearly a quarter-million population, there was never once any such demonstration or violent conflict as you see in documentaries of the period. All through the sixties, life went on as calmly and quietly as you could want - sometimes, to a kid, rather boringly so. (I was alternately excited and a bit ashamed of myself when one afternoon the oldest high school building in town burned down - of course, I had to go watch the flames and firefighters in person. What fun, in a place where everything was usually very routine and predictable.)

The big marches and demonstrations and riots and bombings, etc., that you see pictures of history books and films all happened far away. The grown-ups talked about those things sometimes, and of course they all deplored what Dr. King and other civil rights leaders were trying to achieve - the casual evil of indifference and ignorance - but the dramatic conflicts and violence were not an everyday sight for the vast majority of people living in the South at the time; it was something you read about in the paper, or saw on the evening news. The ironclad rules and customs of segregation kept everyone, white and black, in their places until, bit by bit, the laws changed, the schools integrated, and despite all the muttering and grumbling by whites, before you knew it, the seventies were here, and the revolution was over and done with, fairly painlessly in most places.

The old-time segregationist leaders sort of faded away, and the few who remained reinvinted themselves politically and began actively courting the black vote. All of this is not to say that there was no suffering and struggle on the part of black people - far from it. I'm just making the point that for most people the mainsprings of destiny lie somewhere beyond the confines of ordinary day-to-day life - the dramatic events, the turning points of history, tend to happen in a few specific points of space and time, not everywhere and at all times. And thank God for the courage of those who do take a stand when and where they can - otherwise, change and progress would never take place.

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