Tuesday, February 5, 2013

James Meredith and the Ole Miss Riot: A Soldier's Story

James Meredith and the Ole Miss Riot: A Soldier's StoryJames Meredith and the Ole Miss Riot: A Soldier's Story by Henry T. Gallagher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"People are dying in Oxford," the president said in an urgent message to the military. This is the worst thing I have seen in forty-five years."

September 1962, James Meredith became the first African-American to be admitted to the University of Mississippi. Three thousand whites from all over the south descended on the small town of Oxford for this event causing an insurrection. The United States Army was deployed to make sure this US citizen could attend a public university in peace.

For Gallagher and the thousands of soldiers that prepare to accompany him to Oxford, MS, they are on what simply seems to be another routine military operation. The magnitude of the mission is felt when all African-American soldiers are asked to fall out of the convoy headed from Memphis, TN to Oxford, MS. The African-American soldiers are initially removed from the operation because there are snipers among the rioters and the Army is frightened that these soldiers will be targeted immediately. One African-American soldier accompanying another unit already on the ground in Oxford was blasted in the face with a fire extinguisher by a student while a Mississippi Highway Patrolman stood by grinning. The Army will soon find out that the loyalties of local law enforcement are uncertain. The man that they are going to protect and whose actions has set forth this insurrection is oblivious to what is occurring while he sits in his dorm room. Twenty thousand soldiers were mobilized because of this one man which shows how determined the South is to hold traditions. Gallagher describes their hate as palpable.

"He was his own movement (by his own choosing). A bit of an odd character, but maybe one has to be so to do what he did."

Gallagher gives so many military details in the beginning that it gets extremely taxing to try and decipher all the military jargon. Gallagher pays close attention to detail and has vivid memories of the events that occurred while protecting Meredith. These vivid details made me tense, angry, and sad. I could never gauge Gallagher's emotions. I would not say he was indifferent but simply stayed with the facts like a true soldier. Gallagher and Meredith did not have many one on one conversations. Both were focused on the mission at hand. Gallagher described Meredith as extremely focused but also opportunistic in always wanting a larger audience of listeners. Meredith comes across as being so focused that his taunters never seemed to actually bother him they were just mere distractions. I don't doubt that Meredith had an internal struggle but on the outside he seemed to have a resolute calm.

Gallagher's view point from that of a soldier gave the text great balance. It was interesting to read his thoughts about an area I am very familiar with. The Lyceum, the "square", and the Grove were all noted in the text. These areas are landmarks for anyone who attended the University of Mississippi or visits Oxford. Gallagher even makes note of the fact that Ole Miss is obsessed with Greek life and football. A fact that cannot be denied if you have any knowledge about the university. Much hasn't changed over the years in regards to riots and race relations. As I was reading this book another riot took place on the campus over the election of President Obama being elected to a second term in office.

The University of Mississippi is my alma mater. I will always be grateful for James Meredith opening the path for me to walk on the campus and ultimately walk across the stage in The Grove and accept my degree. Reading this and getting an idea of what all went on behind the scenes to protect one man who was only trying to get an education at a public university in his home state was quite sobering. Considering, Mr. Gallagher was a soldier the book contained an enormous amount of the soldiers daily life and "rank" information. After a while it was simply too much. There were occasions in the text where it was hard to get a sense of time for the events taking place.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher. In no way does this influence my review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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