This fall marked the 50th anniversary of the “last battle of the Civil War,” the 1962 integration of the University of Mississippi, when President Kennedy sent the National Guard and ultimately the U.S. military into Oxford, Mississippi to force the school to enroll James Meredith, its first African American student. That fall, the Ole Miss football team went undefeated and untied and finished ranked third in the country, and the program hasn’t reached a similar level of success since.
The history of Meredith’s enrollment and the riots that ensued on a campus that still openly celebrated the Confederacy is one that goes under-taught in history books across the South, and the story of the all-white Ole Miss football team that conquered the Southeastern Conference that fall is one that doesn’t get remembered much by SEC football fans outside Oxford. But ESPN’s Wright Thompson, a Mississippi native, and documentary director Fritz Mitchell captured both stories beautifully — and addressed the past, present, and future of racial relations in Mississippi and at its flagship university — in “Ghosts of Ole Miss,” a documentary in ESPN’s 30 For 30 series, last night.
The hour-long film weaves through the history of Mississippi segregation and racism, and the pride Ole Miss fans take in the school’s football program, up until Meredith’s enrollment, when riots that remain a sore spot for the campus and the community erupted. Football played a role both in exacerbating and alleviating the warfare that took place on the Ole Miss campus. It was at halftime of a football game between Ole Miss and Kentucky that a Nuremberg-like rally broke out when Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett fed off a frenzied, rebel flag-waving crowd and ultimately reneged on a secret deal he had made with the Kennedy brothers to allow Meredith to enroll. It was a football player, Buck Randall, who saw the carnage of the original riots and attempted, to no avail, to stop them. And it was football that both acted as a point of pride for ashamed Mississippians — “We’ve got to show the world that we’re not all bad,” head coach Johnny Vaught told the team before a game against Houston — and highlighted the lack of true equality afforded Meredith, who couldn’t attend football games because of safety concerns.
Despite the connection, though, football and the 1962 Ole Miss team are a mere proxy for the overall story of self-exploration undertaken by Thompson, who wrote in an introductory piece yesterday that he hoped the lesson of “Ghosts of Ole Miss” would be that people from outside Mississippi would see how far it has come, while people from inside Mississippi would see how far the state had to go. Perhaps to an outsider, that seems a convenient narrative, a wishing away of the South’s racist past with a “yes, but” tale of how Mississippi has changed. But as a “southerner” (I’m a native Kentuckian, southern to some, not as much to others) whose native state has its own seminal racial moments in college sports, Thompson’s inner struggle with the history of his home state and its home school felt familiar. It is a struggle felt by anyone who is proud to be where they’re from but who has waded into our history, anyone who has resisted Southern tradition and conformity on racial issues or any other. It is a struggle felt by anyone who is constantly reminded by the inside world that we want to change too fast and by the outside world that we are not changing fast enough.
That struggle is apparent today on the Ole Miss campus, where the Confederate flags are gone but the Confederate statues remain; where the school has abandoned Colonel Reb but still uses the “Rebels” nickname that was spawned by the students who left to join the Confederate army in 1862; where students elected a black student body president this year but the band still plays “Dixie,” the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy, during football games.
Those are conflicts Thompson addresses, and they are complicated. There are moments of reflection from players from the 1962 team (“I’m appalled that we treated another human being that way,” one admits. “You sit by, and you wonder why.”) and there are moments of introspection about the present from Thompson himself. “I like ‘Dixie’ too,” he says near the end of the film, “even as I know how it must sound to black Mississippians. It’s hard to reconcile these thoughts.”
But you can feel the pain of truth in Thompson’s narration as he says it: it may be hard to reconcile those thoughts, but to continue, we must. “There are questions Mississippians won’t ask because we’re not prepared to hear the answer,” Thompson says. And as much as his story is about Mississippi, it is really about us all. Without those answers and the exploration it takes to find them, from Mississippians, Southerners, and Americans in general, it will always be impossible to reconcile the ghosts of our past with the promises of our future.