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Review: ESPN's "Ghosts of Ole Miss" a Southern Reckoning

The South continually has to reckon with its past, not least because, as Faulkner would remind you, the past there isn’t even past. “Ghosts of Ole Miss,” tonight’s entry in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series, joins that lineage of reckonings by viewing the university’s 1962 integration battle through the lens of its football team’s improbable run to an undefeated season that year. The film, directed by Fritz Mitchell and written and narrated by Wright Thompson, advances the claim that the furor on the Ole Miss campus as James Meredith tried to enroll was the final battle of the Civil War, a death-rattle of righteous racist violence that showed the country that Mississippians still regarded U.S. troops as foreign aggressors.

Two people died and scores were injured in a single night in Oxford, as John and Robert Kennedy hustled down enough National Guardsmen that Meredith could register for classes. This followed a period of sulfur-tinged bluster from Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, who you’ll see in black-and-white archival footage claiming that the “Caucasian race” has never survived racial mixing. That of course would be positively hilarious, if one stopped to consider the many other peoples that came out far the worse for encountering Europeans. Instead, it’s #smfh awful to hear Barnett intone: “We will not drink from the cup of genocide.”

Genocide! Just 17 years after World War II, the governor of a U.S. state invoked genocide because a black man wanted to attend classes at Ole Miss. There is no polite way around it: A certain tranche of white folks in the deep South were totally batshit insane, and if they were not themselves monsters individually, their collective dynamic was one toward monstrosity. The spectacle and ritual of football was intertwined in that mob mentality. “It’s easy to forget that the South lost the war,” Thompson says of those old games. “In some ways, that’s precisely the point.”

If you don’t know much about the forced integration in Oxford, it’s probably not entirely your fault. Like Thompson, I grew up in the South, and like Thompson, who bemoans the fact that he wasn’t taught about this stuff in school, I’m surprised, looking back, that civil rights were not an earlier point of emphasis in school. He mentions learning about American Indians in his Mississippi state history classes; it sounds like public school curriculum in Arkansas, which in the ’80s, it occurs to me now, was probably being approved by state officials whose own ties to segregation might not have been so distant. Being Southern is to be constantly aware of your dotty parentage. Women who fear becoming their mothers and men who worry of becoming their fathers will sympathize.

Thompson begins the film by mentioning that “local white supremacists” burned a cross in his yard 30 years ago, when he was a boy. His parents, who are presumably just as white as Thompson, were politically active, he says, and didn’t bother to wake him up at the time. I can only imagine that Mississippi is better now, in tone and in education and in perhaps reconciling its past with its intention to have a future. So much of the South can now comfortably disown its darker chapters and tendencies, though there is a natural tension. Ole Miss teams are the Rebels, “Ghosts” tells us, because during the Civil War all but four of the university’s students dropped out to fight for the Confederacy. Subsequently every last man was either killed or wounded at Gettysburg. The reverence for that perceived bravery is part of why the Rebel flag remains ingrained in the sporting culture there, contributing to the mental schism of the modern South. Yes, if those men had been victorious, slavery might have remained law in Mississippi. But at the time, they were also young and heirs to a damnable legacy that they were scarcely to blame for. Theirs was the blood “drawn with the sword” that Lincoln invoked in his second inaugural address, quoting in the same sentence that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” While much of the South’s history is profane, it would be profane as well to disavow it.

Meanwhile, since this is ESPN, the football team’s admittedly stunning steadiness has to unfold across the narrative. The film sources well, with interviews from several of the aging players and with Meredith himself, who admits to a curious bit of God complex. The poise and serenity he displayed at the time were tactical, a bit of though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. “If I showed no fear,” Meredith says, “that would scare the life out of everybody who thought I should be scared.” At one point that season, he decided he wanted to attend a football game. The military support he would’ve needed dissuaded him.

For the team to continue winning throughout the actions on campus was truly a stunning achievement; the week of homecoming, the practice field was occupied by bivouacked soldiers. They won every game that season and yet finished the Associated Press poll at No. 3, behind undefeated USC and a two-loss Wisconsin team. Players, coaches and fans felt that they were suffering blowback from the ugliness of having student riots opposing integration. A hundred years earlier, their forebears were literally dying at the hands of Northern soldiers. In 1962, the players were simply suffering AP voters who weren’t recognizing Mississippi. But it truly wasn’t their fault. Some folks are just prejudiced.

 

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