Reviews

'Ghosts of Ole Miss' Premieres on ESPN's '30 for 30'

In Ghosts of Ole Miss, sportswriter Wright Thompson gives shape to unseen memories, focusing on a particular event, the riot at Ole Miss on 30 September 1962.

Ghosts of Ole Miss

Director: Fritz Mitchell
Cast: James Meredith, Wright Thompson, Dan Rather, Bobby Boyd, Jennifer Harmon
Rated: NR
Studio: ESPN Films
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-10-30 (ESPN)
Website
Trailer
Mississippians are eager, they ache to move forward.

-- Dan Rather

"There were things that were never discussed," says Wright Thompson. "We never really talked about the Civil Rights Movement." Reflecting on his childhood in northern Mississippi, ESPN senior writer Thompson can't shake the idea that a group of white supremacists burned a cross in his family's front yard. He didn't see it -- his mother and father opted not to wake their two young sons that night -- but the memory persists for Thompson, despite his parents' efforts. "It was something they had experienced," he says, "but wanted to shield their children from."

You never learn how that cross came to be burned on his family's lawn or how Thompson's parents came to "experience" that era. Instead, in the film Ghosts of Ole Miss, Thompson finds another way to reconsider that unseen memory, focusing on another event he didn't see but resonated for his and others' lives for decades -- the riot at Ole Miss on 30 September 1962. The basic facts are well documented: James Meredith was enrolled as the university's first black student, Governor Ross Barnett determined to prohibit him from attending ("No school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your governor"), and President John Kennedy sent federal marshals to intervene. As one interviewee puts it, "Combat actually broke out that day between white Americans with other white Americans over one black man behaving like an American citizen." The riot left two white men dead, French journalist Paul Guihard and 23-year-old jukebox repairman Ray Gunter, and also left the campus and community reeling.

Thompson begins to research the aftermath, focusing on the football team's remarkable 9-0-0 season, framing this accomplishment as a kind of counterweight to the image of Ole Miss as a bastion of racism. During his research, he finds a list of names of "suspicious characters," recorded by a soldier assigned to protect Meredith. Among these names he finds that of a late great uncle. With no notes as to what his relative might have done that night, Thompson says, he was yet moved to ponder two questions: "What is the cost of knowing our past and what is the cost of not?" He goes on to interview people who were on campus in 1962, trying to piece together what happened then, how remembering and also forgetting have shaped the present.

Among Thompson's interview subjects, James Meredith, now 79 years old, offers a unique perspective. At the time, he was 29, admitted to the university after nine years of service in the Air Force and two years at Jackson State. "Strange as it may sound," he says, "The weight of the world, correcting all the wrongs in the world, was my personal responsibility. If I showed no fear, that would scare the life out of everybody else who thought I should be scared." Photos and footage from 1962 reveal how well he performed this role: again and again he appears resolute and composed, not responding to the brutal abuses of white students and other demonstrators.

Like other members of the Civil Rights Movement, Meredith assumed that calm demeanor purposefully, advised by Medgar Evers and committed to what he saw as his Divine Responsibility. Following the riot, the football team, named the Rebels in honor of the Confederate army and ritually welcomed onto the field with Confederate flags, took up another sort of responsibility, to lift up the school's spirit and also its reputation.

This was hardly easy, as the team was playing even as news of the riot and continuing unrest filled airwaves. No surprise, the players who speak with Thompson now don't recall particulars of racist behavior or attitudes back then, though former quarterback Bobby Boyd does admit, "I try to think about it and I'm just appalled that we tried to treat another human being that way." More often, they remember how they felt, as when left guard Sam Owen recalls, "I felt like we were lepers."

While the Rebels' winning record probably helped to assuage some of the ill will toward the university and perhaps even tensions on campus, the documentary underlines the lingering effects of not speaking directly to the tragedy or how it happened. Jennifer Harmon remembers the frightening sight of the riot on campus, and also her effort, as a young drama student, to befriend Meredith. "We all shyly smiled," she beings, and then, "Literally, there was a crowd around us screaming, 'Nigger-lover' and worse things about being a white girl with a black boy." Harmon's story remains apart from the football team's story, but it reminds you that the football team, no matter how well it performed or how much it contributed to Ole Miss' long process of healing, that process took place in a context.

It also took time. As the film reports, it wasn’t until 1982, 20 years after the riot, that the Rebels' first black cheerleader, John Hawkins, came onto the field, and also refused to carry the traditional Confederate flag. "Any symbol that can be remotely construed or interpreted as having any kind of racial insensitivity," Hawkins says now, "should be eradicated." This seems self-evident, and yet symbols carry multiple meanings, for various readers. And so, as Thompson confesses, he maintains an affection for "Dixie," even as he recognizes its negative meaning for many listeners: the song opens and closes Ghosts of Ole Miss, haunting generations and still affecting memories.

Just so, the film doesn’t try to resolve the pain of the past. It does, however, propose that remembering is one route toward peace. "I didn’t see that burning cross in our yard," Thompson sums up, "but I carry the knowledge of it with me." Such knowledge bestows on all of us a responsibility, to see the past and to make a better future.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.

Film

Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.

Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.