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.
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.