Interviewer: Judith Vecchione
Production Team: A
Interview Date: May 7, 1985
Interview Place: Brandon, Mississippi
Camera Rolls: 217-219
Sound Rolls: 1157
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with John McLaurin, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on May 7, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
DONALD THOMAS, SOUND RECORDIST. SOUND ROLL 1157, CAMERA ROLL 217. -7 DB REFERENCE TONE.
WHY DO YOU THINK OLD MISS WAS SUCH A SYMBOL TO PEOPLE IN MISSISSIPPI, PROBABLY STILL IS?
Well, Old Miss is loved by everybody that went to school there. And there are a lot of football fans that never did go to school there that really love Old Miss. Now there are some people in the state that love other schools, but the real thing that uh, that caused all of the loyalty at the time that this event occurred was that it was breaking down a system which had existed for three hundred years in this state and the people just were not ready for it at the time.
NOW HOW STRONG WAS THE FEELING AGAINST INTEGRATION AT OLD MISS AT THIS TIME. I MEAN IF YOU'D HAD A VOTE IN THE LEGISLATURE ON SOME SORT OF LAW, SOME SEGREGATION LAW, WHAT WOULD THAT VOTE HAVE BEEN?
It would have been… The vote in the legislature would have been roughly uh, 49 to nothing in the Senate and 133 to 2 in the House of Representatives.
I'M GOING TO ASK YOU TO KINDOF GIVE ME A LITTLE BIT MORE OF A FEED IN …
Now, the feeling was very high among practically every Mississippian. That night if Governor Barnett had gotten on the radio and asked for people to come to Oxford uh to defend the state of Mississippi I feel like the roads wouldn't have carried all the people that would've come in there from Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Louisiana.
NOW, AT WHAT POINT WOULD YOU SAY DID THE GOVERNOR AND YOU AND OTHER PEOPLE REALIZE THAT THE UNIVERSITY AND THE COURTS WERE NOT GOING TO STOP THIS, THIS ENROLLMENT THAT THE GOVERNOR WAS GOING TO HAVE TO TAKE SOME ACTION HIMSELF.
Well, he had told us all the way through that it was not going to happen and he led the people of Mississippi and we believed in him. And we didn't believe that it would actually happen. And Kennedy brought the troops in then and of course defeated, defeated us with the troops. Uh, it was just like war up there when we flew in the evening of the event, uh, the army had taken over the Oxford airport. And they had to check us out before they'd let us out of the airplane. It was just like war times.
DID YOU THINK THAT THE COURTS WERE… AT THE BEGINNING DID YOU THINK THE COURTS WERE GOING TO BACK YOU UP AND HOLD THE LINE FOR YOU?
Well, I truthfully, I really didn't. I didn't know how far they would go though. But I didn't think that they would refuse…
SAY WHO THEY ARE.
I, I didn't think that the courts would refuse to admit James Meredith. As far as they, they could decree it.
NOW AT THIS POINT DID GOVERNOR BARNETT CONSIDER JUST CLOSING DOWN THE UNIVERSITY RATHER THAN, THAN LET, LET THE EVENTS G0 THROUGH UM, OR DID HE THINK ABOUT OTHER STRATEGIES LIKE CALLING OUT THE NATIONAL GUARD HIMSELF?
I never heard it discussed that Governor Barnett was considering closing down Old Miss, now I'm sure it was considered to use the National Guard and uh, a lot of other things were talked about, but uh, I don't believe that it was ever in his mind to close the school.
BUT THEY'D DONE THAT IN SOME OTHER PLACES, HADN'T THEY? I MEAN WHY WOULDN'T YOU CLOSE IT DOWN?
It's just too big an operation and too fine an institution to close down.
NOW THAT DAY IN JACKSON WHEN GOVERNOR BARNETT PERSONALLY STOPPED JAMES MEREDITH FROM ENROLLING, READ ACROSS THE NATION. COULD YOU TELL US ABOUT THAT AND WHERE YOU WERE?
Yes, all right. A few days before the big event occurred on Sunday, Governor Barnett set himself up as registrar of the university in the Wolfolk state office building and he relieved the registrar, Mr. Ellis and my job was to have Mr. Ellis upstairs and entertain him and have him away from where chief marshal MacShane and James Meredith were going to enter and Governor Barnett would confront them as registrar. So representative Russell Fox and I were a few floors above and we had Mr. Ellis, regular registrar for Old Miss there and we just talked to him for about an hour uh to keep his attention up there and not down where he could register James Meredith. Now, when James Meredith and Marshall MacShane appeared Governor Barnett said now which one of you gentlemen is Mr. Meredith? And that story has been told many times since.
THERE WERE PEOPLE ALL OVER THE PLACE AT THAT TIME AND CROWDS ALL AROUND.
Crowds were around, yes. Crowds were gathering, and people were talking about it, that's all that was talked about in Mississippi at the time, people were upset.
DO YOU THINK THEY WERE THERE TO TRY TO PROTECT THE GOVERNOR OUT OF SOME LOYALTY TO THE GOVERNOR?
Uh, yes. I think, I think that was part of it. I know in the afternoon on Sunday when this big event occurred, uh people gathered around the uh, mansion to help guard it, they sure did.
DO YOU THINK GOVERNOR …
ROLL 218, SECOND MARKER.
NOW DO YOU THINK THERE WAS, THIS WAS A POLITICAL ACTION OR DO YOU THINK GOVERNOR BARNETT HAD HIS OWN REAL CONVICTIONS, HIS OWN PLAN FOR HOW TO ACT?
I think Governor Barnett was sincere and I think he was leading the people in a manner he thought they should be lead, uh, I think there was a lot of discussion on Sunday back and forth between Washington and the Governor's Mansion. However, I don't believe that any uh, plan was ever cut. I don't think he could ever agree on anything.
NOW JUST BEFORE WE GET UP TO THAT ACTUAL DAY IN THE TWO WEEKS BEFORE THE END OF SEPTEMBER, THIS EVENT THERE ARE A LOT OF PEOPLE COMING INTO OXFORD THERE'S A LOT OF TENSION THERE. THE NEWS MEDIA WAS REPORTING IT, WHY DIDN'T THE GOVERNOR ASK AT THAT POINT WHY DIDN'T HE SAY WE'VE GOT TO CLEAR THIS AREA?
I don't know why he didn't uh, but he probably didn't say, the Governor probably didn't see fit to clear the people out of Oxford for two weeks before uh, this occurred, particularly news people, that were coming in there. Uh, he just didn't see it was necessary, I'm sure.
DO YOU THINK HE THOUGHT IT WOULD HELP TO STOP THE ENROLLMENT WAS THERE SOME SORT OF, DO YOU THINK IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN, YOU KNOW, IF PEOPLE FEEL THIS STRONGLY IT'LL HELP SHOW THAT WE DON'T WANT THIS?
I think that's probably true, I think it's true that, that uh, he and other leaders thought that the harder the people showed their disgust for what was going on I think he thought it might help to stay the matter off.
NOW YOU WERE AT THAT FOOTBALL GAME AGAINST KENTUCKY, THE SATURDAY BEFORE, COULD YOU TELL US ABOUT WHAT THE GOVERNOR SAID AND HOW PEOPLE, GIVE US A LITTLE…
Well, of course its been twenty-six years ago since the football game the night before this occurred, but at the half-time uh, in the Memorial Stadium in Jackson, Governor Barnett made a talk and he just assured the people that uh, he was standing pat and the people were with him, they applauded him, they stood, they applauded him and he had the crowd in the palm of his hand.
AND THEY HAD A SONG THEY WERE SINGING, CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THAT?
"Go Mississippi" was the state song and that song was, was sung quite often during that period of time.
DID IT TAKE ON A SPECIAL MEANING THAT NIGHT? THAT YOU WERE GOING TO STAND TOGETHER?
Oh, everybody was in agreement to stand together I mean we were all united uh and he just got an ovation there at that ball game that he never had received before to my knowledge.
WAS HE A GOOD SPEAKER GENERALLY?
Yes, he was a forceful speaker, Governor Barnett was a good speaker. He was of course a trial lawyer and uh, a great one and he had a lot of experience speaking, he was elected Governor on his third outing for the job and so he had made world of speeches and he was a good speaker.
DO YOU THINK THAT HE APPEALED TO PEOPLE'S EMOTION OR TO THEIR MINDS OR EVERYTHING? WHAT WAS IT THAT MADE HIM . . .?
Well you might say it fed their emotions, they didn't have to be emotionalized so to speak at that time the people were very emotional and it was of course was a speech fed their emotions.
N0W ON SEPTEMBER 30 THE GOVERNOR SENT YOU AND A FEW OTHERS RIGHT UP TO OXFORD TO BE HIS REPRESENTATIVES. WHAT WERE YOU SUPPOSED TO DO THERE, WERE YOU SUPPOSED TO NEGOTIATE OR BLOCK MR. MEREDITH?
We, on Sunday afternoon Governor Barnett asked Senator George Yarborough who was president pro-tem in the senate, Judge Russell Moor, circuit judge there in Jackson and Representative Buddy Newman who is now speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives and me to go to Oxford and to represent him up there, he would be at the mansion in Jackson. And we were to look at the situation and keep him posted on what was going on, and when we arrived of course the army had taken over the Oxford airport, dark had fallen, we had to be inspected in the plane before we got out. The plane was uh, uh flown by Rex Armstead of Lula, Mississippi. Uh, we went into the campus and there we were confronted by Nicholas Katzenbach, then the Attorney General of the United States. Uh, we uh, went into a room with him and Senator Yarborough did most of the speaking for our crowd. And he and Katzenbach had conversation there for about 30 minutes. We then went out to the front porch of the Lyceum building and, and the federal marshals were, were lined up all across the lawn porch there of the lyceum building and students were across the little way there from ‘em, uh, very close to ‘em. And one of the marshals tired a tear gas canister into the crowd and then is when uh all of the trouble began.
YOU WERE SITTING, YOU WERE STANDING UP THERE ON THE PORCH LOOKING DOWN AS IT JUST STARTED?
I was standing right behind the U.S. marshals.
NOW WHAT WAS THE FEELING AS YOU'RE STANDING THERE AND THIS IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN. WHAT IS THE ATMOSPHERE LIKE? DID IT LOOK REALLY DANGEROUS? DID IT LOOK …
Yes, it looked dangerous, uh as we stood there behind the federal marshals uh, certainly I'd have to tell you that it did.
WHAT DID YOU THINK WAS GOING TO HAPPEN?
Well, I really didn't expect to happen what did happen. But uh, when that tear gas canister was fired, then the students rebelled against it and uh, we then went over to the alumni house and called the governor's office and told him what was happening, and he asked us to come on back to Jackson, and we did. We flew on back down there.
YOU THINK HE DIDN'T WANT TO HAVE ANY ASSOCIATION WITH THAT AT ALL?
Well, I don't think that, I don't think that would be accurate that he didn't want to have any association with it at all, but we were asked to come back to Jackson and we did. And we, in the plane going back we got uh, accounts on the radio, and uh, of course when we got to Jackson, we listened to the radio accounts and, and they fought up there pretty much all night.
LET ME GO BACK JUST BEFORE WE TALKED ABOUT THAT, UM, IN THAT MEETING WITH ATTORNEY GENERAL KATZENBACH, WHAT WAS IT THAT THEY WERE DISCUSSING FOR 30 MINUTES?
Uh, one, the primary thing was that the highway patrol was there and Senator Yarborough was going to order them to leave the post and Katzenbach seemed to be excited about that. He didn't want the highway patrol relieved of, of their duties there and Senator Yarborough stood up to him and did relieve ‘em since the army had taken over, and the U.S. marshals, Senator Yarborough didn't figure that the highway patrol ought to be there to help ‘em.
HMMM, COULDN'T DO MUCH OF ANYTHING, HMMM. UM, NOW, WHEN THIS RIOT STARTED, THE OTHER THING THAT'S GOING ON AT THE SAME TIME, UM, IS THE PRESIDENT IS ON THE TELEVISON. DID YOU HEAR ANY OF THAT?
No, I didn't hear, I didn't hear the President.
UH-HUH, UH-HUH. HE WAS TRYING TO GET THINGS CALMED DOWN. DO YOU THINK THAT GOVERNOR BARNETT SHOULD HAVE ISSUED SOME STATEMENTS OR GONE ON THE RADIO HIMSELF THAT NIGHT? COULD HE, COULD HE HAVE CALMED THINGS DOWN DO YOU THINK?
I don't think he could because the message would not have reached those people who were there on the campus. They didn't have a television or a radio there, they were, so I don't think that, now I know this, that had Governor Barnett gotten on the radio and asked for help to come, uh, there's, there's just no limit to the number of people that would have come in there. Some came anyhow, from other states, but had, had he asked for help, the roads would have been full.
DO YOU REMEMBER ANY PART OF THAT RIOT THAT YOU SAW AS YOU WERE DRIVING THAT REALLY STUCK IN YOUR MIND?
No, because, we walked, we walked from where we were over to the, uh, to the alumni building, so we were not driving at any time along the riot route and so uh, I don't particularly remember any, any one thing that stood out except the firing of that first uh, tear gas canister.
WERE YOU, WERE YOU IN DANGER AS YOU WERE WALKING DO YOU THINK?
No. I was not in danger, as I walked.
UM, NOW, WHO DO YOU BLAME FOR THE VIOLENCE? WHO DO YOU, WHOSE FAULT DO YOU THAT WAS?
I think it was the U.S. Marshals'.
COULD YOU EXPLAIN THAT?
Yeah, my idea about it is the U.S. Marshals were the cause of the riot. Had they not fired the tear gas, I certainly don't think the students would have done anything. I know there was some construction going on on the campus and there was a bulldozer and uh, uh, the marshals went inside the lyceum building hunting cover and there was one student that got on that bulldozer and he was going to drive it into the lyceum building. He didn't know that the, that the bulldozer cranked on gasoline and you have to shift it over to diesel. And so he didn't shift, pull the switch to make it run on diesel and uh it ran out of gasoline just before he got to the lyceum building.
I'M, WE GOT TO CHANGE FILM MAG THINGS HERE, I'M GOING TO ASK YOU TO TELL ME THAT STORY AGAIN I THINK.
CAMERA ROLL 219. SECOND MARKER.
YOU WERE GOING TO TELL ME THAT STORY ABOUT THE [overlap] STUDENT…
Mm-hm. All right. Uh, there was a lot of construction going on on campus and there was a bulldozer there and the federal marshals had retreated into the lyceum building which is the oldest building on the campus. And one student got in the bulldozer, got on the bulldozer and cranked it up. But he didn't know that, that uh, they were cranked on gasoline and uh, they had to be turned over to diesel to run. So he was going in the lyceum building with a dozer …
OK, UH, THE BEGINNING OF THE CAMERA ROLL WAS DISCARDED, NO GOOD. CAMERA ROLL 219.
WE'RE GOING TO GO BACK [unintelligible] BULLDOZER STORY ONCE AGAIN.
All right. There was, a considerable amount of construction work going on on the campus and there was a bulldozer there pretty close to the lyceum building, the oldest building on the campus. The marshals had retreated into the lyceum building for cover. And one student got on the bulldozer and cranked it and he did not know that the dozer cranked on gasoline and had to be turned over to diesel to run. So he ran it on gasoline and ran out of gas. He was going into the lyceum building with the bulldozer. Just as he got to the lyceum building, the dozer ran out of gas and wouldn't run anymore.
NOW WHERE WAS JAMES MEREDITH AT THAT TIME. DID YOU KNOW WHERE HE WAS?
We didn't know where he was, but he was on the campus in a room unbeknown to any of us or the students.
WERE YOU AFRAID THAT HE MIGHT GET KILLED AND WHAT WOULD THAT HAVE MEANT IN MISSISSIPPI. I, I KNOW THE FEDERAL PEOPLE WERE AFRAID THAT SOMEBODY WOULD GET HIM.
Yeah, it would have been bad had he been killed uh, it would have caused a lot of uh, hard feelings toward Mississippi and on, in looking back it's better that he wasn't killed.
IN FACT TWO PEOPLE WERE KILLED THAT NIGHT.
That's right. There was one foreign news reporter that was killed there and, and one other man and I can't remember what his position was.
DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THAT ON THE RADIO IS THAT HOW YOU HEARD ABOUT THAT? COULD YOU TELL US MAYBE?
I heard it the next day, I didn't hear it that night.
NOW YOU WENT BACK TO THE CAMPUS THE NEXT DAY.
I went back to the campus the next day. Some of the members of the state senate and I drove up there and uh there was a lot of tear gas around the lyceum building still, and uh, a lot of tear gas on the campus. A lot of debris, and school was going on as usual.
WHAT DID YOU FEEL LIKE SEEING YOUR ALMA MATER LOOK LIKE THAT?
Well, it wasn't a good feeling to see my alma mater looking like that. It really wasn't. And uh, we observed the campus and then went back to Jackson.
CAN WE STOP FOR A MOMENT? YOU WERE JUST SAYING THAT YOU WERE LISTENING TO THE RADIO THAT NIGHT. UM, COULD YOU, DO YOU REMEMBER ANY OF THE THINGS THEY WERE SAYING AND WHETHER YOU THOUGHT WHO WAS GOING TO WIN AND?
Well, it sounded like the marshals retreated and it sounded like the students were getting the best of it. And uh, the marshals fired a lot of tear gas, that's where the tear gas came from, up there. They brought in a lot of marshals that were inexperienced that were not professional marshals, that worked for the federal government in other positions and they put them in, in in a position to marshal up there that night and that's probably the reason the fight started, they weren't trained [unintelligible].
UM, WHY DO YOU THINK PEOPLE IN MISSISSIPI AT THAT TIME WERE JUST, THEY WERE WILLING TO PAY THE COST OF RIOTING, EVEN OF DEATH TO PREVENT THIS, WHY [unintelligible].
People here in the state have a lot of spirit, they have a lot of loyalty, and they have a lot of love for the state of Mississippi and its principles and this was a breach of those principles in the eyes of the people and they were willing to stand up for the principles of the state of Mississippi. That's it in a nutshell.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY WAS THE COST, NOT IN DOLLARS BUT IN EMOTIONS AND FEELINGS AND IN, OF THIS INTEGRATION HERE?
Well, of course the most emotions that came out of it were the James Meredith affair and then as it progressed uh, there was not as much emotion about it, and now, there's not any.
I, I WAS SORT OF THINKING YOU KNOW DID PEOPLE IN MISSISSIPPI FEEL BETRAYED BY THEIR GOVERNEMENT OR BY THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT?
Oh, yes they had strong feelings against the Kennedys and the federal government. They really did uh, as a result of this situation.
I WAS WONDERING BECAUSE I, I THINK SOMEBODY SAID TO ME THAT HE FELT MISSISSIPPI WAS TARGETED BY THE KENNEDYS, AND TARGETED BY THE CIVIL RIGHTS GROUPS, IT, MISSISSIPPI WAS A WHIPPING BOY FOR PEOPLE. DO YOU THINK THAT THAT MADE THEM ANGRY?
It could have been very well, been a target. Mississippi could have been.
COULD YOU TALK ABOUT THAT A LITTLE BIT? DO YOU THINK THAT THAT GAVE PEOPLE BAD FEELINGS? [Inaudible.]
Well, the people down here do not like the intrusion by the federal government and they saw this as one of those instances. And saw the federal government was trying to ram something down the people of Mississippi that they did not believe in and people here in this state will rise up to the occasion.
YOU WERE GOING TO TELL ME WHAT YOU THOUGHT THE EFFECT ON POLITICS AFTERWARDS WERE.
I think that this had a lot to do with the politics in the next primary election which was in 1963, the following year. Uh, Lieutenant Governor Paul Johnson stood up to MacShane uh, at one point up at Oxford when Governor Barnett could not get up there, the weather was bad and he couldn't fly. And Paul Johnson was already there. And he led uh, outside up there and was confronted by MacShane and Meredith. At one point he was caught with his fist doubled up in a, by some photographer. And it looked like that he was drawing his fist back to threaten or to hit MacShane. And in the governor's race of 1963 that picture was posted on big boards, billboards in the state, stand up for Mississippi and Paul Johnson won the election uh, handily… And he had the support of Governor Barnett too, Governor Barnett actively supported Paul Johnson, uh,
WHILE I'M ASKING YOU ABOUT PEOPLE, I ASKED YOU ABOUT BARNETT AND I ASKED YOU ABOUT JOHNSON HERE, I'LL ASK YOU ABOUT JAMES MEREDITH I MEAN WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THIS, OF THIS MAN WHO—MAKING THIS CASE?
Meredith never has amounted to anything. He's uh, the last I heard he had a, a bar or eating establishment over in Jackson. Uh, possibly he's moved out of the state now, but I, he never has, this is the only uh big impression that he's ever made to my knowledge in his lifetime.
WHAT DID YOU THINK ABOUT HIM AT THAT TIME? DID YOU THINK THAT HE WAS DOING IT JUST TO MAKE TROUBLE?
Oh, I thought he was doing it as a, as a plant so to speak. I thought that James Meredith was a plant and he was uh, uh carrying this out to uh, as an assignment.
COULD YOU, COULD YOU TELL ME AN ASSIGNMENT FOR WHOM? DID YOU HAVE ANY SENSE?
From the left wing crowd in this country.
COULD YOU MAKE, COULD YOU MAKE THAT A WHOLE SENTENCE? [overlap] DID YOU FEEL THE WHOLE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT OR THE NAACP OR LEFT WING?
Yeah. I didn't, of course I was not in a position to know who planted James Meredith. I was not on the inside of that, of that crowd, but it was my impression all along that James Meredith was not doing this solely and alone on the part of James Meredith. That he was planted to do it.
LET ME STOP FOR A MOMENT LET ME THINK ABOUT THIS. LET ME THINK IF I …
I blame of course, the federal government for the violence that occurred up there. Through the marshals they sent some inexperienced marshals up and probably one of those inexperienced marshals was the one that fired the tear gas canister which started the, the rioting. Now, the people here in this state resented the Kennedys trying to push this thing down uh, their throats. And uh, they blame the Kennedys through the marshals for the occurrence.
WELL THAT'S TERRIFIC. UM, IF YOU DON'T THINK YOU HAVE ANYTHING ELSE I THINK THAT WE'RE DONE.
JUST, WAIT, WAIT, WE GOTTA UNMIC YOU HERE, HOLD ON.
ROOM TONE FOR MCLAURIN INTERVIEW WITH APPROXIMATELY 30 SECONDS OF CAMERA. CAMERA BEGINS HERE… END ROOM TONE.