Production Team: A
Interview Date: May 8, 1986
Camera Rolls: 227-230
Sound Rolls: 1161-1162
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Jan Robertson, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on May 8, 1986, 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.
[continuing Camera Roll 227]
UM, I'D LIKE TO START BY ASKING YOU ABOUT WHAT YOU CALL THE SOUTHERN WAY OF LIFE. CAN YOU DESCRIBE FOR US BRIEFLY WHAT OLE MISS WAS LIKE THEN…
Well, when I was at Ole Miss one of the most important things was sports. There was not a great deal of interest in world affairs, uh, national, affairs. Primarily as involved race and integration were uh the topics if they were discussed at all. Uh, more was discussed about our winning football team. It was a, it was a place where mainly uh women took a background role. Uh, Most of the women who were students there were not, did not consider themselves necessarily preparing for a career but for a, well a career choice, as a wife and mother uh, more than going out into the workplace. Uh, the teaching profession was one of the few the, things that was really open to women in the south in that, at that particular time. There was not the questioning of authority and authority figures that students do so much now at that time. Uh, you, most of the students pretty much accepted what the governor had to say or the senators or you know legislators and um, there was very little questioning of the way things were. Uh, it was an all white world. Um, whatever contact students had with blacks were mainly in the context of perhaps um, a cook or a babysitter or a maid in the household. There was very little opportunity. Uh, now, I grew up out in the country on a farm and so my playmates by and large were black, and my brother and uh, and sister, um, but that was, there was just not an opportunity for blacks and whites to get to know each other, and so you tended to accept stereotypes as the fact about what people were like and what they thought.
WAS IT A HAPPY PLACE?
I think Ole Miss was. It was a very lively place. Uh, everybody spoke, everybody just about knew everybody else. It was, um, it was a very social place. A lot of life, evolved around fraternities and sororities and the parties there. Uh, um, at my senior year, which was the year of Meredith's admission, was an atypical year uh from the very beginning.
I'M GOING TO STOP YOU HERE AND DO A CAMERA CHANGE HERE.
I'm sorry, I babbled on…
[Roll 228. Marker.]
Alright, Segregation and integration were not an everyday topic of conversation on the campus. Um, of course once application for Meredith was filed, in the weeks leading up to his arrival on the campus, it did become quite a topic of conversation, but I think a lot of students frankly did not consider um, whether they would be involved in integration. Um, there were some who felt very strongly and some of those students were involved in, in the rioting. I think probably the large majority of the students were not involved. There was a curiosity factor. Um, but again, it was not the hot topic of conversation. You talked, you heard much more talk about how the football team was doing than about that issue.
WELL, AS THE MEREDITH CASE WENT THROUGH THE COURTS YOU STARTED TO SAY THIS, OF COURSE THERE BECAME MORE, A LOT MORE INTEREST, A LOT MORE INVOLVEMENT. CAN YOU REMEMBER ANY STORIES THAT TELL, GIVE US A FLAVOR FOR HOW, HOW FEELING WAS GOING, PARTICULARLY WE'RE GETTING TO SEPTEMBER, I MEAN OPENING TERM…
Well, of course in the summer, I was not there on the campus. When we arrived on campus… can I stop, yeah, let me stop for a minute
The summer before the year that Meredith entered, um, in my Sunday school class, the college age Sunday school class that my mother taught, uh, she asked the students there, many of whom went to Ole Miss, what would you do if a black were admitted to the university. And most people kind of said well you know I'm not quite sure, some said they wouldn't mind, uh, some that they hadn't thought about it, and then we got to one boy who was in my class in high school and he said without batting an eyelash, I'd wait until he went to sleep and I'd slip into his room and I'd slit his throat. And everybody, all of a sudden the room was just appalled. And you know, said you, you really wouldn't do that would you and he said yes. And he said it with, you know with great feeling, uh but it was almost a matter of fact, you know of course that's what he would do and he was there. He was a student at Ole Miss and I thought and wondered what he would do uh, when Meredith did come on the campus, but.
BUT, GOOD, GOOD, WE'LL LEAVE THAT. NOW JUST BEFORE… [unintelligible]… THERE WAS AN INFLUX OF OUTSIDERS THAT COME INTO OXFORD IN THE TWO, THREE WEEKS AT THE BEGINNING OF SEPTEMBER, LOT OF PEOPLE, DID YOU SEE THAT, COULD YOU DESCRIBE THAT FOR US?
Um, there were people who came on the campus in the weeks preceding uh the riots, some that would just come when…
SORRY, I'M GOING TO ASK YOU NOT TO SAY PRECEDING THE RIOTS BECAUSE WELL WE HAVEN'T GOTTEN THERE YET.
Ok, um, there really weren't that many people who were coming on the campus, the day of the riot is when people, the day before and the day of the riot but… [overlap]
[unintelligible]…OF RADIO REPORTS AND PEOPLE DRIVING THROUGH, AND DO YOU REMEMBER THAT, WAS THAT…
Not, now there were some people who came on the campus. I can remember um, the day that Meredith came on the campus to the continuing education center and Barnett was there. Um, there was someone standing next to me, a man standing next to me who said I came all the way from Texas for this. Which surprised me. Uh, I do know that there were at various times, uh people from off the campus, but of course a lot of them were news people. We had a large influx of newspeople who came on the campus. Uh, so there were people that were strangers who were not students who were there in the weeks, uh in the early fall.
WERE YOU AFRAID OF ANY VIOLENCE, DID IT LOOK TO YOU LIKE IT WAS GETTING TENSE AND DANGEROUS AT ALL?
No. I was not afraid. Um, there had been no, no real violence or even real threats of violence, indeed we were told that uh there would be no show of force from any, you know, from state government, federal government or anyone as long as the campus was calm and there was no violence, um, that's why it was such a surprise when the marshals came on the campus because this hadn't happened, and…
THAT WAS UM, UM, HMMM, CAN WE STOP FOR A MINUTE?
COULD YOU TELL US WHAT YOU SAW WHEN THE GOVERNOR WAS THERE STOPPING…
Students gathered in small groups, uh, in the grove, um, outside the Continuing Education Center. They were curious, there were townspeople who were there and there were people from outside of Oxford. Um, as far as the students were concerned, there was really more of a pep rally atmosphere. They would just you know, kind of talk and they wanted to see the Governor and they wanted to see James Meredith. They didn't know what he looked like uh, and they would, well, the time that Meredith came on campus and when uh, the Lieutenant Governor was on campus and Governor Barnett was an campus you would hear you know, two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate. Uh, and that was the kind of an atmosphere, there was not an ugly atmosphere, there was not even an angry atmosphere. There was—curiosity was I guess the, the prevailing mood.
UM, LET ME ASK YOU ABOUT THE NEWSMEN COVERING THE MEREDITH CASE, YOU, YOU TOLD US A STORY ABOUT A FLAG INCIDENT, I THINK I'D LIKE TO HEAR AND WHAT YOU THINK THAT SAYS ABOUT THE…
I was, uh, I was very impressed with the number of the newsmen who came to cover it, but I was also very upset by some of the actions of some of the newsmen who were there. I think some of them, when there was no news wanted to create news and I saw one incident that I think would illustrate what I'm talking about. This was on one of the days that we were expecting the governor. And people were gathered in the circle outside the Lyceum and this flagpole that flies the American flag and um there were some students gathered around there and nothing was really going on. There hadn't been anything of a news nature and um, some of the reporters, there was a magazine reporter and there were I think some newspaper reporters had suggested to some of the students who were gathered around you know, why don't you pull down the flag and put up the confederate flag? And um, and some of them had reached to do that, had reached for the chain and uh, and were being encouraged and in fact there was a cameraman who was taking pictures and the vice-president of the student body, Gray Jackson and two or three student leaders came up to them and said don't do that, you know, don't, don't desecrate our flag and don't play into their hands, don't, don't create an image that's, you know that's not true of you know, of our students. And so they didn't do it and you could tell by the expressions of disgust on the faces of some of the newsmen they were really disappointed that they didn't and they just, they didn't have a story, and uh, I saw a lot of playing to stereotypes there instead of digging for the true story.
UM, STOP FOR A MOMENT AND SEE WHERE WE ARE
WHAT DID YOU THINK THE UNIVERSITY AND THE STATE WERE DOING?
Two different things. The University was trying to remain calm, to encourage the students to remain calm, not to become violent. Um, on the other hand, state leaders and officials were encouraging this attitude of we're fighting back, we've got to stand up and fight for, you know what I believe in, and you know I'll fight them all the way down. Uh, there was a very different message coming from the University and from uh state officials.
LET'S CHANGE ROLLS AND LET ME ASK YOU ABOUT ONE OF THOSE, UH, SITUATIONS, WHICH
[Sound Roll 1162, Camera Roll 229. This is Jan Robertson, Judith Vecchione,
Continuing Camera Roll 229 at approx 100 ft. -7 db reference tone.
This is the Head of Sound Roll 1162, Also head of Camera Roll 229. Marker]
YOU WERE GOING TO TELL ME… YOU WERE GOING TO TELL ME ABOUT THE OLD MISS/KENTUCKY GAME AND UH, WHAT YOUR FRIEND SAID TO YOU ABOUT IT.
I wasn't at the Ole Miss, Kentucky game but I did talk to someone who was there. And many people feel that the riot started at the Ken, at the Old Miss/Kentucky game. This particular person was someone who was not an admirer of Ross Barnett. And indeed uh, in previous visits to the campus, the governor had even been booed. Uh, he was not a particular hero of uh, the Old Miss students, but this person said that Barnett started to address the crowd and he whipped them into this emotional frenzy and everyone got so caught up and he said, you know even though I disagree with everything that the man stood for, he said, I got caught up in it too, if he had said you know, let's charge, why then I would have charged right along with the rest of them. And he said it was just this, you know this huge emotional uh, feeling with the entire crowd being caught up in it, and it was kind of you know, us against everybody else, and I, and that I think uh held over. Old Miss was a suitcase campus at that time, people went home for, on weekends or they went to an out of town football game. And so the campus was practically deserted until people came back on the campus from the football game.
WELL I GUESS THAT, THAT TAKES US PRETTY MUCH UP TO THE NIGHT OF THE RIOTS, DOESN'T IT? COULD YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR FIRST INCLING THAT IT WAS GOING WRONG, FIRST SEEING THE MARSHALS.
Alright. I had been contacted uh by Chancellor Williams at my home and asked to come back early. We wanted to put out a special edition of the Mississippian. It did not publish on Mondays. But we were to have a special edition asking people to remain calm, not to congregate in large groups. At that particular point, uh, he was expecting Meredith on the campus the next day, and so we were to have that out, bright and early Monday morning. When I got to the campus, uh, I went to may sorority house and as I was walking out the door a truck passed by with some men in some bright orange vests and um, naturally being a reporter, I followed them to see where they were going to go. Uh, and I followed them to the Lyceum and they got out and they encircled the Lyceum and at this particular point there had been, you know, there had been no incidence that would warrant any, you know, any show of any kind of force. Uh, Most of them wouldn't talk, but I asked the man who seemed to be in charge, and he said that they were U.S. Marshals uh, and other than that they wouldn't say why they were there. They were just there. Uh, they had teargas guns and some teargas projectiles but I went to each one of them and I did not see any other kind of weapon on any of the marshals. I went then down to the Mississippian office where the chancellor was waiting. And I said chancellor, what are the marshals doing around the lyceum and he got this very surprised and stricken look on his face and said you know where are they and I said they're at the Lyceum and he said, let's, you know, let's go and I got in his car with him and he drove up to the lyceum and he went in and that's the last I saw of him. From then on uh, people started coming back on the campus. At one point they were stopping people at the entrances. They were Mississippi highway patrolmen. They were later withdrawn. I later found out that there were any number of people streaming onto the campus through the woods, coming over the railroad tracks and back ways. Students came and of course they saw the marshals. I know I got angry when I saw the marshals, it, it just, it seemed a betrayal, it made me mad, you know, why are these people here when we haven't done anything, and people have behaved themselves and you know what is going on and I caught myself uh really with some of these feelings.** They came on campus, uh, the first real, the mood changed as it got darker. Every other thing that had happened on campus preceding that had happened during the day. I discovered that night that people will do things under the cover of darkness they would never do in the light of day. I saw people absolutely change in demeanor and attitude. I, there was one freshman girl uh that had been this little flower of southern gentility when I had met her uh and uh she came up to me and her face was absolutely contorted and I almost didn't recognize her and she was absolutely furious because she had picked up a brick and thrown it at a marshal and it had only hit him in the head and scratched him and she had not put his eye out.** And I just, she was a completely changed person, she was not, you know the person that I had known. Uh, people got caught up, the first real violent action, a movietone news cameraman and his wife came on campus in the car. They started filming. Um, we had had a panty raid earlier in the year and the university had said that they were going to hire a cameraman and if you were photographed in the, in a panty raid, then it would be grounds for dismissal. A lot of people thought they were the university camera people and so they started rocking the car trying to get his camera. Uh, and smash, you know, and were smashing the camera, trying to turn the car over. I climbed up on the hood of a car and was taking pictures with my camera and then suddenly um, Bill Street from the Commercial Appeal grabbed me by the skirt and said get down from there you idiot. And I looked around suddenly and realized that I was surrounded by a sea of very hostile faces. And Bill said she's with the Mississippian which gave me time to get back down from the hood of the car. They were smashing cameras, any reporter that had a camera, it was smashed. And I walked over and put my camera in uh, the safe at the old Y, but uh some policeman had to come and rescue this cameraman and the woman who was with him. And they eventually set fire to some cars that they turned over. There was a Volkswagon as I remember. But that's when it started to get ugly.
DO YOU THINK THE FEELING WAS, WELL IF WE CAN JUST SHOW THAT WE'RE NOT GOING TO TAKE IT. MAYBE THE LAWYERS CAN'T STOP THIS, MAYBE THE COURTS CAN'T STOP IT, BUT WE CAN STOP IT.
I don't think there was any reason, that implies a reasoning, uh you know, starting at, you know one premise and reaching a conclusion. People were reacting with emotion. They came, they saw things had been building up. You know we'd expect something to happen and then nothing happened and as I said I think they had been pumped up at the football game. Uh, they came, they saw the lyceum surrounded by in, in a form of uniform. Um, but still things still didn't get extremely ugly until they brought in some reinforcements. Some men in military uniforms and one of the trucks was driven by a black man. And people started saying hey, it's Meredith. They're sneaking him in, they're disguising him and uh then things really got ugly. There were Molotov coctails thrown. There were uh, the mood of the crowd really changed. Uh, it was shortly after that that the first barrage of tear gas was fired. Uh, had I been in the position of the marshals I probably would have fired much sooner, I mean things were really, it was very frightening. There had been students, some student leaders who had tried to talk to people and had, and a lot of students had gone back to their dormitories, but uh, the highway patrol left. Before they left I went up to a highway patrolman, I saw a man on a building adjacent to the lyceum on the roof and I said, there's a man up there with a gun, don't you think you should do something about it and he said oh, don't you trouble yourself little lady. And that was what you know, that was the attitude of the law enforcement officers. I think we had three or four campus policemen on the whole uh, staff and they did what they could, but they were completely outnumbered. I'm sorry, [overlap] I went too much
[This is Camera Roll 230. Marker]
UM, AND THEN, IF YOU WOULD TELL US WHERE, TELL US, YOU WERE JUST TELLING ME AGAIN WHAT PEOPLE WERE THINKING ABOUT.
Alright. It was a very strong emotional response. Uh, it was just this Mississippi and Old Miss against the world. Uh, they're not going to tell us what to do. We're not going to be pushed around. I think that was the governing emotion and, and reasoning behind it. It was a gut level response. And it was for, for those who came on the campus from all over. I mean from surrounding states. It just happened that Old Miss happened to be the battleground. Uh, and this was the chance to fight for states rights for the southern way of life and uh for all those people that you know, that just wanted to fight back, they chose Old Miss as the place to do it. Uh, before it was over, there were a small majority, a small minority really of students who were there, uh, but people from all over, they had been called in, there were some of the radio stations in Mississippi and in Alabama, that it said go to the Old Miss campus. You know fight, you know for our way of life, don't let them shove us around. Uh, and they came. And they came, they came ready to fight. Uh, we had a member of the business staff that came… [overlap]
The day after the riot, I remember getting up and going in to brush my teeth in the sorority house and there was a ravine behind the house and I looked down and there were men in military uniforms encamped there. I was very relieved to see them there because it had been a very frightening night. You heard the sound of gunfire, uh, but you really didn't know what was going on. Most people were back in their dormitories or their fraternity or sorority houses. Um, there was tear gas everywhere. You, most people just really didn't go out. There were a few classes that met and I went to, I tried to go to one, but the tear gas was so bad you couldn't, you couldn't stay there. There was this kind of a stunned silence. You saw very few people out on the campus, very few students or faculty. A lot of people went home. Uh, their parents wanted them to get home. You didn't know what on earth was going on. Uh, but at that particular time you could believe anything could happen. Uh, there was, you know there was some anger, but there was just this stunned disbelief that this had happened on our campus and you weren't really sure what had happened if you, you know, hadn't been there.
DID YOU KNOW THAT JAMES MEREDITH HAD BEEN ENROLLED?
I had, I did because I, I was managing editor of the paper and I found out and so we had…
DO YOU THINK SOMETHING WAS CHANGED BY HIS ENROLLMENT?
In what way do you ask that? Ok, yeah…
WAS SOMETHING WON OR LOST?
Uh, oh yes, I think something was won. I think so. Um, the right of a person regardless of race to attend the school of his choice. Things changed from that point on, it was a turning point in Mississippi history, it was a turning point for Old Miss. Now, you see students attending classes, you see them talking with each other, black and white students on the campus. Uh, things like that just wouldn't have you know, have happened. People see each other now as people, not as a black or other terms or a white.
LET ME TURN THE OTHER WAY THEN, WAS SOMETHING LOST THAT DAY?
I think innocence was lost. I think the university reputation was damaged terribly because we would always be associated with a, a race riot. Uh, you think of Old Miss and you think of Meredith, you think of the riots there. Even I remember there was a, a wire photo that appeared in several magazines and there were Mississippi State University students who were throwing rocks at troops. They had Mississippi State University on the backs of their jackets and the cut line said, Old Miss Students Throw Rocks. It was, it was as if we were the only people who were involved in it. Uh, and it, it changed the way that I will look at people and it, it changed the way that I looked at people of other races. I think it changed the way that a lot of students who were there. I don't think that most of them thought that it would ever come to real, real violence. Uh, yes, you had, you had some people, you had KKK members and they would resort to violence. But most people didn't. Uh, and I think they were stunned.
DID YOU SEE MEREDITH ON CAMPUS THAT FALL WALKING AROLND WITH MEN FOLLOWING HIM?
You saw him very little. He was escorted to campus, he had very little contact uh with the other students. He had justice department people who went everywhere with him. Uh, some students one time who ate with him in the cafeteria. Uh, one female student returned to her dorm room and ink had been thrown and bleach had been thrown over her clothes. Uh, and after that you really didn't, there was very little contact. He was there and attending classes, but he had very little contact with the rest of the student body.
DID YOU SEE ANY OF THE… [overlap]CAN WE STOP PLEASE? LET ME THINK IF I REALLY WANT ANY MORE I'VE JUST KINDOF BEEN FOLLOWING MY NOSE ON THIS.
[End of interview, disregard rest of tape, nothing on either side, thanks]