Wednesday, September 10, 2014


It's almost impossible to spend even a few years in the news business as a reporter or editor without accruing some interesting, if not thoroughly bizarre, personal stories or, at the very least, being entertained by the personal tales shared by colleagues.

Of course, as we all know, such stories are often altered from being PRECISE truth by the fog of memory or by the need for some creative alterations to make them, shall we say, a slight bit more interesting. I know that most of these sorts of personal tales usually are not TOTALLY true, nor are they downright fiction. There are those, however, who will tell you that the only difference between a journalist's personal stories and fairy tales is that fairy tales start off "once upon a time" while a journalist's personal stories typically start off "no shit, this is the truth."

With a newspaper career that spanned nearly 45 year as a reporter and editor, I have amassed plenty of tales of my own. However, one of my all-time favorite journalist's personal stories was told to me by my old friend and colleague Bob Gordon in about 1980, while I was managing editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and he was managing editor of our now-defunct sister paper The Jackson Daily News.

Bob Gordon, sitting on desk, and me, in the overly large glasses,
horsing around in The Clarion-Ledger newsroom, circa 1980.
For me, Gordon's tale took on special significance with the opening of The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta in June because it is tied to one of the watershed events of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement -- James Meredith's enrollment on Oct. 1, 1962, as the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi, where Bob himself had gone to school.

Gordon, who passed away in 2007 at age 69, was an outstanding journalist who -- as a reporter for United Press International and later in various UPI management roles -- covered or directed coverage of many of the Civil Rights Era's key stories in the South during the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. Bob was a model newsman, a great friend and funny guy. But, more than that, to me he was something of personal hero because of his staunch belief -- despite his upbringing as a white, native Mississippian -- in the rightness of the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps you will better understand why I've always held Bob in such high esteem if you take a look at his obituary, published July 2, 2007, in The Clarion-Ledger. Here is the link:

Bob, working as a reporter out of UPI's Jackson office, covered the entire Meredith-Ole Miss saga, up to and including the morning the veteran of nearly 10 years service in the U.S. Air Force was finally allowed to enroll at the university after a day and night of campus rioting. The violence had to be put down by U.S. marshals and other federal agents, Army paratroopers and the Mississippi National Guard, leaving two men -- an Oxford area jukebox repairman and a French reporter -- dead and scores of pro-segregation student and non-student protesters injured.

Meredith -- with the support of the NAACP and eventually President John F. Kennedy and his brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy -- in 1961 began his protracted battle to gain admittance to Ole Miss after his honorable discharge from the Air Force and after attending Jackson State University for two years. He had the appropriate academic credentials and background and believed that he had a right as a veteran, as native Mississippian and as an American to enroll at the university. However, die-hard Mississippi segregationists, including -- and in most instances led by -- Gov. Ross Barnett and members of the state legislature felt otherwise. The struggle for and against Meredith's enrollment eventually became known in some circles as the "last battle of the Civil War."

James Meredith is escorted to the Lyceum
Building at Ole Miss by federal agents to enroll
as the university's first African-American student.
Under extreme pressure from the Kennedys and in the face of a federal court order, Barnett seemingly gave in and agreed to allow Meredith to enroll at Ole Miss, with the enrollment to take place at the Capitol building in Jackson on Sept. 20, 1962. There was, however, a catch. After Barnett had initially consented to enroll Meredith on that date, he tried unsuccessfully to get Bobby Kennedy to agree to staging a ludicrous tableau in which federal marshals would appear to be forcing him into submission at gunpoint.

Kennedy, of course, did not agree. So, when the morning of Sept. 20 came, despite the enrollment agreement, Barnett remained defiant and things did not go the way the Kennedys wanted.

Gordon, representing UPI, was among the reporters waiting at the Capitol that morning to witness and report on the historic moment.

The way Gordon told it, when the appointed time came, Meredith,  flanked by an escort of four huge federal marshals, approached the Capitol's east side steps with the morning sun behind and casting long shadows in advance of them.

Gordon said Barnett was waiting at the top of the long steps leading up to the entrance, seated on a chair at a table. As Meredith and the four agents walked up the stairs, preceded by their long shadows,  Barnett, seemingly oblivious, sat writing -- perhaps just doodling -- on a sheet of paper. At the top of the stairs, the entourage, their shadows now shading Barnett and the table, stopped and waited to be acknowledged by the governor.

Finally, Gordon said, Barnett looked up and surveyed the four large, looming, white federal agents and the short, thin black man they were flanking.

Gordon said that after a very pregnant pause, Barnett, finally spoke, asking:

"Now, which of you gentlemen is Mr. Meredith?"

To the surprise of Meredith, the federal agents, the assembled media and the Kennedy brothers, Barnett again refused to grant the Air Force veteran admission to Ole Miss and blocked his entry into the building, Gordon said.


Although that concluded Gordon's tale, it did not end the Kennedys' pressure on Barnett to allow Meredith to enroll. Under threat of being found in contempt of a federal court order, a substantial fine and possible imprisonment, Barnett finally gave in.

After the night of violence on the Ole Miss campus, and with Barnett nowhere to be found, Meredith was escorted by U.S. marshals across the riot-torn campus -- still reeking from the lingering odors of tear gas and burned out cars -- from a dorm room where he had been secretly ensconced to the Lyceum Building where he was finally allowed to enroll on Oct. 1, 1962.

So ended the final battle of the Civil War.