In Oxford, Miss., last week I was on a panel of journalists who’ve written books, along with Brandt Ayers, longtime publisher of the Anniston (Ala.) Star, Ben Bradlee Jr. and Denise Kiernan.
This was a return home for me. I was a history major and editor of the student newspaper at Ole Miss in the early 1960s. It was the riot there when the university was integrated in 1962 that impressed on me the importance of journalism. I write in the book that people who believe absurdities may commit atrocities. That happened at Ole Miss. Many Mississippians believed that that must preserve the Southern Way of Life by denying 40% of the state’s citizens the basic rights of citizens. The Mississippi press had propagandized them into believing they could defy the U.S. Constitution and get away with it. After James Meredith became the school’s first black student, students and many outsiders attacked the federal marshals who had accompanied him to the campus. A night of violence ensued. The campus was drenched in tear gas and two people died before President John Kennedy sent in federal troops to restore order. I’ve always considered it the last battle of the civil war.
Brandy Ayers, an old friend, wrote “In Love with Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal.” Ben, a former reporter and editor for The Boston Globe, wrote “The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams.” Denise wrote “The Girls of Atomic City,” a wonderful story about women who worked in a secret city (now Oak Ridge, Tenn.) to make fuel for the first atomic bomb. Denise lives in Asheville, N.C.
We had a discussion moderated by Curtis Wilkie, a former Boston Globe reporter who now teaches journalism at Ole Miss. Curtis and IU started our newspaper careers together in Clarksdale, Miss., a small Delta city now famous for its association with the Delta blues.
Our panel attracted a nice crowd (75 or so, I’d estimate). The audience asked good questions. Afterward we sold and signed our work at Square Books, the iconic independent bookseller in Oxford (well, Off-Square Books, actually, a bigger space also owned by Richard Howorth, who has three bookstores on the courthouse square in Oxford).