The U. S. Marshals: The Long Arm of the Law
Tension in Mississippi
Although the Marshals were once charged with finding and returning fugitive slaves before their emancipation, and with arresting those who helped slaves to escape, things turned around during the 1960s civil rights movements.
The government had decided to do something about the legacy of bigotry against blacks, but the legislation set federal officials at odds with state officials. Many southerners resisted the mandate to equalize opportunities, believing the white man to be morally superior to blacks.
However, the force of minority protest was a wave washing through the country. It could not be stopped and the Marshals were the primary enforcers of federal laws, so they were on the front lines of many of the disturbances. When Martin Luther King marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the resistance there to register blacks to vote, President Lyndon Johnson sent 100 Deputy Marshals, along with FBI agents and 4,000 soldiers, to protect the marchers. The deputies were actually to go with the marchers the entire 54 miles.
The court also ordered school desegregation nationwide, which met with fierce resistance. There was no way that southerners were going to support, let alone enforce, the call to teach black children in the same schools as white children. To their thinking, school desegregation would collapse their whole way of life.
The deputies were sent to ensure that orders were carried out, and those Marshals who lived in these communities knew they were risking their own homes and families to carry out their duties. Their opponents were fellow churchgoers and local law enforcementeven governors.
Abuse against blacks, who were blamed for these changes, was brutal and often illegal, but it was difficult to stop. Young James Meredith was nevertheless determined to be the first black man to be enrolled at the University of Mississippi at Oxford. The state was trying to thwart him, led by Governor Ross Barnett and Lieutenant Governor Paul Johnson. On September 26, 1962, Johnson actually went to the school as the Marshals escorted Meredith up the steps, using a barricade of state troopers to block them. Marshal James McShane was on one side of Meredith and the government's civil rights attorney, John Doar, was on the other. Johnson refused them entry on the grounds of "breach of peace."
McShane tried to shoulder him out of the way, but the patrol officers held firm. McShane then tried several times to get past them but was unsuccessful.
Johnson told him he was being senseless. McShane responded that he was doing his duty.
That afternoon, McShane and his deputies, along with Meredith, had to turn back and drive away.
However, they weren't giving up. They were representatives of the federal government under President Kennedy, and even the highest state official had no authority over them, despite how it might have looked that day. The courts had ordered the school to admit Meredith, and President Kennedy and all his staff had a stake in seeing this through. To let the "southern way of life" dehumanize people was contrary to the views of the new administration.
Within days, says Calhoun, "southern anger coalesced into a bubbling, violent riot against federal interference." The Marshals took the brunt of it.
On September 30, more deputies were sent into Oxford. Kennedy wanted them to seize the Lyceum, a building that housed the university's administrative offices, including the registrar where Meredith had to go. They equipped themselves with helmets, teargas and gas maskswhich turned out to be a wise moveand went to the campus. They also had riot batons (most homemade) and service revolvers, just in case. Prison guards and patrolmen were sworn as deputies until their force numbered over 500.
James Meredith watched the news on television and awaited their success.
The impressive ring of deputies that formed outside the Lyceum quickly attracted a crowd. Jeers became taunts, and students began to throw things. Then the news spread and the crowd grew larger and uglier. People who had broken into the chemistry building began to throw vials of acid. Bigoted outsiders mixed with the students, hurling rocks and bricks. State troopers stood by and watched until the governor ordered them to leave. Now the deputies were alone with a violent mob.
Kennedy went on television to urge the people to end this peacefully, but McShane found that he had to use teargas to protect his men. However, the smoke guns kept the gas down low and the wind blew it right back at the deputies. While they were busy with this, Meredith took up residence in the room assigned to him in the dorm, protected by other Marshals.
The rioters began shooting at the deputies, and one of them was badly hit. Word spread that he was dead, alerting everyone there to the fact that there was no medical assistance available. Although the deputies never used their guns, two rioters were killedmost likely by stray bullets or careless shooting. Many people were arrested and put into the basement of the Lyceum, which was soon full. The rioters numbered around 3,000 and there was no way to contain them all.
By 10 p.m., things seemed desperate. Teargas supplies were running low and the people were attacking in unrelenting waves. In came the National Guard, who had to endure the crowd's attack, and many were injured by projectiles.
Back at the dorm, the Marshals hid Meredith in the closet and guarded the room with weapons drawn. No one knew how far the mob would go.
Then around 2:00 a.m., the Army arrived at the Lyceum and cleared the place. The mob dispersed, their fury spent. But the Marshals had control of the building in which the registrar was housed. They remained there the rest of the night.
Early the next morning, James Meredith was escorted in to register. By 8:30 a.m., he was officially a student at the University of Mississippi. As he attended classes, the deputies protected him, and they continued to do so throughout the entire school year.
To gain this victory, 160 Marshals were injured, some quite seriously, and 200 rioters were placed under arrest. The Marshal rumored to have died was, in fact, alive and at the hospital in critical condition, but he would recover.
Students did heckle and attack Meredith throughout the year, spewing their hatred at him and bombarding his dorm, but the Marshals stayed with him until the campus grew more tolerant, and then a contingent of Marshals showed up when he graduated with a degree in political science. Meredith's courage and that of the Marshals made a difference. They had risked their lives to perform their duty and had helped to change the course of America's history.
Yet other minorities, too, wanted a voice, and a decade later, the Marshals were once again engaged in violencethis time deadly.