Eyewitness to History
When it comes to the integration of the University of Mississippi, Winston-Salem State University Professor Dr. Robert Herring III is a walking history book.
Herring, the son of an Ole Miss professor, was living on the outskirts of the campus when James Meredith integrated the university in 1962. For months, Herring, the oldest of five children, lived and breathed Meredith’s historic enrollment and the explosive riot that marked his arrival on campus.
“It was really hard to concentrate on my studies in high school, really hard for a period of time,” related Herring, who was a sophomore at the nearby University High School the year Meredith arrived. “The eye of the nation – the eye of the world – was right here.”
Herring recorded the story of Meredith’s enrollment in three simple “school glue and paper” scrapbooks that he created by scouring six different newspapers daily for articles about Meredith. The scrapbooks cover Meredith’s courageous story, from Sept. 18, 1962 – when reports of his impending enrollment began to surface – until Nov. 2, 1962, when Ole Miss football fans, under threat of expulsion, reportedly ignored Meredith’s presence in the stadium and instead focused their negative energy on the opposing team.
In August, Herring donated the scrapbooks – now considered telling historical documents – and excerpts from his personal diary to the University of Mississippi archives.
Herring has appeared in the documentary film “Rebels: James Meredith & The Integration of Ole Miss” and participated in a panel discussion during events commemorating the 50th anniversary of Meredith’s enrollment in September. The discussion was held in a theater that was constructed on the site of his boyhood Oxford , Miss. home. As luck would have it, he was at the exact location and the exact date and time that he had been 50 years earlier when he first heard the tear gas guns begin to pop.
Herring, who was 16 at the time, remembers the riots with striking clarity. He says he knew trouble was brewing in the days leading up to the incident, but few could have anticipated the fervor with which segregationists fought back, surging onto the campus and inciting a 14 hour riot so violent that it claimed the lives of two people and left hundreds of others injured.
Historians often refer to the riot – which required the National Guard, US Marshals and a team of Army soldiers to quash – as “The Battle of Oxford.”
“I got home a little before 8, sat down and listened to President Kennedy’s speech, asking for calm and so forth,” recalled the 66 year-old. “Before he had finished his 15 minute speech, I could hear the tear gas beginning to pop off.”
At the time, Herring’s father was still on the campus, and Herring accompanied his mother through a back entrance to look for him. He remembers his first glimpse of the riots vividly.
“It looked like a scene from outer space to me. The (U.S.) Marshals were running around wildly. They had gas masks on and were shooting tear gas,” he recalled. “Somebody yelled, ‘Here they come!’ so we all backed up and we went home.”
Herring’s father made it home safely, but Herring returned to the campus several times over the course of the night, fascinated by the scene that was unfolding around him.
“I guess the adrenaline was pumping too much to be afraid,” he remarked. “I knew this was history in the making.”
The riots dragged on until the next morning.
“At one point, someone got ahold of a bulldozer and someone got ahold of a fire truck and charged the building where the Marshals were, but at some point were driven off,” he related. “About 4:30 in the morning, the National Guard was chasing the mob back by our house, and the tear gas started seeping into the house. That’s when we were a bit afraid.”
Herring admits that he and his family were among the many who did not support the integration of the school.
“We were all segregationists back then, for the most part. I’m not talking about the Ku Klux Klan or white supremacists or hating, but the majority of the white community held what I would say was – in retrospect – a naïve ‘separate but equal’ kind of viewpoint,” he stated. “…A lot of us had hoped that there would be some way that he (Meredith) would not get admitted, frankly.”
Despite the resistance, Meredith, who began his college career at Jackson State University, remained steadfast. U.S. Marshals and military police provided around the clock protection for the duration of his two semester-long stint, and, against all odds, he obtained a bachelors degree in political science in 1963.
“That broke the barrier, and a couple years later, the first two (black) students were admitted without a court order,” said Herring, who obtained his undergraduate degree from the university. “I can remember their first football game. They walked into the stadium, and I’m ashamed to say it, but the whole stadium booed. That’s how strong the feelings were. It was a real gradual process for attitudes to change.”
Herring, who spent 26 years in the Navy, said his own attitude evolved over time as well, beginning with his amicable interaction with an African American student at the university, continuing with strong friendships he forged with fellow sailors, and culminating with his decision to teach at the historically black university in 1997.
“This was my first time being associated with a large number of black professionals,” related Herring, who teaches management in the WSSU School of Business and Economics. “So I guess once I came here I would say I came full circle, 180 degrees.”
The amount of interest his scrapbooks have garnered has come as a surprise to Herring.
“Never in my wildest imagination did I imagine that it would come to that,” the grandfather of three said. “It was just a personal interest thing … they had mainly been in a box in the attic, and I wanted to share them.”
The books have been used in a civil rights course at Ole Miss, shown at a reunion of U.S. Marshals and displayed during the recent commemoration weekend.
Dr. Jennifer Ford, the head of Special Collections at the University of Mississippi, said people who view the scrapbooks often react with “awe and disbelief.” Ford, a seventh generation Mississippian, added that the scrapbooks will be a treasure for generations to come, an up close and personal look at a piece of the university’s history that it hopes never to repeat.
“People just can’t believe the wonderful record of history that Dr. Herring gave to us,” she declared. “…I personally am so grateful to Dr. Herring for giving these wonderful records to us. It’s a very important gift to our archives, and we’re humbled by his generosity.”
Race relations on the Ole Miss campus have made international headlines in recent weeks. The school’s student body elected Courtney Pearson Ole Miss’ first black homecoming queen in October. Ironically, a few weeks later, several Ole Miss students took part in what has been called a riot after it became clear that President Barack Obama had been reelected. The school’s chancellor dismissed the action – which reportedly included the yelling of racial slurs – as “immature and uncivil.”