Editor’s note: Memphis-born Dorothy Butler Gilliam’s journalistic career spanned 50 years, putting her front and center of the fight for civil rights, including covering James Meredith’s entry into the University of Mississippi and staying at the home of Arkansas civil rights stalwart Daisy Bates. Gilliam’s journey is emblematic of massive changes in America’s racial landscape, a fact she has leveraged to give back to the community that nurtured her. She has generously offered an except from “Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America.”
In the morning, Withers and I got directions to Freedman’s Town, the neighborhood where most blacks lived. I set out to survey some of Oxford’s blacks for their reaction to Meredith’s heroic feat, and I easily found people to interview there. I introduced myself as a reporter from The Washington Post, but I’m not certain many knew it was the second-largest paper in the nation.
People were welcoming and talked openly even if they were surprised to see a young colored woman from a white newspaper. In fact, I found them eager to talk to me. Reporters from the white, rabidly segregationist Mississippi papers that blacks saw as the enemy never interviewed them. Northern reporters were mainly interested in Governor Barnett and the Meredith drama on campus. Some black Oxford citizens said mobs attacked them as they tried to report to the university for their service jobs — as maids, janitors, drivers, servers, and cooks. Mobs pulled them from their cars, smashed their windows, and otherwise heaped a stream of violence on them.
In An American Insurrection, William Doyle quoted Bill Mayes, a member of the army’s 503d Military Police Battalion, as saying that on the second and third days of the occupation, so much fear spread through the Freedman’s Town area that he found black families up in the surrounding hills, huddled together, camping. “They had abandoned their homes and gone up to the forests with tents We found them in the woods,” he said.
The black people I interviewed had not run for the hills. They were shocked and amazed by Meredith’s courage and overjoyed by his determination to integrate the university.
I wrote my first story about the community when we left Oxford and arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was able to check into a black motel. I felt safer there because Jackson was more urban, with black churches, businesses, and a significant black population. When I worked at JET, reporters on the Southern race beat had shared stories of how in the 1930s, reporters for black newspapers would steal into town by bus at night to avoid the Klansmen. Some reporters would wear overalls and muddy shoes to disguise themselves. They would carry their wobbly Royal portable typewriter wrapped in brown paper so it would look like a pack of clothes. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, black journalists carried Bibles to look like preachers or had false credentials in case local authorities became suspicious of their roles.
With a Jackson, Mississippi, dateline, the first story I wrote was headlined, “Mississippi Negroes Happily Stunned by Meredith,” and appeared on the front page of The Washington Post on October 6:
The hot sun glistened on the young Negro lawyer’s face as he lolled in a seat by his office window. He was reminiscing about his first racial jolt — at age 6.
“I went into a store to buy a coke and the storekeeper yelled at me. ‘Put it back! We don’t sell no Cokes to no niggers on Sunday!’” He chuckled as he recalled the merchant’s assurance that he could have an orange or a grape, however, for his same sweaty nickel.
“The episode,” the lawyer said, pointed out for him what has long been the rule in Mississippi: “Negroes get pretty much what whites want them to have.”
. . . Many Mississippi Negroes say Meredith’s entry into “Ole Miss,” in the face of Gov. Ross Barnett’s sworn resistance to Fed‑ eral court orders, was an accomplishment of the impossible. It was the crack in the thick wall of segregation that may someday broaden, they say, so Negroes themselves may choose — and get — what they want.
I returned from Oxford with enough information to file my main story for The Washington Post’s weekly Outlook section and was pleased when Al Friendly put it on the front of the prestigious section on October 14, beneath the headline “Mississippi Mood: Hope and Fear.” It read:
Hope and fear are the moods of Negroes in Mississippi these anxious days.
You can spot these feelings in the hesitant words of a disenfran‑ chised Negro handyman in Oxford who hobbles heavily to a chair, hikes up his overalls, and talks.
Or in the bold words of a harassed Negro leader [Medgar Evers] who, despite constant danger, declares that James H. Meredith’s entry into the University of Mississippi “is a clear breakthrough” for Negroes and will be a springboard for other advances.
“The hope is that Meredith signals the coming of the light for all of them. The fear is that the inevitable changes will bring fur‑ ther death, destruction, and repercussions.”
A highlight of covering the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi was my visit to Jackson to interview Medgar Wiley Evers, that state’s first NAACP field secretary, who had held that dangerous job since 1954. Born in Decatur, Mississippi, in 1925 of parents who taught him to demand respect even in Mississippi, he served in a racially segregated army field battalion in both England and France during World War II. Returning home, he joined with four other black veterans in July 1946 and attempted to vote. They found the courthouse entrance blocked by a group of about twenty armed white men.
After graduating from Alcorn College, he worked for physician T.R.M. Howard’s life insurance company in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, where he became aware of the sad plight of black tenant farmers who lived in the plains. He sought to help them and became part of a new generation of black leadership that chafed at the rigid legal segregation. In 1954, Evers applied to the University of Mississippi law school. Denied admission, he turned to the NAACP, whose leaders advised him to become field secretary.
My colleague Wallace Terry would cover the movement in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963 when Medgar Evers pushed for integration of schools, playgrounds and parks. He advocated for the hiring of blacks as police officers and as employees in downtown businesses.
Wally went to work for Time magazine later in 1963 and became deputy bureau chief for Time in Saigon in 1967. His breakthrough book Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans was published in 1984.
In Jackson, Withers and I went to Medgar Evers’s office on the second floor of a two-story office building in the black business section. Given the pitched battle, with its terror and violence, that had just raged over James Meredith’s admission to Ole Miss, I was astonished at this NAACP field secretary’s bold prediction about the future.
“We don’t intend to let this thing fizzle with Meredith,” Evers told me as Withers snapped dozens of photographs of him. Evers assured me steps would now be taken to get Negroes to apply to other state schools, such as Mississippi State University, Mississippi State College for Women, Delta State University, and the University of Southern Mississippi. During our interview, Evers’s phone rang. The caller reported that white youths had strafed eight Negro homes with shotguns. Evers immediately called the Justice Department in Washington and asked for federal protection for the families.
Through association with the NAACP leadership and as the organization’s highest official in the state, Evers had access to federal agents in Washington who frequented the state, especially in the sixteen months preceding Meredith’s entry into Ole Miss.
There was no need to bother with local officials, he declared. Just eight months after my interview with him in his Jackson office, Evers was killed, shot down by an assassin, outside his home on June 12, 1963; he was thirty-seven years old.
How this tragedy hurt my heart. Having met him, I was devastated. His bravery had been astonishing to me. Even as the troops were in Oxford less than a year before, he was strategizing about the next steps he would take to build on what James Meredith had accomplished.
Three days after Evers was killed, hundreds of African Americans marched in a funeral procession in downtown Jackson, in a tribute to a freedom fighter. It took great courage for the people of Jackson to march because the dangers were real, as evidenced by Evers’s fate. The march was a recognition of who Evers was and what his sacrifice meant. He was indefatigable. His death reinforced the marchers’ resolve to bring about change.
Meredith was deeply saddened by Evers’s murder. He considered Evers “one of my best and most beloved friends” and said in a statement, “I had been considered the most likely victim.” Meredith stalwartly endured taunts, insults, jeers and indignities during his lonely time at Ole Miss. When the estimated thirty-one thousand troops President Kennedy had deployed left Oxford, three hundred infantrymen and U.S. marshals continued to guard Meredith almost until the time of his graduation. Meredith graduated from Ole Miss in August 1963 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science. In June 1966, Meredith began a lone march through the South, which he called a March Against Fear. One day into the march, a sniper shot and injured him.
Dr. King, Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and others arrived to continue the march on his behalf while he was hospitalized. Meredith recovered and rejoined the march he had originated, and on June 26, the marchers successfully reached Jackson, Mississippi.
I never returned to the South to cover the Civil Rights Movement, but forty-four years later in Jackson, I caught up with Meredith, now white-bearded, but still slender and focused in his mid-seventies. Over breakfast, I told him about a black student I had just met when I visited the Oxford campus. I asked the young man if he knew who Meredith was; he answered, “No, I’ve never heard of him.” When I told him about Meredith’s heroic battle to gain entrance for himself and future black students to attend the university, the young man respectfully turned the bill of his baseball cap around to the front and said, “I appreciate what he did.”
After listening to my story, Meredith responded, “I’m not sure he needs to know who I am,” he said, displaying his always thoughtful independent-mindedness. He said he wasn’t certain about how profoundly the past affected the future in the minds of young people. I was pleased, however, that a bronze statue of Meredith was unveiled on the campus a few years later to commemorate his contribution, so future students of all races will always remember the shoulders upon which they stand.
By mid-October I was safely back in Washington from the bloody Battle of Oxford and doing some follow-up stories. I found myself reflecting on my earlier epic encounter in the civil rights struggle, covering the integration of Central High School in Little Rock in 1957. That tumultuous place turned out to be the training ground that helped me to report successfully from Oxford.
That foray into Little Rock had occurred five years earlier in September 1957, when I was twenty years old, a recent graduate of Lincoln University of Missouri and a rookie reporter at The Tri-State Defender, a weekly newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee. My boss, L. Alex Wilson, editor of the newspaper, was a veteran of reporting from the South and highly respected by the small band of black reporters from other outlets with whom he shared this highly dangerous beat. That band included Clotye Murdock of Ebony, Francis H. Mitchell and Mark Crawford of JET, Simeon Booker and Larry Still of JET’s Washington bureau, James Hicks of The New York Amsterdam News and Moses Newson of The Afro-American.
Mr. Wilson, as I always called him, was forty-nine years old, a tall, dark-skinned man who wore dignity like a soft leather glove. He had become something of a hero to me in the few months I had worked under him at the newspaper and witnessed his prowess as editor, reporter, and writer. Lean, lanky, and standing 6´4˝, he was gruff, no-nonsense, and brilliant as a boss. He taught me how to approach a story, put it into context with literary and historical references, and never overlook the ironies. While I covered local, mostly crime stories in Memphis, Mr. Wilson ran the entire paper and wrote many stories, including articles about the school integration in Arkansas.
Desegregation in Little Rock had been carefully planned and expected to go smoothly for the handpicked nine, cream-of-the- crop black children, ages fourteen to sixteen. Instead, it became a showdown over states’ rights, between Arkansas officials and the federal government, fomenting a calamitous event in civil rights history.
After the U.S. Supreme Court issued the historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, on May 17, 1954, declaring segregated schools unconstitutional, the NAACP attempted to register black students at white schools in the South. In Little Rock, the school board agreed almost immediately to comply with the ruling and unanimously approved the school superintendent’s proposal for gradual integration. The integration of a small number of handpicked black students into one high school was set to begin in September 1957.
The NAACP selected nine who met the criteria of having excellent grades and attendance, registering them to enroll in Little Rock Central High, which had been reserved for whites. The students were Minnijean Brown, Melba Pattillo (Beal), Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray (Karlmark), Carlotta Walls (LaNier), Thelma Mothershed, Terrence Roberts and Jefferson Thomas.
As the time approached for them to attend, some segregationist organizations threatened protests and Governor Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard on September 4, 1957, to support the protesters in blocking the students’ entrance to the school. Images of soldiers barricading the school and blocking the crisply attired brown teenagers made international news. The news coverage sparked outrage among supporters of integration and encouraged violent segregationists. NAACP lawyers, including Thurgood Marshall, won a federal district court injunction to prevent the governor from blocking the black students from entering.
Mr. Wilson had tracked many of Arkansas governor Orval Faubus’s delaying tactics from our office in Memphis. Then he headed to Little Rock to cover the news, telling me to stay at the office. “It’s too dangerous over there for a girl,” he told me. It proved dangerous for him, too. Wilson was part of a group of African American reporters that a mob of about fifty white men attacked.
On the day of integration, one of the Nine, Elizabeth Eckford, arrived by bus alone because she had no telephone and had not gotten a message to gather at the home of Daisy Bates, the president of the Arkansas State NAACP, and leader of the integration struggle.
With threats of a swelling crowd echoing in her ears, the fifteen-year-old walked up to the guardsmen, who told her she couldn’t enter the school. When the mob surrounded her, and she looked again to the guardsmen, they rebuffed her a second time.
Trembling as the crowd shouted at her, she walked back to the bus stop and waited on a bench, tears streaming behind her sunglasses. A few minutes later, when the other eight students arrived accompanied by two black and two white ministers, they walked through the growing mob of segregationists who shouted obscenities and threats. When the national guard troops sent the black children away, the mob was delighted.
A three-week standoff followed, and Mr. Wilson wrote about the NAACP lawyers’ court battle to get the students into school, the governor’s machinations, and the whites who convened around the school every morning. The throng taunted many of the print and television journalists who came to the school and was particularly hostile to black journalists. The guardsmen ushered some of them, including Moses Newson, out of the area surrounding the school. Accustomed to the degradation and humiliation that came with telling their readers what was happening in the South, these black reporters went away and rearmed themselves to return another day. Finally, U.S. District Judge Ronald N. Davies ordered the governor to dismiss the national guard surrounding the school and told him he could not prevent the black children from enrolling. Thwarted in his attempt to circumvent the law, an angry Governor Faubus advised the black students not to try to come to school, or they might get hurt. Then he left town and went on vacation.
This excerpt is courtesy of Dorothy Gilliam, author of Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America (Hachette Publishing, 2019).
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.