Wednesday, 23 January 2013

An American Insurrection honors a forgotten moment in battle for civil rights

From The Week of January 14, 2013

Historical firsts are never easy and rarely peaceful. For as much as we may wish otherwise, humans resist change, some to such a degree that violence and hatred results from change being forced upon them by an evolving world. And yet nothing can ever stay as it was, and nor should it. For the progress of humanity is a march out of the darkness of ignorance and into the light of respect and understanding for all creeds, all genders, all races and all lifestyles. It is a march towards universal acceptance that rests on but one enduring principle, that the individual is free to decide how he ought to live so long as his choices do not harm others. This is our destiny. And yet arriving at such an obvious truth is, sadly, for some, cause for apocalypse. This lesson is decisively driven home in Mr. Doyle's shattering chronicle of racial integration in 1960s america.

With one of its most landmark decisions, the supreme Court of the United States, in 1954, ordered that all schools in America freely integrate their classes with no eye to racial bias. This ruling, a critical catalyst for the battles for civil rights that would characterize the next twenty years of American life, was accepted, with varying degrees of trepidation, in a majority of this sprawling country except for one notable and predictable exception, the American South where this repugnant decree came as just the latest federal insult in a long line of slights from a national government whose authority they only reluctantly acknowledged. This cynicism, the legacy of the South's defeat in the Civil War, was alive and well a hundred years after that great schism, so much so that the governor of Mississippi felt bold enough to not only resist the Supreme Court's decision but to oppose it with such rhetorical force that violence was inevitable.

For several years, Mississippi, along with other Southern States, refused to integrate, a provocative show of insubordination to the state that culminated in September of 1962 when James Meredith, a veteran of the integrated US military compelled, through the pursuit of the law, the federal government to enforce the Supreme Court decision and allow him to attend the university of Mississippi which, up until then, had cynically and despicably refused to admit Mr. Meredith onto their campus. With support from the governor, the school continued its stubborn resistance despite the Kennedy administrations orders otherwise, compelling Mr. Meredith to be escorted onto campus by US marshals, a provocative show of force that ignited a riot between federalist forces attempting to enforce the law, and a mixture of students, Clansmen and other radical elements who wanted no part of a black man in their white world. Besieged on all sides, the marshals witnessed Mississippi violently resist, over the next 48 hours, the will of the federal government, nearly triggering a second civil war and obligating President Kennedy to deploy, for the first time in a hundred years, combat veterans on American soil.

Though not without flaws, An American Insurrection is a spellbinding recount of a now nearly forgotten flashpoint in American history. Eclipsed by both the Cuban Missile Crisis, which followed it by three weeks, and by the broader struggle for civil rights, which centered on the efforts of Martin Luther King, the riot on the Oxford campus of the University of Mississippi was arguably the most important moment in US race relations since emancipation. For as Mr. Doyle describes in vivid detail, James Meredith orchestrated a campaign against the federal government to compel it to enforce the laws of the land's highest court. And in doing so, he forced the government to commit to racial integration with a rigor and a vigilance that no other prior government had ever exhibited. In this way, Mr. Meredith laid the cornerstones for the march to equality that would eventually culminated in a black president being elected to office 46 years later.

Mr. Doyle divides his chronicle evenly between the lead-up to the riot and to a moment-by-moment deconstruction of the violence which is all the more shocking for it having been neglected by history. The sheer audacity and narrow mindedness of the men and women who resisted Mr. Meredith's admission lends Mr. Doyle's prose an incendiary force that nearly makes the work combustible. An American Insurrection's only drawback is a half-hearted portrait of Mr. Meredith himself who Mr. Doyle clearly did not personally interview. This would have been a welcome addition to a work which is fundamentally about one man's struggle to compel change on the unchanging. That it was omitted here makes James Meredith even more of a mystery than he already is.

First-rate work that inspires as much as it dismays... (4/5 Stars)

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