Henry Gallagher on the Ghosts of Ole Miss

On Tuesday, ESPN Films aired the latest installment of their 30 for 30 film series: Ghosts of Ole Miss. Directed by Fritz Mitchell and written and narrated by Wright Thompson the film examines the 1962 undefeated Ole Miss football team. A feat made more amazing by the fact that the same year James Meredith integrated the campus under order and protection of the federal government. 

This is also a subject very close to UPM. In September we published James Meredith and the Ole Miss Riot: A Soldier’s Story by Henry Gallagher. Gallagher was born and raised in Minnesota, and his military police battalion from New Jersey was sent into the riots, and he was thereafter assigned as the officer-in-charge of Meredith’s security detail. 

Gallagher had a front-row seat to one of the most significant moments in the Civil Rights movement. And for his involvement, he was interviewed for the film. Given his unique point-of-view gives we were interested in Gallagher’s reaction to the film. What insights did he have? Did his unusual perspective affect his viewing of the film? He was kind of enough to shared his thoughts on the film below. 

I always thought it a bizarre juxtaposition. One of the country’s top collegiate football teams that year , all white, of course, playing in a stadium next to a practice field that had been appropriated by the U.S. Army to allow for the tents of the 101st airborne brigade and our battalion, sent there to put down one of the country biggest race riots. 

I loved it when Wright Thompson was going through my red ten-cent notebook in the Ole Miss archives in the beginning. I’ll never forget the day that Thompson called me from the Ole Miss archives after going over one of my note books in which we had placed names of “persons of interest.” He shouted into the phone, “My God, I came across my great uncle’s name in there, that racist sonofabitch member of the White Citizens’ Council!” He spoke of that moment as an epiphany for him and how was he going to re-think of his family’s past. 

For the first thirty minutes or so, I didn’t see the usual ESPN-brand presentation, that is, a sports story (football team) that then would come up alongside a riot story. But then I recall that there was little or no link to be made between the two narratives in 1962, both actors on the same stage with each but independent of each other. 

The second half hour moved the two closer to each other but never really touching. I saw a narrative of student body continuance, of attempting to move on despite the shame (through some eyes) or the federal intrusion (through other eyes) that had overtaken the campus. The students could move into a football stadium to be distracted by the game down on the field, some even with resentment toward the Kennedy administration and what it had brought down upon them and their idyllic campus, a passion stronger than any emotion they might hold against the opposing team on the football field on any given home-game Saturday through October and November. 

I talked to the director this morning and he’s sorry he didn’t have enough space to include the Sense of Place essay and the scene when the pretty coed walks over to my jeep: 
But one day a very attractive coed, a quiet and daily passerby, finally stops, looks at me, and comes over to the jeep. I’m curious, even flattered, that she’s approaching us. Uh-huh. One of those Ole Miss beauties. Must be the water down here. In a soft southern accent that will remain in my memory long after I leave this place, she says, “Lieutenant, I have one thing to say to y’all.” (Her voice is as soft as Minnesota’s own Land O’ Lakes butter.)
“Yes?” I answer quickly.

(A pause.)

“Just fuck y’all!” (Spoken as her head snaps back.)

She returns to the sidewalk, regains her pretty coed composure, and continues on her pretty way. With that kind of language, this gal will only be in the audience for the beauty pageant, no runway for her. 

The film confirmed to me what I looked for and didn’t see fifty years ago. And that is leadership from student-athletes to confront the epithet-screaming students on campus corners as we passed by with Meredith in those first days. The football players, with their high recognition value on the campus, were nowhere to be seen. But, this was asking too much from these sons of Mississippi (not a one from out-of-state, I believe) who brought their “southern way of life” (including race separation) out onto the field with them every day. 

How could they be expected to cross the line and play peacemaker? The team and its players had no such role to play off the field. On the contrary if there was any off-the-field role playmaking, one need only be reminded of the player, maybe more, who threw something other than a football that weekend, a Molotov cocktail in the direction of the deputy marshals.