Ghosts Of Ole Miss debuts tonight on ESPN at 8 p.m. Eastern.
One of the most eye-opening films in ESPN’s 30 For 30 series is The Best That Never Was, Jonathan Hock’s 2010 documentary about Marcus Dupree, whose talents on the football field had made him the unquestioned star of Philadelphia, Mississippi by the time he graduated high school in 1981. Dupree is black, and he was a much-loved and welcome guest in the homes of his white teammates, including the home of Cecil Price Jr. If the name faintly rings a bell, it’s probably because Cecil’s dad, Cecil Price Sr., was the deputy sheriff who, in 1964, picked up three civil rights workers and proudly turned them over to his lodge brothers in the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan to be murdered. According to Price, his dad thought the world of Marcus, and after Dupree retired from the NFL and returned to Philadelphia, Price was instrumental in helping him obtain a commercial driver’s license.
This is a very small part of The Best That Never Was, but the way it’s sketched in says a lot about the way the country changed in those years. In 1964, Cecil Price thought that separation of the races was so important, and that black people and white people who disagreed with him were of such cockroach-like insignificance, that he saw no reason they shouldn’t just be killed—as brutally as possible. Some 15 years later, he didn’t think it was any big deal if his son was hanging around with blacks, and if the blacks in question were gridiron heroes, he might even be proud of it. Around the time Marcus Dupree was a high school freshman, a New York Times reporter tracked the elder Price down and extracted the quote, “We’ve got to accept this is the way things are going to be and that’s it.”
Had he gone through a spiritual crisis and completely revised his world view? It seems much more likely that Price—who died in an accident in 2001, just as the state attorney general was considering making one more stab at convicting him and his pals of murder—was one of those people who select their deepest, most cherish beliefs from the hat marked “normal,” which is defined by the prevailing community standards of the day, and which keep shifting. One day, normal was to see blacks as rabid dogs to be put down; a few years later, it was to break bread with them around the kitchen table. In this, the only thing that set him apart from most people is that, in the course of being exactly what the community seemed to assure him it would always want him to be, he had once killed three people.
Tonight’s 30 For 30 film, Ghosts Of Ole Miss—directed by Fritz Mitchell and written and delivered by the Mississippi-born sportswriter Wright Thompson—manages to seem much more focused than The Best That Never Was without saying anywhere near as much. It’s about the semester that began in the fall of 1962 on the campus of the University of Mississippi, a time that’s best remembered for the riot that broke out when James Meredith, the university’s first black student, was admitted to the school with the help of federal troops, and over the objections of Governor Ross Barnett and several hundred mouth-breathing evolutionary throwbacks who had suddenly become deeply invested in the subject of higher education. But it was also the year that the Ole Miss football team had its best season ever, going undefeated and trouncing such hated rivals as Mississippi State and Houston.
Ghosts Of Ole Miss is watery and uncertain in tone, as if it didn’t know quite what it wants to say. An alternate theory is that it does know, but that Thompson doesn’t have the guts to commit to it. Its intended message seems to be that the landmark, and for white Mississippians, shaming events surrounding Meredith’s admission have unfairly overshadowed how well the football team did. If that's the idea, then Thompsons’s reluctance to say this more clearly and loudly speaks as well of him as anything does. The first half of the film is full of memorable footage of Meredith on campus, surrounded by idiots, their faces twisted and contorted with hate, and of Ross Barnett, bloated with mendacity and standing his ground. (It’s mixed in with embarrassing “recreations” of the riot—figures in silhouette running, waving Confederate flags, clenching their fists.) After the smoke is cleared and two men have been killed, the jolly bohunks of Ole Miss concentrate on preparing for their homecoming game, five days down the line. “Now a state, a school, and a football team had to pick up the pieces,” says Thompson. If it sounds as if he’s really breaking a sweat trying to make it appear that football is really relevant to this story, he doesn’t completely throw away all claims to perspective and a functioning moral compass until the team takes the field and Thompson gushes, “The nation has seen the worst of Mississippi. These 46 men can show them the best.”
Thompson himself frequently appears on-camera, always wearing his literary-looking hat and busily scribbling away in his little notebook. He scribbles while sitting on some steps and on a picnic bench, and he also sits in a pitch-black room, at a table filled with volumes of old newspapers. He picks up the volumes and holds them in front of him, though I don’t know why: He wouldn’t be able to read anything unless he had a flashlight strapped to his forehead. He can’t do that, because he has to keep his hat on: It’s his “Me wordsmith!” hat. (Just to clear up one thing, because I’m afraid that this film may give some people the wrong idea: I grew up in Mississippi. We’re not perfect, but not all of us are rude-ass bumpkins. Most people there know enough to take their damn hats off indoors.)
Thompson seems to be trying to use a thoughtful-looking, writerly pose to obscure the fact that he has nothing to say about that fall at Ole Miss, because he doesn’t want to say anything about it. It mostly just makes him uncomfortable. He keeps speculating that maybe some of his relatives were among those who reverted to a pre-civilized state during the turmoil of desegregation, but keeps concluding that, well memories are hazy and there’s no way of knowing. As I said, I grew up in Mississippi post-segregation, and this is the first time I’ve ever heard of anyone who didn’t know perfectly well what his kinfolk were up to during that time. I do know a lot of people who, no matter what they know, would prefer to not talk about it. That’s their right, but they don’t make documentaries about it, either.
If Ghosts Of Ole Miss has a strong presence, it’s the 79-year-old James Meredith, who, asked for his own recollections of those days, replies with a blunt, “I didn’t see anything. I didn’t see anybody,” adding, in reference to the news photos of him striding around the campus surrounded by protectors, “Does it look like I was looking at anybody?” (He also recalls that “I not only thought that I was an equal to God, I thought I was God. If there was anything people were doing wrong, it was my fault, because I hadn’t figured out a way to make things right.”) The film also has a strong absence: Buck Randall, the team star, who refused to be interviewed because he took exception to something Thompson wrote about him in the past. “If Buck Randall could evolve and leave the past behind,” murmurs Thompson, “should I?”
I’m not sure that telling a reporter you’re not going to let him burn you twice is the same thing as evolving and leaving the past behind, but Randall probably has the right idea. Whatever he thought of the situation 50 years ago, and whatever he thinks of it today, his silence is more eloquent than Thompson’s dithering. In the end, all his personal reflections—“How many of the people in the mob do I know?… Should they be named? Should they be allowed to leave that night in peace?”—just seem to be a way of demanding credit for taking the state’s legacy seriously, while insisting that it all be forgiven and forgotten. At one point, he describes Barnett as “bumbling and unpopular politician” who, attending a football game, hears the crowd cheering him for his segregationist stance and is so moved by this unfamiliar showing of support that he’s unable to abandon it.
This gives both Barnett (who remained a hardcore, unrepentant segregationist, and supporter of the racist murderer Byron De La Beckwith, to his dying day) and the voters that elected him, too much credit. But, like much of the film, it makes the same point that The Best That Never Was made, almost inadvertently, about Cecil Price: During the battle over racial equality, a lot of people acted like subhuman barbarians not out of a carefully thought out, deeply committed belief in separation of the races, but just because they assumed it was what everyone around them believed, and that it always would be. Then the world moved on, and without giving it much, if any, thought, they changed. What’s weirdest about Ghosts Of Ole Miss is that it pretends that this makes their actions more forgivable and less horrifying, when it probably ought to be the other way around.
- Dan Rather, who was covering the Meredith story in 1962, recalls the riot: “Cars were overturned, some were burning. People were beaten, some people were beaten viciously!” I promise you, throw any subject you like at Dan Rather, he’ll manage to draw a fine distinction about it.
- A proud resident of the Magnolia State, on some things that haven’t changed much in half a century: Mississippi is “last in spending on education, last in per capita income, but in football, we could match up with anyone.” He smiles as he says this, proud to know that he and his have their priorities in order.