William Faulkner and the 1962 Ole Miss Football Team: "The Ghosts of Ole Miss"

During one of the class periods for my course on Ernest J. Gaines and his influences, I had my students watch the ESPN 30 for 30 film Ghosts of Ole Miss. (For Wright Thompson’s article on the film’s subject, go to ESPN.com.) I saw this documentary when it originally aired, and at the time, I knew that I had a couple of problems with it. However, the historical footage and commentary that the film provides outweighed my nagging thoughts. I have suggested that students, colleagues, and anyone see this film to get an idea of a time an historical event that had such a great impact on this nation: James Meredith’s integration of the University of Mississippi in September 1962. I still think that anyone interested in the history of this event, the Civil Rights Movement, or the South, should view the documentary, but rather than recommending this film outright, I have to say that caveats are in order.

Maybe it was because I was finishing William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! the same day I showed Ghosts of Ole Miss, but I couldn’t help but feel some eerie pull between the 1936 book and the 2012 documentary. Faulkner’s novel ends with the memorable scene of Shreve (a Canadian) and Quentin (a Mississippian) in the cold, New England dorm room. Shreve’s comments that “in time the Jim Bonds are going to conquer the western hemisphere.” This assertion immediately brought me to Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett’s comments regarding Meredith’s integration in 1962. In what appears to be a televised address, he tells Mississippians, “There is no case in history where the Caucasian race has survived social integration. We will not drink from the cup of genocide.” Eerily, these lines echo Shreve who, while not saying genocide, believes that the miscegenation (integration) of the Sutpen line will eventually destroy the world as he and Quentin know it. Of course, all of this is complete nonsense, but it has a long history throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in America
For me, Wright Thompson’s search to find answers about his past parallels Quentin Compson’s in Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury. There is not a one-to-one correlation, but there are similarities. He wonders why, even after taking a class about Mississippi history in school, he did not know about some of things surrounding Meredith’s integration. He basically says that the class did not cover those topics; instead, they only spoke about Native Americans in the state. After seeing the name of a deceased great uncle in a small notebook that a guard, protecting Meredith, carried, Thompson asks two questions that essentially drive the narrative of the film: What is the cost of knowing our past? and What is the cost of not? To me, the film centers on these questions, and it centers on these questions not in regards to James Meredith but in regards to the way that the white students on the Ole Miss football team that year dealt with everything that surrounding the campus in the fall of 1962.

The film does not center on Meredith; instead, it chronicles the football team’s undefeated 1962 season. The focus reminds me of films like The Blindside or A Time To Kill, films that tell the stories of how whites helped African Americans. Yvette at the Booker Wright Project has written about this recently. Meredith does appear, but not frequently. What appears are interviews with the football players, interviews that talk about the riots before Meredith’s first day of class and about their feelings about the situation. What comes through is that the players, like Quentin, struggle with what happen. Some of them mention that they did not realize the extent of segregation. Some of them comment that segregation should have never existed. However, watching the interviews, it becomes evident that they have not fully reconciled the past in regards to race relations in Mississippi or the South. For me, this is what evokes Faulkner, the ongoing struggle to come to terms with a place that offers so much but also caused so much damage to so many. Thompson speaks about this throughout, commenting on his Mississippi roots that run deep. Perhaps Quentin provides the best comment on this tension when he responds to Shreve’s question about why he hates the South so much. Quentin responds “quickly, at once, immediately; ‘I dont hate it,’ he said. I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!‘” (378)    

A couple of students picked up on these aspects of the film. If I had more time, in class and on the blog, I think a discussion of these topics would prove fruitful. Thinking about them in regards to progress, or the lack thereof, would be a great avenue to explore. Faulkner does not provide progress because everyone dies. In the documentary, do we see progress? Thompson does provide a section at the end of Ole Miss’s first female African American student body president, Kimberly Dandridge. Dandrige speaks about the hate she faced 50 years after Meredith, and after someone hung a noose on Meredith’s statute, she talked about her experiences at Ole Miss in a piece in the Washington Post.

What do you think? How would you approach these types of discussions in your own classrooms? What other texts (films) would you use? Please let me know in the comments below.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage Books, 1972. Print.

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