ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series continued last night with a contribution from a guy we all know well, Wright Thompson. He lives in Oxford and is intimately in tune with Ole Miss, so his contribution to “Ghosts of Ole Miss,” which chronicled the 1962 Rebel football team that went unbeaten in the same semester that James Meredith integrated the university, was surely significant. (Unfortunately, I didn’t get to watch it all; I’ll catch up on DVR soon enough.)
Twitter was buzzing about the documentary last night, so I tweeted this in reference to my book, “Champions for Change: How the Mississippi State Bulldogs and Their Bold Coach Defied Segregation”:
— Kyle Veazey (@kyleveazey) October 31, 2012
Thing is, though, the connection is deeper than just the two events’ proximity on a calendar. At the risk of giving up too much of the book, which you can buy on this very site, let me explain.
Mississippi State’s basketball teams were kept out of the NCAA tournaments in 1959, 1961 and 1962 because of the “unwritten law” that prohibited Mississippi institutions from competing against integrated teams. The “unwritten law” had roots that were many years old; I discovered one implementation in the late 1940s. But by the 1950s, sparked by an instance that involved, of all places, Jones County Junior College, it had become airtight. (That Brown v. Board came down in 1954 added to the urgency.) It did not take long to realize the true intent of the “unwritten law”: It was a bulwark against integration. By keeping competition segregated, it helped in keeping the schools segregated. (Or so was the reasoning at the time.)
Advance to the fall of 1962, with James Meredith attending classes at Ole Miss. So when Mississippi State president Dean Colvard weighed his options that winter as it pertained to his basketball team, preserving the “unwritten law” proved empty. After all, now that the universities were integrated, what was the point?
Colvard’s decision was much more complicated than that, of course. But the integration of Ole Miss was a key component, and a critical reason why it’s beneficial to view the entirety of the 1962-63 academic year in the state of Mississippi when thinking about the Mississippi State basketball team’s trailblazing trip to the NCAA tournament in March.