Saturday, November 2, 2013

Pulitzer Photograph of the Year: 1967

Continuing the list of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Photography, from inception in 1942; and the World Press Photograph of the Year, from inception in 1955.

Pulitzer Prize for Photography
Jack R Thornell
Photograph of the shooting of James Meredith in Mississippi by a roadside gunman.

In 1962 James Meredith, then aged 29, commenced university. What should have been a joyous time in his life was instead a nightmare.  James Meredith was an African-American. The university was the University of Mississippi, Ole Miss.

(The same Ole Miss features in the Sandra Bullock pic The Blind Side, where it is shown competing in 2004 to secure African American Michael Oher as a student to enable him to play on its football team. The university was successful, although Oher had received offers from Tennessee, LSU, Alabama, Auburn and South Carolina. Things were quite different in 1962).

Meredith was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi of native American and African- American heritage. After graduating from the local segregated schools, Meredith served in the Unites States Air Force from 1951 to 1960. Thereafter he attended Jackson State University for 2 years.

In 1954 in the landmark case of Brown v Board of Education, the US Supreme Court had ruled that public supported schools had to be desegregated.

Notwithstanding Brown, Ole Miss remained segregated, accepting only white students. Meredith applied for admission, thereby challenging the segregation, and was refused. He applied again and was refused again. In 1961 he applied to the District Court for orders for admission, arguing that on his record he should have been granted admission and that it was only the colour of his skin that kept him out. The case ended up in the Supreme Court which supported Meredith’s admission, denying the university the right to exclude him.

What followed became a flashpoint and pivotal moment in the movement by African-Americans for civil rights and equality.

The Governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, sought to circumvent the Supreme Court’s determination by having the legislature pass a law that “prohibited any person who was convicted of a state crime from admission to a state school.” The law was directed at Meredith, who had been convicted of “false voter registration.”

Governor Barnett

US Attorney General Robert F Kennedy leaned on Barnett and induced him to reverse his previous stance. Barnett reluctantly agreed to let Meredith enrol in the university, the first African-American to attend Ole Miss.

From Wikipedia:

White students and anti-desegregation supporters, many who had driven in for the event, protested his enrolment by rioting on the Oxford campus. 
Robert Kennedy called in 500 US Marshalls to take control, who were supported by the 70th Army Engineer Combat Battalion from Ft Campbell, Kentucky. They created a tent camp and kitchen for the US Marshals. To bolster law enforcement, President John F Kennedy sent in U.S. Army troops from the 2nd Infantry Division from Ft. Benning, GA under the command of Maj. Gen Charles Billingslea and military police from the 503rd Military Police Battalion, and called in troops from the Mississippi Army National Guard.  
Gen. Bllingslea's staff car was mobbed and set on fire at the entrance to the university gate. General Billingslea, the Deputy Commanding General, John Corley, and aide, Capt Harold Lyon, were trapped inside the burning car but managed to force the car door open and had to crawl 200 yards into the gate to the University Lyceum Building while someone was shooting at them and continued to shoot the windows out, though the Army never returned fire. Gen Billingslea had established a series of escalating secret code words for issuing ammunition down to the platoons with another one for issuing it to squads, and a third one for loading, none of which could take place without the General himself, confirming the secret codes. 
In the violent clash, two people died, including the French journalist Paul Guihard, on assignment for the London Daily Sketch. He was found dead behind the Lyseum building with a gunshot wound to the back. One hundred-sixty US Marshals, one-third of the group, were injured in the melee, and 40 soldiers and National Guardsmen were wounded. The US government fined Barnett $10,000 and sentenced him to jail for contempt, but the charges were later dismissed by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Meredith on campus, surrounded by jeering crowds and flanked by US Marshalls

US Army soldiers march through Oxford, bayonets drawn, after order is restored

Meredith graduated in 1963 with a degree in political science. At his graduation he wore a segregationist's "Never" button upside down on his black gown. His time at Ole Miss had been characterised by harassment, intimidation, ostracism, hostility and abuse. He had needed 24 hour protection.

After studying in Nigeria he enrolled in law at the University of Columbia, remaining politically active. In 1966 he organised and led a civil rights march from Memphis to the Mississippi State capital of Jackson to inspire African-Americans to register for voting. He called it a Walk Against Fear. On the second day of the walk one Aubrey James Norvell fired a number of shotgun blasts at Meredith, hitting him in the head, neck, back and legs. 

Photographer Jack Thornell photographed Meredith pleading for help and drove back to Memphis in a panic, convinced he would be fired for failing to photograph both the assailant and the victim. 

Meredith, laying in the road, alone, was shouting "Isn't anyone going to help me?" 

It was minutes before an ambulance came to assist him.

Meredith was not seriously injured, Norvell having shot him with birdshot. He recovered and was able to rejoin the march at the end, the numbers having swelled as a result of the shooting.

Norvell pleaded guilty to the shooting and was sentence to 5 years jail, three of those years being suspended.

In 2002, Meredith’s son Joseph graduated from the Old Miss as the most outstanding doctoral student in the School of Business Administration. Joseph had previously earned degrees from Harvard and Millsaps College. James Meredith said of the occasion, "I think there's no better proof that white supremacy was wrong than not only to have my son graduate, but to graduate as the most outstanding graduate of the school...That, I think, vindicates my whole life." Joseph Meredith died in 2008 at age 39 of complications from lupus. At the time of his death, he was an assistant professor of finance at Texas A & M International University. 

Today there is a statue honouring Meredith at Ole Miss:

Thornell, the photographer who captured on film the pleas for help from Meredith, was 26 and just starting out with Associated Press when he took his Pulitzer Prize winning shot. He was later also on the spot after three civil rights workers in Mississippi were slain (later immortalised in the film Mississippi Burning), for the funeral of Martin Luther King (though he missed the assassination itself) and for the march from Selma.

When Meredith was shot, Thornell had been sitting in a car with his UPI rival. “We jumped out of the car. Of course we were worried about getting shot too because we were in the line of fire, but fortunately, he crawled our way and I happened to raise up from behind the car around the time that Meredith was grimacing from the middle of the road and I took the photograph.”

Thornell was quoted earlier this year as having regretted not assisting Meredith as he lay on the ground pleading for help. Easy enough to say afterwards with a Pulitzer in your pocket.

As soon as Norvell’s shooting was over, photographers from other outlets descended on the pleading and bleeding Meredith. Like Thornell they also ignored Meredith’s pleas, instead shooting away with their cameras.

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