It may be hard to believe now, but sixty years ago the American military was fighting real white rage, and doing so to uphold the dignity of all Americans. In Oxford, Mississippi, in the fall of 1962, the U.S. military was deployed to make sure that Black Americans had the same protection under the law as anyone else. The men who went to Oxford were not police officers, but they were on a policing mission of vital importance.
His police work in Army fatigues six decades ago represents the best of the spirit of America.
Below is the story of Maj. Alfred J. Johnson, Sr. (Ret.), formerly with the 101st Airborne. Maj. Johnson was in Mississippi, on the front lines of the fight for racial equality. He was never in the police force. But his police work in Army fatigues six decades ago represents the best of the spirit of America. Here, he speaks in his own words about the events of 1962 and what they mean for the nation he loves. - Jason Morgan
From a Military Family to the Military Ranks
I was born in Portsmouth Naval Hospital in the Norfolk Virginia—Hampton Roads—Chesapeake Bay area about two months before the United States was drawn into World War II by the air attack on Pearl Harbor. My Dad was in the Navy stationed in Norfolk. My Mom was from a large family (thirteen brothers and sisters), which resided in Norfolk. Most of my aunts married military folks, who had been stationed in or around Norfolk. Most of my uncles were enlisted in the service at one time either during the war or shortly thereafter. Most were involved in combat during WWII or the Korean War. Some made careers of the military service. A few became officers. I lived in Navy housing the first four years of my life. For the next five years of my life my Dad finished out his Navy career at his last duty station near his family home in Memphis, Tennessee.
In high school I took Army ROTC for three years and was captain of the rifle team. I guess I was predisposed toward military service. I have reasoned it was a way of signaling adulthood and becoming established in what seemed to be a family thing.
However, when I came of age I wasn’t quite as mature as I should have been. So, it took a bit of lack of performance in my freshman year of college and a few dumb teenage mistakes to coax me into enlisting for Airborne Infantry. I did, and was assigned to 501st Battlegroup, 101st Airborne Division under the Pentomic System. I completed Airborne training and for the next three years I was a young Infantry grunt, spending most of my time each year involved in intense combat training and testing of one sort or another, mostly out in “the field.”
Deployment to Oxford and the University of Mississippi
During the late summer of 1962 I applied for my first leave in over a year and a half. Training had been so intense and so critical that few leaves except for emergencies were being granted. I had planned to spend two weeks at home in Memphis. I made it home I think in late August.
However, I wasn’t home for long. Just a couple of days into my leave I got word from my Mom one evening that my Commanding General had called and canceled all leaves. On his orders, I was to report immediately back to my unit at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I confirmed the call and the orders and made my way immediately back to my unit at Fort Campbell.
Cancel culture and politically driven race-based narratives are nothing new. That's what Jim Crow, the racial animosity and violence, were all about at that time. It is the same dynamics today as it was then.
When I arrived, my unit was already packed and loading out on C-130 aircraft. Our destination was not a foreign country, but a state on the other side of Tennessee. We were going to Oxford, Mississippi.
Oxford was in a state of turmoil because James Meredith, an Air Force veteran, had enrolled at the University of Mississippi and was attempting, after a Supreme Court ruling in his favor, to register for classes. Segregationists, the Mississippi governor, the Ole Miss student body itself had whipped up a furor over Meredith’s registration that soon devolved into a riot. Our job was to secure the University and the town.
We headed first to Millington Naval Air Station, which is about 20 miles north of Memphis, and then boarded C7 STOL “Caribou” aircraft to fly and land at night onto a dirt airstrip beside a University agricultural station outside of Oxford, Mississippi. Although there was a larger airfield in Oxford that could handle C-130s, our understanding at the time was that the airport wasn’t secure or big enough for the first large contingent of regular Army troops to be landed.
Buses from Millington to Oxford had been considered for the move into Oxford, but it is my understanding that buses would have presented even greater security and logistical problems than planes did. Also, we needed to move quickly. Buses would probably have gotten us to Oxford too late to quell the rapidly unfolding crises there. The federal marshals who were already in Oxford were being overwhelmed and were suffering massive numbers of injuries from the ongoing and escalating violence.
Related: Maj. Johnson interviewed by Ganaha-san
My Impressions and Experiences in the Moment
I was 20 years old when we flew to Oxford. There probably wasn’t a political thought in my head at the time, unless it had to do with the politics of the folks in my platoon vying for what little status was available to us within our rank structure. When in garrison I lived in a racially integrated platoon bay. There was no TV there to watch. The only radio sounds I heard came from music stations—no news. I rarely read a newspaper, and political issues were just never part of the conversation among the men. In the field it was all business.
However, I wasn’t immune to the implications of our mission. I knew that what was happening in Oxford was going to have severe consequences for the culture into which I was born and had been raised up to that point in my life.
I had been born and raised in the “Jim Crow” South. The events at Ole Miss and Oxford, Mississippi signaled the end of that long era of American history. For me, personally, Oxford meant the beginning of a gradual political and moral awakening. Up to when we deployed, I had never thought much about the world of my youth. I never had much investment in understanding it. It was just the way the world was as I knew it. Over time, however, thinking about Oxford led me to reflect deeply and arrive at a mature understanding of what brought me to Mississippi that day, and why.
In Oxford, Mississippi, in 1962, we fought for the opposite of racist myths and stereotypes. We fought for all Americans. We didn’t appreciate the significance at the time, but we made America better by fighting for what was right.
My first impression of the mission was, “This is going to be a very serious operation.” Each trooper was issued at least one magazine of live ammunition. Each trooper immediately loaded a full magazine into his M14, but without chambering a round. We were constantly warned not to chamber a round under any circumstances unless ordered to do so. Before we left on the aircraft to Mississippi, platoons and companies were put through riot control formations and training. With live ammunition in our magazines and riot control drills in our heads, we knew that we were headed into something momentous.
When we arrived at the University agriculture station at the landing strip, I accompanied my platoon leader inside the building. I was his “commo” guy, meaning I was carrying the platoon radio, an AN/PRC 10 with a spare battery. The agriculture building was being used to house federal marshals who had been injured in the riots. There were a lot of them.
Perhaps it was the sense of danger caused by the riots having produced so many wounded men, but within a short time of our landing in Oxford, something extremely unusual happened. Before moving out to secure Oxford and the campus of Ole Miss, our units were racially segregated by order of the Commander in Chief, John F. Kennedy. Only white troops were allowed to proceed from the airstrip to accomplish our mission. Black troops of all ranks were retained in the rear and given only “housekeeping” duties.
Segregating a combat arms unit that had been fully integrated since its inception years earlier, and doing so right as the mission was being executed, caused a lot of consternation among the troops, both at the time they were segregated and later as the troops were reintegrated. My squad leader was black. My platoon sergeant was black. The company first sergeant was black.
I still don’t know what the thinking behind the decision was. Maybe the leadership wanted to reduce the risk for crowd incitement. Maybe the White House believed the troops would begin fighting among themselves. I have no idea other than it was a very dumb move.
However, at the time I just noted it without thinking too much about it. In my mind it was just another mysterious decision that “leadership” seemed to make frequently.
My newly-segregated platoon moved directly to one of the roads leading into Oxford. We were placed on the outskirts of Oxford in a small residential area along the road. Our orders were to stop all vehicular traffic flowing into Oxford, inspect each vehicle, and query each vehicle’s occupants to determine if the vehicle or its occupants posed an additional risk to the already violent situation. If we determined that allowing the vehicle to pass would lead to greater risk, we were to arrest and hold that vehicle and its occupants until higher authority could further assess. If we discovered weapons in the vehicle, the weapons were to be removed and held. Out of state license plates and cars full of younger males also received special scrutiny. Folks who behaved aggressively or belligerently toward us or the process were immediately arrested and detained for further assessment by higher authority. No negotiations. No arguments. Just full compliance.
Before nightfall that first day, my platoon was replaced by another unit and we were moved directly onto the University of Mississippi in military two-and-a-half-ton trucks. We set up a shelter half encampment right on the football practice area next to Hemingway Stadium. A line of two-and-a-half-ton trucks was formed on the road next to our encampment and their motors were kept running all that night. We slept in full gear in our shelter halves next to the trucks, prepared to respond immediately to any threat. We were prepared to be rolling in full gear within a few minutes should we receive a signal to respond.
That signal came late into the night. Some folks in a fraternity house close to the football practice field thought playing gunfire and explosive sounds on their high-fi stereo systems at full blast would be great fun. In less than ten minutes, their house was surrounded by armed paratroopers in full combat gear, bayonets fixed and bare. In less than fifteen minutes, the pranksters were arrested and physically subdued. They were turned over to the local police or campus police to be processed. We returned to our shelter halves.
After that there were no more riotous incidents on campus, either real or faked, for the rest of the operation. Things became routine and boring very quickly, and we in the encampment next to the practice field spent part of our afternoons on the sidelines watching the soon-to-be national college football champions of 1962 begin practicing for their season.
Within a week my unit was reintegrated at the football field encampment. Within two weeks we were repositioned off campus at a local lake, where we became aware that several battlegroups of the 101st had been involved in the operation. From there we began to slowly draw down and redeploy to Fort Campbell.
Thinking on Oxford After the Fact
When we returned to Fort Campbell after helping to secure Oxford, Mississippi, I was given permission to resume my interrupted leave. However, within a day or two after resuming my leave back home in Memphis, my leave was again interrupted by an order from the commanding general canceling all leaves and ordering me back to Fort Campbell immediately.
When I arrived at Fort Campbell, my unit was preparing for a combat jump into Cuba to clear Russian missile sites there. The U.S. had entered the Cuban Missile Crisis. We never deployed for Cuba, but none of us had much time to dwell on Ole Miss during that tense time. When the crisis with Cuba ended my unit went immediately back into cold weather field training in December/January. By late January of 1963 I had ended my service obligation, and within a few days I was standing back on campus at Memphis State University as a student in a world that had become almost alien to me. Due to the rush of ongoing events I had no time at that time to process either internally, or out loud with my buddies, the implications or meaning of what I had experienced at Oxford.
In addition, we were told at the time not to discuss the operation with anyone. No recognition of our efforts was ever given. No one received any awards, medals or ribbons for the operation. It was treated pretty much like it never happened.
I didn’t really start thinking directly about the operation’s impact or implications until much later. I was working my way through school. John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The Vietnam war escalated with the Tonkin Gulf Incident, and that war began to consume the attention of most folks my age. Then of course came the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. I was home in Memphis and in the final phases of my undergraduate work when Martin Luther King was shot. I was “ear-witness” to some evidence indicating that King’s assassin, James Earl Ray, was not acting alone when he murdered King. I was also witness to the initial real-time broadcast of Robert Kennedy’s assassination.
However, following graduation from college I was recovering from a major car accident and was also preparing to head back into the military. They were still sending folks to Vietnam, and I had just gotten married. So, there still wasn’t much processing of Oxford in all that had been happening. There was just anticipating what was coming up next. It probably wasn’t until a decade later, in the mid-seventies, when I was in my thirties and preparing for graduate school, that I began reflecting on the significance of Oxford.
To support my family while preparing for graduate school, I took a job as a teacher and school social worker in what was then billed as the second poorest county per capita in the nation: Crittenden County, Arkansas, just over the Mississippi bridge from my home in Memphis, Tennessee. That rural school district was under a court order to racially integrate. They needed a social worker/teacher to do the school census, perform some truancy work, and teach a 10th grade class. The previously segregated black and white schools were combined, with grades K through 6 being held at the previously white school under the previous white school principal and superintendent. Grades 9 through 12 were being held at the previously all-black school under the previous black school principal and superintendent. The staffs of both schools were integrated but it was still tense. Jim Crow had ended, but the social vestiges of that era were slow to fade. Over 90 percent of the students were black. Most of the white students were from families of dirt-poor rural folks or migrant workers.
I think that’s when I began to become aware that Oxford was one of the major seminal events that determined the gargantuan change in American life that followed. A large group of well-trained, well-disciplined soldiers, dedicated more to their pledge to the Constitution than to their tribal affiliations of race or class, had played an important role at a critical time in American history. Our 101st Airborne had helped end a racist system and put to rest the notion that in some parts of America folks could be treated unequally under the law based their race, sex, or social class.
A Dark Past, Repeating
After having seen the turmoil in the country in the 1960s, I have been dismayed to see some of that dark past repeating itself in the twenty-first century. Cancel culture and politically driven race-based narratives are nothing new. That's what Jim Crow, the racial animosity and violence, were all about at that time. It is the same dynamics today as it was then.
Trust me. I know. I lived it. If anyone black or white went against the political narratives involving race at the time, they were socially vilified and attacked—sometimes physically, sometimes even fatally. If white, they were ostracized and probably driven from their job and their community.
During that time an immense, pervasive generation and perpetuation of racial myths about the nature of blacks was everywhere. It’s what guaranteed the white vote in the “solid Democrat South.” Without that voting bloc and those myths, the national Democrat Party couldn’t win national elections.
It wasn’t until I lived and worked closely and intensely in a fully integrated unit for some time that I realized that those narratives were just that: myths.
Today, the myths being generated about race have more to do with whites than blacks in notions like white privilege or white fragility or the idea that all whites are oppressors. However, it is the same political process generating the same sort of racial myths for the same political reasons. It is deeply destructive of our sense of unity.
In Oxford, Mississippi, in 1962, we fought for the opposite of racist myths and stereotypes. We fought for all Americans. We didn’t appreciate the significance at the time, but we made America better by fighting for what was right. Our police work in Mississippi in 1962—our assistance to local and federal authorities in securing freedom for all Americans—was done in the service of the highest American ideals.