Many Americans are familiar with the now iconic images of James Meredith, the black student who desegregated the University of Mississippi in October 1962, surrounded by white U.S. marshals assigned to protect him and ensure that a U.S. Supreme Court desegregation order be enforced. Few of us are aware of the critical role that U.S. Marshal Luke Moore and other black Deputy U.S. Marshals played in that episode. For the first time historian, author, and former U.S. Marshal, Robert Moore discusses the role of the black marshals in his new book, The Presidents’ Men: Black U.S. Marshals. Robert Moore (no relation to Luke Moore) describes that role below.
When James Meredith sought to legally become the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), the duty of upholding the federal law, that would allow him to do so, fell upon the shoulders of United States marshals and deputy U.S. marshals who risked their lives to make his dream a reality. Meredith, a U.S. Army veteran and native of Mississippi, had been dissatisfied with race relations in the South and in a calculated move, applied for admission to Ole Miss. The university, repeatedly citing administrative technicalities, refused his application numerous times over a twenty-one month period between January 1961 and October 1, 1962.
The continued rejection of his application prompted Meredith to write to Thurgood Marshall, then head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund. Impressed by Meredith"s determination to integrate Ole Miss, Marshall and the Legal Defense Fund attorneys, filed a lawsuit on his behalf on May 31, 1961. The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court which decided on Monday September 10, 1962 that he should be admitted.
Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, an ardent segregationist, vowed to block his admission despite the Supreme Court ruling, and in a statewide television broadcast, called that effort "our greatest crisis since the War Between the