WASHINGTON – On the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 30, 1962, 127 Deputy U.S. Marshals, 316 federalized border patrol personnel and 97 deputized prison guards, on the orders of then – U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, surrounded the administration building on the campus of the University of Mississippi.
The registration office, known as the “Lyceum,” was a historic, columned building, which in the morning would admit Mr. James Howard Meredith as the institution’s first African-American student. Previous attempts at registration were stopped, as Governor Ross Barnett and other state officials supported segregation.
As evening approached, the crowds around the Lyceum grew. The deputies were dressed in military helmets, vests and armed with tear gas, just in case. The crowds became more aggressive as darkness fell. Bricks and battery acid were hurled at the deputies, followed by buckshot and vehicles, but still the line held.
From inside the Lyceum, deputies and Department of Justice officials communicated with the president and attorney general. Help first came from Mississippi National Guard troops, but their numbers were too few to make a difference. Then at 2 a.m., active duty military forces arrived to relieve the deputies. During the heroic 11 hours on the line, 168 were injured, of which 79 were Deputy U.S. Marshals. Dents from the attacks remain in the Lyceum’s columns to this day.
The deputies stayed at the university after the riot ended until the morning. Meredith, who arrived later, was guarded by another detail of Deputy U.S. Marshals and he registered without incident. Deputies accompanied Meredith during his time at the university until his graduation in August 1963.
Throughout the 223-year history of the U.S. Marshals Service, deputies have carried out their orders no matter how unpopular or how dangerous.