What ever happened to James Meredith’s Ole Miss roomie?

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What happened to James Meredith’s roommate—the second black person admitted to “Ole Miss”?

(This fascinating article is reprinted with permission by the author, Pete Eikenberry. The article appeared in the Federal Bar Council Quarterly, a publication to judges and lawyers practicing in the federal courts in New York, Connecticut and Vermont.S short bio for Mr. Eikenberry appears at the end of the article. The photo of Cleve McDowell and Rev. Jesse Jackson, campaigning in the Delta’s cotton dust, was provided by a friend of the late McDowell’s. sk)
What happened to James Meredith’s roommate—the second black person admitted to “Ole Miss”?
By Pete Eikenberry © 2013   
            ON JUNE 5, 1958, Clennon Washington King, a Mississippi college instructor, attempted to register for admission as the first black student to the University of Mississippi.  He wanted to obtain a doctoral degree in history; previously, he had graduated from Tuskegee Institute and received his masters degree from Ohio State University.  On June 6, 1958, King was arrested and committed to a state facility to determine his mental status from which he was not released for 12 days.  He was rejected from admission for having an incomplete application, a lack of alumni references (six were required) a minor violation of law and mental instability.
            In January 1961, the day after John Kennedy was inaugurated, James Meredith applied for admission to the University as the first black student.  Meredith came from a family of eleven children.  His father had acquired some modest real estate holdings, and Meredith along with his siblings had begun picking cotton for his father at the age of five or six.  He had worked hard on his education, and, during his tour of duty in the Air Force, he accumulated college credits from colleges near to his base.  Although he was not sponsored or encouraged to apply by any civil rights figure or group, his 20 month application process was well supported in the courts and by civil rights organizations.
            Typical Mississippi press coverage of the resulting federal court proceedings is found in the following excerpt from an article by Mary Cain, the Editor of the weekly Summit Sun, where she wrote as follows:
When the high-brown gal who is Meredith’s attorney [the late Southern District of New York Judge Constance Baker Motley] challenged Mr. Shands’ [the state’s attorney] pronunciation of the word “Negro” as “Nigar” –which is the way most of us pronounce it—Judge Sidney Mize, who was presiding, told Mr. Shands to “indulge her” in her desire that it be pronounced “knee-grow.”  (That reminds me that it’s reached the place in bars, they tell me, where one no longer asks for a jigger of whisky; the word is “jeegrow”…)
            On September 10, 1962, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Meredith’s admission; on September 11, there was a cross burned on the Oxford campus; and on September 13, Governor Barnett took a public stand in the statewide media.  He invoked the sovereign power of the State of Mississippi to personally nullify the federal court’s desegregation order as follows:
[Mississippi must] either submit to the unlawful dictate of the Federal government or stand up like men and tell them, ‘NEVER!’  There is no case in history where the Caucasian race has survived social integration.  We will not drink from the cup of genocide.
Martin Luther King and his strategists welcomed the ensuing confrontation between the bombastic and racist governor and the quiet U.S. Air Force veteran who sought merely to go to college at the University.  Press coverage was sure to follow of the kind they sought to further their legislative agenda in Washington and their quest for the minds and hearts of the American people.
            After a court order to register Meredith by October 2, 1962, on Sunday September 30, Governor Barnett at 7:00 pm. announced that “it’s over,” Mississippi is “surrounded on all sides by the armed forces.”  The governor stated that he “abhors the bloodshed” that would otherwise follow.  The governor spoke while there were riot conditions on the campus which attendees at the previous day’s football game had helped to fuel.  The riot escalated at 11 pm when the governor negated his earlier statement by publically stating that “[w]e will never surrender!”  Thus, despite the dozens of calls between Robert Kennedy and Barnett where he promised to allow Meredith to register as long as federal guns were pointed at him- and RFK’s promise to have at least one gun pointed at him- Barnett threw gasoline on the flames of the out of control riot.
            During the ensuing all night battles, three people were killed, dozens of federal marshals were wounded and over 10,000 troops were eventually called in to restore order.  (On September 17 of this year, the day that I wrote this article, I, by coincidence, met Patrick Towery from Oxford, Mississippi.  He said that one day in 1962, his grandfather, Bob Towery, an Ole Miss administrator and marine biologist, was at a cocktail party when the county sheriff broke in.  The sheriff said, “we have a problem,” and he deputized Bob and the other male attendees with the duty of preventing Meredith’s appearance on the campus.  The next day, the national guard unit which Bob commanded was federalized by President Kennedy with orders to escort Meredith as he registered for admission.
            Bob thereafter received death threats and was subjected to vicious verbal assaults. When a jeep in which he was riding passed under an overpass, the jeep was hit with large rocks which broke the windshield and badly dented the roof.  The guardsmen under Bob’s command removed their name tags since the protestors were not only threatening them but their families as well.  With almost 300 reporters present in Oxford, a town of under 7,000 people, there was almost unimaginable press coverage—e.g., there were 28 stories in the NY Times on October 1, there were 13 pages in Life Magazine and there was a long Saturday Evening Post interview which was published in the form of an article by Meredith himself.
            Meredith attended Ole Miss until his graduation in August 1963.  That summer on June 3, it admitted its second black student, Cleve McDowell.  Cleve was admitted as a law student and roomed with Meredith in a dormitory which had been evacuated by all of the other students.  Until Meredith graduated, Cleve enjoyed the protection of the federal marshals who facilitated Meredith’s and his attendance at their classes on the campus.  Yet, the federal marshals’ protection was withheld after Meredith’s graduation.  Thereafter, Cleve was the daily recipient of racial slurs and death threats as well.  During his trips between his hometown of Drew and Oxford, he was followed by automobiles from which young men waved guns at him.  Five days after his admission to law school, the mentor for whom Cleve had worked and who encouraged him to attend law school, Medgar Evers, was assassinated.  A friendly guard from the notorious Parchman Farm state prison warned Cleve that he and Meredith were next on the assassination list.
            In fear of his life, he asked the Justice Department’s permission to carry a gun and was refused.  He nevertheless bought one by mail order and carried it until the day he tripped on the law school steps and his gun clattered down onto the stairs.  He was, as a result, expelled from Ole Miss and finished his education at the Thurgood Marhsall Law School in Texas where his professors were well versed in civil rights law and legal strategies.  (During the Meredith riots, federal officials seized two dozen guns from the Sigma Nu fraternity, where Trent Lott was a member, but no Sigma Nu member was expelled.)
            After law school graduation, Cleve returned to Jackson to practice law where he was a very successful public defender and civil rights attorney.  At the end of May in 1971, my path crossed with that of Cleve McDowell.  After my service as a volunteer civil rights lawyer in 1966, for the most part in the small northern Mississippi town of Grenada– I traveled alone back to Mississippi during the Memorial Day weekend of 1971.  I wanted to find out how people in Grenada had fared since Marion Wright Edelman and Henry Aaron of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund- assisted by me and other volunteer lawyers and law students- had integrated all of the public facilities of Grenada in July 1966.
On Tuesday, May 25, 1971, the 18 year old Dorothea Collier graduated from high school in Drew, Mississippi, a town of 3,000 people.  As she stood outside a black owned grocery store talking to her friends, three white men in their 20’s passed by in a pickup and one shot her in the back of the neck and killed her.  As I drove the 100 miles from the Jackson airport to Grenada on Friday, May 28, I heard a news broadcast about the killing and the planned funeral ceremony in Drew that weekend.  I spent Friday night in Grenada and on Saturday visited the church where I had interviewed witnesses in 1966, and talked with some of the local black citizens.  That evening, I drove the fifty miles or so to Drew in Sunflower County.
As I wrote for this publication in 2009, it was Saturday night when I arrived, and all I saw open was a black barbershop.  I stopped in and the barbers let me change my clothes in a back room. I then drove to the location the barbers had given me as the family home of a civil rights leader whom I have come to remember in 2013 as Cleve McDowell.  There was a full house when I walked in and one of the SCLC organizers with whom I had worked in 1966, R.D. Cottonreader, walked up to me and asked for a loan for five dollars. It was like five years had never passed.  The closed casket with the murdered girl sat on folding chairs in the living room, and the local civil rights leaders were with Cleve and his girlfriend in the kitchen.  (Cleve was a gracious host and very much an attractive and intelligent leadership personality.)
 I talked to them for a while and Cleve gave me directions to the Ruleville home of Fannie Lou Hamer– a former sharecropper who headed the Mississippi Freedom Democrats delegation at the Democratic national convention in 1964.  Ruleville was only a few miles from Drew.  She came out on her front porch to greet me in her slip, and we sat on the porch swing and talked.  When I told her I lived in Brooklyn, she asked me if I knew “Cornbread Givens,” a self styled “poverty hustler” from Philadelphia who had taken up residence and activity in Fort Greene in the late sixties.  Cornbread had been in my living room more than once – I kept Thunderbird in the freezer for him.  She was mad at him for inviting her to speak at a dinner at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  When she came all the way from Mississippi to speak, hardly anyone showed up.  (Cornbread had a very good influence on young people.  He started a drug program and encouraged a former gang member and drug addict, “Russian” Knight, to write a book upon which a movie about the life of Sonny Carsen, a Fort Greene activist, was later produced.)
 Although Fannie Lou and I took some pleasure in exchanging Cornbread stories, we mostly discussed the tragic death of Dorothea Collier.  Fannie Lou said she had started a fund to buy a house for the slain girl’s family.   Leaving Fannie Lou’s fine brick home on a gravel street in Ruleville — all the white areas had paved streets – I drove back to Drew and went to the downtown area.  There, outside a black bar, I met Dorothea’s brother.  He refused to talk to me; he said that he had “just got back from fighting in Vietnam and these crackers killed my sister!” – “Why should I talk to you!”
Back at the home of Cleve McDowell, he introduced me to Bob Wilson who had graduated with Dorothea.  Cleve asked me to help Bob compose the talk which he was to give at the funeral the next day.  After I worked with him, he and two of his friends drove me to his home to spend the night.  In the dark, we drove up a long driveway to a magnificent house — and the group in the car laughed at me.  I obviously thought it was Bob’s home.  We kept on driving to a small shack behind the main house.  There I slept in a small room on the only mattress while the rest of the group and the family slept on large cardboard boxes flattened on the floor of the main room.
The next day we drove back into Drew to Cleve’s family home.  Civil rights leaders were there from all over Mississippi and even from Tennessee.  I passed the time sitting in the back yard at picnic tables and talking politics with legendary civil rights leaders Henry Aaron, Charles Evers, Ralph Abernathy and others whose names I don’t remember. I also visited the black cemetery.  The grass where Dorothea was to be buried had been newly mowed – obviously the first time in a while — the mowed grass had been more than a foot high.  Later that day, I could not bring myself to take some black person’s place at the funeral in the crowded auditorium where Bob Wilson “said goodbye.”  Since I was not in the auditorium, I did not hear his speech that I helped to write.
After the funeral in Drew, I, of course, returned to New York- never again to be in Drew.  This summer, I was able to spare one of my two summer associates for a few weeks to do research for some of my writing projects.  Thus, I am able to supplement what I wrote in 2009.  Xiao Hu was able to determine Cleve’s and Dorothea’s names and Cleve’s background and history.  Xiao (pronounced “shell”) found that one of the men who participated in Dorothea’s death was tried, convicted and sentenced to five years in prison of which he served three years.
After Dorothea’s funeral, Cleve was recruited by the Drew mayor to help keep the peace in Drew.   He received permission to conduct marches but he had to promise the mayor that he would keep outsiders from coming to Drew and “causing trouble,” “especially Fannie Lou Hamer.”  Cleve was moved by Dorothea’s death to relocate much of his practice and his life to Drew.  He eventually became Assistant Mayor of Drew and a member of the school board.  In July 1971, Cleve was appointed to the state penitentiary board and reappointed for a five year term in 1972.  He had been a top student at both college and law school and was co-chair of the Mississippi Democrats in the early 60’s.
In Drew, Cleve commenced to conduct his own investigations into the murders of Mississippi’s black citizens including Emmett Till who had been born the same year as Cleve.  Emmett was a 14 year old boy from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi.  He was lynched near Drew in 1955, for allegedly whistling at a white woman.  Cleve’s home, office and a rental space were full of the files on his investigations.  He himself was investigated by the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, one report being that “Chief of Police Fleming…advised that Cleve McDowell, N/M/ formerly of Drew, now of Jackson spending a lot of time in the Drew, Ruleville area.  These visits are believed to be political in nature.”
In the years after I met him in 1971, Cleve occupied various leadership posts in the Mississippi NAACP, was administrator of Head Start in Mississippi for four years and served four years as a county judge in Sunflower County.  I was shocked to learn this summer, that Cleve was murdered on August 21, 1997.  The circumstances surrounding his murder are enough to fuel a healthy skepticism as to the official version- that he was killed by a former client, a 19 year old black man.  Four years before his murder, his apartment was apparently burned by an arsonist.  Six months after his death another fire completely destroyed all his files including those of his investigations into the murders of black Mississippi citizens.
Although his convicted murderer confessed- his subsequent jailhouse petition alleged his innocence, stating that without the presence of counsel, he had been “repeatedly interrogated and threatened as well as coerced to admit to the crime…, thus rendering his guilty plea involuntarily as the result of being threatened to receive the death penalty.”  He wanted to be able to prove his innocence “so that the real suspect can be caught.”  A forensic expert who in 2004 examined the paths of the three bullets that were inflicted upon Cleve stated his opinion that the shots were fired from different angles –possibly by different shooters.
After the discovery of Cleve’s body by his sister, his secretary and a police officer, the Drew Chief of Police arrived and expelled everyone from the scene.  He then tore up floor boards, tore out walls and went through the house gathering up items which he carried from the premises in a bag.  A court order issued twenty minutes after he left the premises forbade thereafter all enquiries into the circumstances of Cleve’s death- a court “gag” order- which was still being honored by officials in 2004.  The files on the fire which destroyed Cleve’s files after his death are also sealed.  Thus, there is the question of whether someone murdered Cleve and destroyed his files to cover up what he learned from his investigations.  The Emmett Till case, for instance, was reopened by the FBI as recently as 2004—a matter in which Cleve had invested a lot of time and energy in investigation.
In my last article I wrote of two lawyers in Northern Ireland who were murdered merely because of their being effective lawyers.  At the time, I could not think of a prominent American lawyer being murdered just for being a good lawyer.  Since the circumstances of the death of Cleve McDowell have yet to be satisfactorily explained, was Cleve’s death the American equivalent of the deaths of Patrick Finucane or Rosemary Nelson?  Probably, we will never know.
This author…
was a candidate for U.S. congress in 1968 and 1970, a delegate to Democratic National Convention in 1972, helped start a free private school in Harlem and was past president of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum.  He was a volunteer lawyer in Mississippi with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in 1966 and has returned to that experience for a number of articles.

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