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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with William Patrick Murphy, January 17, 1978. Interview B-0043. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Murphy claims only a limited contribution to desegregation

Murphy downplays his role in the desegregation struggle, especially as compared to pioneers like James Meredith, who entered the University of Mississippi shortly after Murphy left. He hoped that his teaching would influence a generation of students to push for civil rights as lawyers and lawmakers, but was disappointed to find that most of his students failed to do so. He does take credit for being one of a few white southerners who made sure that white obstructionists did not have an easy job of preventing integration.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with William Patrick Murphy, January 17, 1978. Interview B-0043. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

SEAN DEVEREUX:
And the same people that had been after your scalp didn't even have to leave their positions. They were all in position to go after him, and in a way it was the same battle all over again. I think they hesitated to bully you, the Governor; they bullied you in subtler ways because maybe they were a little more afraid of you than they were of him. But you really prepared the way for him to a certain extent. What Dr. Hall said was without whites in positions of responsibility in the late forties and fifties and early sixties, the black civil rights movement wouldn't have been possible. Would you agree with that? You held the door open for somebody like Meredith, for example.
WILLIAM PATRICK MURPHY:
I never thought of putting it exactly that way because what happened to James Meredith so far transcended what happened to me that, although the basic underlying conflict is the same, the personal experience that he underwent was so much more traumatic and so much more of an ordeal than mine that from that point of view his case reduces mine to a footnote if anybody was going to write a book about the whole period. Which is not to say that mine was not traumatic in a personal sense to me and my wife. Apparently nobody ever tried to kill me, and they didn't have to send the troops into the state on my account or anything like that. So Meredith's personal experience and ordeal was a far more dramatic one than mine. I was white; he was black. He was the first one who was breaking that segregated line, whereas I was just teaching and talking and writing, so it was a difference. But I guess you could say that I like to think I performed a constructive and a useful role while I was teaching at Ole Miss. But I've always thought that it was mainly what influence I might have had on my students, who went back and practiced law and went to the Legislature and became judges. In other words, the very influence that these people were afraid that I would exercise, I like to think that they were right, that I did exercise a little bit of it. And none of them went back and became crusaders. A lot of them went back and kept their mouths shut. A couple of them went back and found that their views made their hometowns unpalatable, and they left the state. But I have always believed that in times and places that nobody could ever identify, that a lot of students who went through my classes were able to exercise an ameliorating influence in their local racial situations. And I like to think that I had at least some part to play in the fact that they were willing, instead of being rabid Citizens Councils people—and they couldn't afford to go to the other extreme either—but what they could afford to do, and a lot of them did do, was to try to be reasonable and ameliorative, and a lot of them did do that. And I like to think that I had some degree of influence in their wanting to do that. But that's the only sense in which I think I made any real contribution to anything down there. And even there I would have to take a back seat to Bob Farley, the Dean of the Law School, who really did go up and down the state speaking to bar associations about the duty to obey the Supreme Court. And of course, you know they crucified him, too. But he was a truly heroic figure. Or Jim Silver, the history professor who had been there since the 1930's influencing I don't know how many Mississippians, and they'd been after Jim for years. They thought he was a communist. Jim said, "They used to call me a communist, and now they only call me a socialist. I must be slipping." [Laughter] When Meredith came to the campus, Jim was the only faculty member who would go sit with Meredith in the cafeteria or would have anything to do, played golf with him and whatnot. I mean that's really sticking your neck out. I'm not trying to minimize the importance of whatever I did, although I can't really judge it. I think to some extent at some times and places with some people I did do something useful. But I'm not in the same league, really, with Meredith or Bob Farley or Jim Silver so far as the contribution is concerned. I wouldn't want to be left out of the story completely, you understand, but I wouldn't want you or anybody else to think that I was more important than I really was.
SEAN DEVEREUX:
If you view the whole thing as a progression in a desired direction, out of segregation and into justice and integration, people like yourself and Dean Farley and Dr. Silver are necessary links leading toward Meredith and toward… It couldn't have happened, the chain would have been broken, if somewhere along the line moderate whites hadn't made that effort to reconcile. And like you said, what you were doing was ameliorative, and it seems to me that "reconciliation" is really the key word. You were trying to make peace between what you considered fundamental principles, but you were trying to introduce people that you knew, fellow southerners, to these principles.
WILLIAM PATRICK MURPHY:
Let's put it this way, that I think it was damned important that during this period when the power of the state and the Citizens Councils and the governing board of the institution, when all of those aspects of the Establishment were overwhelmingly on one side, I think it was damned important that there were at least a few people around who put forward what I call the right point of view. I think it was damned important that there wasn't total submission to this police state approach that these Citizens Council people and Ross Barnett tried to blanket that state with. And I'm proud of the fact that I was one of the people who can be identified in that opposition group. And that is true. All I was trying to say a minute ago was that I don't think my contribution was as large or important or significant as some other people that we've already mentioned. But I'm proud of that.
SEAN DEVEREUX:
That's what I think I mean when I say that you did keep the door open. Things could have been shut down even more tightly than they were.
WILLIAM PATRICK MURPHY:
I'm proud of what I did. I don't make any bones about that. I could have been pusillanimous and shut up. I could have gone over to the other side. I could have quit when they tried to get me to quit at first. I don't make any apologies for what I did. There don't come many times in a man's life when he really has to test what kind of a person he is and where it can really be costly to do what he thinks is right. And I have faced that position twice in my life, and I'm proud of the fact that both times I did what I thought was right with the awareness that it was going to be costly as hell in terms of my personal career and life and my family. And I did it, and I couldn't have done anything else, and I'm proud of the fact that I did it; I'd do it again. I'd even do more if I had it to do over again [Laughter] than I did the first time around.
SEAN DEVEREUX:
What do you mean, more?
WILLIAM PATRICK MURPHY:
I mean in retrospect what I did seems so modest that I sometimes wonder if I really was doing everything I should have been doing at the time.