“You know it as soon as you smell it,” said Childs , who was a captain for the 327 infantry of the 101st Airborne Division. “It burns your eyes.”
The night before, a historic civil rights battle had ensued on the campus, and Childs said he noticed chunks of quarter-inch thick glass forming a half a block radius around a beautiful 100-year-old building called the Lyceum.
Childs said that at 5 a.m. he was the first one in his division on campus, and it was solemn and quiet.
Just more than a half century ago, Ole’ Miss University was in the international spotlight after James Meredith became the first black man to successfully enroll in the school.
Following the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case making segregated schools illegal, then-Gov. Ross Barnett said publicly no school in Mississippi would be integrated under his watch, according to the U.S. Marshall’s website.
After the Supreme Court ruled Meredith’s application was unconstitutionally denied because of the color of his skin, President John F. Kennedy ordered a group of U.S. Marshals to accompany him to enroll in the college. Meredith was stopped there by state politicians and troopers, according to the website.
After Meredith was enrolled Sept. 30, 1962, tensions between the students, community and Marshals ran high, according to the site. The tensions exploded on Oct. 1, when a large and violent riot ensued at the oldest building on campus, the Lyceum.
An angry mob surrounded the building, throwing bottles and stones, the site states. In the end, 166 people were injured and two were dead.
Childs said his unit had been conducting crowd control training for several weeks and following the riot he was sent to the campus to regain control.
“When they killed those two guys, Kennedy sent the airborne divisions — that’s 20,000 to 30,000 people — and they were all around the state in federal parks state parks, anywhere they could get,” Childs said. “(On) campus we had 300 men living in tents.”
Childs said the men wore helmets and carried rifles but were not given ammunition.
“We had it, but we weren’t about to get some kid killed,” he said. “We would issue it if we needed it.”
The unit was charged with searching every car that came on campus for weapons and to make sure they belonged to students. The marshals continued to escort Meredith to his classes for protection, but the airborne divisions were to be used as a backup, just in case.
On the third night, between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., Childs said he got a call of some activity in the dorm area.
He said there was a tightly packed crowd of between 400 and 500 students. Childs said he threw his shoulders back and tried to look as tough as he could in his battle gear and unloaded gun. The crowd parted for him, but the students counted the cadence as he walked to the center of the disturbance.
He said a military police lieutenant who had been following Meredith was trying to arrest a student who was poking fun of the police by wearing a helmet and arm band.
Childs said he demanded the lieutenant let the student go, and he reluctantly released him. Once the student was released, the crowd disappeared, Childs said.
“It could have been nasty, but the goodness of God was with me that day,” he said. “I made the right decision.”
Childs said his unit was on campus for about a week before it was replaced with a federalized Mississippi National Guard.
“They weren’t happy to be there,” he said. “It was sort of poetic justice, the Mississippi National Guard taking over and Meredith finally graduated.”