In my 2012 research under historian H.W. Brands into the career of US Army Ex-General Edwin Walker, I was privileged that Episcopal Bishop Duncan Gray Jr. (1927-2016) granted me an interview. This is because the late Bishop Gray knew General Walker better than most.
Since General Walker was a decorated hero of World War II and the Korean War, I would never criticize him without ample evidence. So, I sought outside the views of those who had spoken with General Walker during the early 1960's. Duncan Gray, a 35-year-old Episcopalian priest, personally confronted General Walker on the campus of Ole Miss University on the evening of Sunday 30 September 1962.
In order for General Walker to win acquittal from all the charges after the racial riots at Ole Miss that night, in which hundreds were wounded and two were killed, Walker told a Grand Jury in Oxford, Mississippi that he was at Ole Miss that night "only to keep the peace, to restore calm and to prevent violence." The John Birch Society had also published a booklet, Invasion in Mississippi (by Earl Lively, 1963) to that effect.
Yet Bishop Duncan Gray told me personally in 2012 that General Walker committed perjury in that testimony, because he saw Walker with his own eyes on the Ole Miss campus, and interacted with Walker in a way he could never forget. Walker’s boldly stated purpose on radio and TV just days beforehand, as well as Walker's bold behavior at Old Miss that night, was always to foment violence. Duncan Gray himself was a personal target of that violence.
This story isn't new – many readers from Mississippi are well aware of this permanent fixture of the history of Oxford, Mississippi. Yet I invited Bishop Gray to tell me, personally, so that I could hear the first-hand account. Here is what Bishop Gray told me in 2012.
During the final week of September, 1962, a young Reverend Duncan Gray, Jr. was watching TV with friends and family as General Edwin Walker told the public that he was going to Oxford, Mississippi for a massive confrontation with US Troops sent by JFK to Ole Miss to defend the rights of James Meredith to be the first Black American to attend Ole Miss University.
The family was terrified that mob violence was coming to their quiet college town. Walker’s words, “I was on the wrong side at Little Rock, but I’ll be on the right side at Oxford,” was a clear indication of Walker’s racist intentions.
Also, each broadcast over the radio and TV for "ten thousand strong" to protest and to “bring your tents, your flags and your skillets,” carried a threatening connotation of a long term, paramilitary occupation. These were not the words of somebody seeking to maintain peace and calm, Bishop Gray told me.
Once the riots broke out, the Reverend Gray and professor Wolford Silver, drove to the campus. On their way, car after car with out-of-state license plates passed them. They looked at each other and said at the same moment, “General Walker.”
When they arrived on the Ole Miss campus at perhaps 8:30 pm the two men went around telling the students to go home, and to hand over the bricks and bottles they had been throwing. Gray kept his eyes peeled for General Walker. Around 9 pm he saw Edwin Walker in a nearby cedar tree grove talking with perhaps 30 students. Gray rushed to him and demanded that Walker stop the violence immediately.
This stunned Walker, who did not expect to such boldness. Walker demanded to know who he was. Gray introduced himself as an Episcopal priest who lived in Oxford, and added that he knew that Walker didn’t live in Oxford, and he advised Walker to go home. Bishop Gray told me:
"Although it was night time, so I could not clearly look into General Walker’s eyes, I could see his face clearly enough to see that his Walker’s face was extremely unfriendly towards me; clearyl he held my very presence in contempt.
"There, under the grove, Walker insulted me loudly so that the students hear that 'this sort of priest made him ashamed to be an Episcopalian.' The students also looked upon me with contempt. Walker said they would certainly not stop their activities, since they had every right to act upon their beliefs. They didn’t want Negroes at Ole Miss and that was that. Walker left the grove toward the park lawn in front of the Lyceum Building and the students followed him.
"I went back to the Y Building and watched the students throwing objects at the marshals and the marshals shooting tear gas bombs at the students. I saw Walker half-way up the Confederate monument giving a speech, and I ran to the monument where I heard Walker shout, 'We are here for a righteous cause! We must let our voices be heard!'
"I climbed on the monument next to Walker, and began shouting to Walker so that the mob could also hear: 'Tell these people to go back home, or go back to their dormitory rooms. They'll listen to you; they consider you their leader! Violence is not the answer to this problem!'
"Walker turned to the crowd -- now more outside adults than students -- and he shouted a second time: 'There's a priest over here that makes me ashamed to be an Episcopalian!'
"In response to this, the crowd pulled me down and started beating and kicking me. A few students, however, recognized me, pulled me out of the crowd and took me back to the Y Building. This is not something I can forget, because it is physically jarring to be the victim of violence. Walker was the one who set the crowd on me, in step with his stated intentions in his radio and TV ads."
At this point I interrupted Bishop Gray's story, and interjected that Walker's testimony to the Oxford Grand Jury, when he said, that he was the one who tried to calm the crowd, and he was the one who told the crowd that 'violence is not the way,' no longer rings true. It was at this point that Bishop Gray told me directly, and without hesitation, "I was never invited to that Grand Jury, but if Walker told the Grand Jury that he was at Ole Miss to keep the peace, then he certainly committed perjury!"
Here is the crossroads of history. Instead of General Walker, I choose to believe the Episcopalian Bishop.