Many Americans are familiar with the now iconic images of James Meredith, the black student who desegregated the University of Mississippi in October 1962, surrounded by white U.S. marshals assigned to protect him and ensure that a U.S. Supreme Court desegregation order be enforced. Few of us are aware of the critical role that U.S. Marshal Luke Moore and other black Deputy U.S. Marshals played in that episode. For the first time historian, author, and former U.S. Marshal, Robert Moore discusses the role of the black marshals in his new book, The Presidents’ Men: Black U.S. Marshals. Robert Moore (no relation to Luke Moore) describes that role below.
When James Meredith sought to legally become the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), the duty of upholding the federal law, that would allow him to do so, fell upon the shoulders of United States marshals and deputy U.S. marshals who risked their lives to make his dream a reality. Meredith, a U.S. Army veteran and native of Mississippi, had been dissatisfied with race relations in the South and in a calculated move, applied for admission to Ole Miss. The university, repeatedly citing administrative technicalities, refused his application numerous times over a twenty-one month period between January 1961 and October 1, 1962.
The continued rejection of his application prompted Meredith to write to Thurgood Marshall, then head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund. Impressed by Meredith’s determination to integrate Ole Miss, Marshall and the Legal Defense Fund attorneys, filed a lawsuit on his behalf on May 31, 1961. The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court which decided on Monday September 10, 1962 that he should be admitted.
Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, an ardent segregationist, vowed to block his admission despite the Supreme Court ruling, and in a statewide television broadcast, called that effort “our greatest crisis since the War Between the States.” He then added that “Schools will not be integrated while I am your governor.” Attorney General Robert Kennedy would later call the confrontation the last battle of the Civil War.”
Barnett’s defiant stand now set up a major challenge to President John F. Kennedy who was required to uphold the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling. The President sent deputy U.S. marshals to Oxford, Mississippi, the locale of Ole Miss, to ensure that Meredith was safely enrolled and protected until he graduated. After three attempts by Chief U.S. Marshal J.P. McShane, who led a small contingent of marshals to enroll Meredith, were blocked by Mississippi politicians and state troopers, President Kennedy ordered a much larger group of deputy U.S. marshals, a 127 man contingent, to carry out the court order and to protect Meredith. After Meredith successfully enrolled on October 1, this larger contingent was supervised by U.S. Marshal Luke Moore.
Luke Charles Moore was born in Collinsville, Illinois on February 25, 1924 but resided in Memphis, Tennessee where he attended local public schools and entered Lemoyne College in 1942. His college career was interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. Moore was assigned to the 92nd Infantry (Buffalo) Division, and saw combat in Italy in 1944 and 1945. After his discharge from the Army in 1946, Moore enrolled in Howard University and graduated with honors in 1949. In 1950 he entered Georgetown University Law School and graduated near the top of his class in 1954.
Moore was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar in 1955 and joined the Washington, D.C. law firm of Cobb, Howard & Hayes where he remained until 1959 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. In 1962, President Kennedy appointed Moore Chief United States Marshal for the District of Columbia. With that appointment Moore became the first African American to serve as Chief Marshal in any Federal District since President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Frederick Douglass as U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia in 1877. Moore’s appointment came just months before the Ole Miss Crisis.
Under orders from President Kennedy, over 300 U.S. Border Patrol agents were made special deputies, bring the total number of federal law enforcement officials to 538. They were soon tested. On October 1, ten days after his admission was first blocked by Mississippi officials, Meredith finally became a student at Ole Miss. Later that day rioting broke out on the Ole Miss campus. The marshals and federal troops were called up to restore order. By the time the violence ended two men were killed including a French journalist and 28 deputy marshals were wounded by gunfire.
Following the initial confrontation, Marshal Luke Moore worked directly under Chief Marshal McShane and U, S Attorney General Robert Kennedy, supervising, coordinating and monitoring the U.S. Marshal’s activity in Oxford. In his supervisory capacity Moore traveled to Oxford on numerous occasions although few knew of his role and his visits at the time.
Moore was not the only African American Marshal involved in the Ole Miss integration. Black deputy U.S marshals were not allowed to participate in the initial integration confrontation but soon afterwards they became a regular part of the Meredith security detail. The Kennedy Administration did not send these marshals in September and October, 1962, fearing that their presence would further inflame the crowds opposed to the integration of Ole Miss. In this regard the Kennedy Administration was following a precedent established by President Eisenhower during the 1957 Little Rock Crisis, when he called out the 101st Airborne to the city to enforce a desegregation order and protect the nine black high school students designated to integrate the school. Eisenhower ordered that only white soldiers of the unit be sent to Little Rock.
Once Meredith was enrolled, however, African American marshals were assigned to his security detail at Ole Miss. Eight of these marshals, Richard Kirk Bowden, James Palmer, Howard Riley, Oscar Spearman, Joseph Robinson, Cleveland Braxton, Frank Lamondue, and Braxton Harris, all rotated in and out of Oxford and Jackson along with a much larger contingent of white U.S. deputy marshals in October, November, and December 1962. Initially even these federal law enforcement officers were subject to Mississippi segregation. When they were in Oxford, they were housed by local black beauticians Thelma Boone Price and Cecilia Nelson, who were active in the civil rights movement. By Christmas, 1962, they were accommodated, along with white deputy marshals at the Oxford Holiday Inn.
Luke Moore remained Chief U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia after President Kennedy’s assassination and through the administration of his successor, President Lyndon Baines Johnson. In 1969 Moore was reappointed to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C. Three years later President Richard Nixon appointed Moore Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Judge Moore remained on the bench until his retirement in 1987.
Judge Luke Charles Moore died in Atlanta, Georgia on December 18, 1994. He was 70.