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Discussing 'Ghosts of Ole Miss' with Wright Thompson

Tonight at 7:00 PM Central, "Ghosts of Ole Miss" will debut on ESPN. Part of the network's 30 for 30 series of documentaries, "Ghosts of Ole Miss" will juxtapose the stories of the 1962 undefeated Ole Miss football team with that of the university's integration. Native Mississippian and Oxonian Wright Thompson wrote and narrated the film, and happily offered to discuss it with me. My questions for Wright are in bold.

The 1962 undefeated Ole Miss Rebels
The 1962 undefeated Ole Miss Rebels

What was the impetus for the documentary? Were you primarily interested in the integration or the football team, or both?

It began when I wrote "Ghosts of Mississippi" a couple of years ago for ESPN. That was when I began to collect much of the information that is used in the 30 for 30 film.

There are two reasons why I began to research the 1962 Ole Miss football team. First, that team was my dad's favorite Ole Miss football team. The quarterback of that team, Glynn Griffing, was from the same hometown as my father, and dad loved the guy. Dad even wore number 15 when he was the quarterback of his high school because of Glynn.

There is this idea of the "glory days" of Ole Miss. For someone like me who is younger, we're always told that the Archie Manning days were the glory days. But they weren't. They were this sort of unexpected last gasp of something that was already gone. The real glory days of Ole Miss were from 1957 to 1963, with '63 being the last SEC championship the program would win. Those teams, including that undefeated 1962 team, were great teams that are not as widely well known or talked about.

And then there is the integration of the university. I've always known about the integration, but only to an extent. When describing what happened, the word commonly used is "riots" which invokes images of maybe some burning couches and some thrown bricks. When I read American Insurrection by William Doyle, there were moments where I literally dropped the book because I was so stunned. What happened wasn't a riot - they had to call the US Marshalls and the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions in. What happened then did not take place how we were told it did.

In Mississippi, people always ask questions like "why do you have to bring up the past?" I think we've said that for so long because we don't even know the past. We're so defensive that we almost close ourselves off from our history.

Anyone that thinks that Mississippi has buried the ghosts its history is wrong, and only need to introduce themselves as a Mississippian to someone outside of the South and watch their reaction. Now, that's certainly not fair to us, because it's not 1962 anymore down here. But we can only understand and demonstrate that by exploring the events of 1962.

The central theme of the last half of the film is, as Myrlie Evers-Williams put it, "yes Mississippi was, but Mississippi is, and we are proud of what we have become." No, Mississippi isn't perfect, but it is a vastly different world from what it once was and has managed to change things that were broken while still maintaining a sense of place that preserves an identity.

There is a certain difficulty we Mississippians have when approaching our history. Did that make this project difficult? Did it make it something more worthwhile?

The original story was very difficult. It was difficult because I was writing about my home and my family. I received all sorts of angry emails and I even received an email from a family member saying that my late father would be ashamed of me.

When the idea for the 30 for 30 came around, at first I didn't want to do it. I wanted this to be a new project. The reason I ultimately decided to participate and help create "Ghosts of Ole Miss" is because I believe that telling our story about ourselves, looking at this history, and understanding what was versus what is, is the way to make sure Mississippi is the best Mississippi it can be.

After completing the project and watching it as many times as I have, I'm really pleased with it. The director, Fritz Mitchell, did an unbelievable job. It's a beautiful looking film.

So it became a labor of love. It became something I was able to do on top of my usual work because I felt so strongly about it.

You interview several people. How did you determine who to interview and how did that process go?

Director Fritz Mitchell conducted the interviews for the film, while I did them for the original piece, so it's important to note that I'm responsible for the film, but don't have final authority over it all. So I don't have complete knowledge of the interview processes, but I do know that everyone was eager to show their best side, but wary to see how people will understand and portray them. Mississippians have a hard time trusting people, especially those not from Mississippi, to understand them and get their story right. There's an amount of wariness there that we have; I get it.

Regarding the guys from the 1962 team, they are truly great people and very gracious. There is a scene in the film during a reunion of the team where you will see that I got a chance to meet with so many of them, and I interviewed most of them for the original "Ghosts of Mississippi" piece. In meeting with them, I was able to see the bonds formed in 1962 and how well they remain. It's a real testament to what happened that year and to these guys. They're class acts, confident, successful guys who had no problem telling their story.

I found the competing historical narratives and perspectives interesting and a very important way to examine history. Did your research challenge any preconceived notions? Do you think that's the purpose of examining history?

Regarding the history of 1962, it was something that I sort of ‘knew' in that it was something that we all learned about. But in doing the work I did on "Ghosts of Mississippi" taught me so much more and raised the questions I ask in the film.

One portion of the film that I thought was particularly revealing was the detail about the rioters lowering the American flag at the Lyceum to raise the Confederate flag in its place. That to me changed or even emboldened some of my own perspectives on these issues.

The Confederate Flag debate is an interesting one. To me, the re-emergence of the Confederate flag was directly related to Jim Crow, the Solid South, the Dixiecrats - it's all inexorably linked. But everybody has their own line about all of these symbols and we all have different ways of viewing them.

And that itself can cause some conflict, like in the film how you mentioned the feelings you have for "Dixie" juxtaposed against its history?

I like Dixie. I like slow Dixie, and we do talk about that in the film. I find it incredibly moving. I think people will too when they watch the film. [Note: The film opens with "Dixie" being slowly played on violin. In my opinion, it's beautiful.]

There's a moment in the film of Meredith talking about Gettysburg [and the University Greys] and he does so as a Mississippian. He's not talking as a white Mississippian or a black Mississippian or any of that, but in a poignant and spot-on way about this state and how it would perceive a tragic wartime loss. We all have these ideas competing with each other, and that leads us to ask questions but not necessarily reach a conclusion. And when we do find answers, we all have our own way of doing that - and that's okay. That complexity is okay. With "Ghosts of Ole Miss," I want to show this greater understanding of what happened in 1962, and I hope that those who watch it, Mississippians included, begin to ask questions too.

What's the prescription for Ole Miss and Mississippi's future? Is there one right answer?

I think the answer can be found in examining ourselves, but everyone has a different answer to that. I feel that what you think the prescription is says a lot about you, and I'm not sure anybody knows who is right.

Should we impale ourselves on our history over and over and forget it? Is "mea culpa" the right answer? I don't know.

The question I've asked in the film is "what is the cost of knowing versus the cost of not knowing." I think that requires a rigorous and fair examination of ourselves and our past as something which is critical to moving forward.

Right now, you hear the natural minimization of the significance of these events by people who didn't see them, and then you have people like me who hear the word "riot" and don't hear an "insurrection involving Molotov cocktails, coordinated assaults, and Springfield .30-06 deer rifles." That's not a "riot." There is a question of how much of our history do we actually know.

I think looking at history and understanding it is critical, but everyone is going to have a different way of looking at it and will have a different perspective on what happened.

Willie Morris once wrote about the insecurity of Mississippians and how we always feel a need to apologize for or atone for our past. In that sense, a lot of people I have spoken with are nervous that this film could portray Mississippi and Ole Miss in a negative light. What would you say to those who think that this could only hurt our state?

If you come away feeling away feeling that about this film, then you probably felt that already. Some people are going to see what they wanted to see before the film even starts. In some ways, the film is a mirror, reflecting back onto the view the feelings that he or she may have already had.

I personally don't see how it hurts Mississippi. I think the film's conclusion very clearly shows how different Mississippi of 2012 is from the Mississippi of 1962, and I think the questions asked in the film show a level of honesty and introspection.

I was concerned what the reactions would be when the initial "Ghosts of Mississippi" story ran. I was nervous about that and what the reaction to it would be. I don't feel the same way about the film. It never even occurred to me that people would even think that way about this film.

With "Ghosts of Ole Miss," I'm not looking to change the answers people come away with or alter what their view of what the future of Mississippi should be. I just want people to ask questions.

You want to know how Mississippi becomes the best Mississippi? It is by everyone asking the questions that they feel are appropriate for themselves, pursuing an honest intellectual engagement with our history and our identity, and moving on as they see fit.

I am proud to be from Mississippi. My most prized possession in the world is a pair of my dad's cufflinks with the seal of the state of Mississippi on them. I love wearing those outside of the state, even if people can't see them. My identity is inexorably tied to that of Mississippi, and that is something I hope I portrayed with the film.

The real tragedy of people's view of Mississippi outside of the state is that very few places have their entire identity built on this bedrock of a sense of place like Mississippi does. One of the best moments in the film is when former governor of Mississippi, William Winter, explains that "some of our past is glorious, and some of it is infamous." I think that he demonstrates this need to reconcile what we can be proud of with our more difficult moments, and I think we've done a remarkable job of changing what needs to be changed while holding onto the things that serve to pass on identity from generation to generation.

So the film premiers tonight. Are you nervous at all?

I'm not nervous. I'm really not. I was much more nervous about the original story and what the reaction would be to that. I've thought through it and I'm very confident in the work. The worrying is over; it's done now.

ED: The film debuts tonight at 7:00 PM Central on ESPN.