In Washington this week, 29 men were honored for acts of bravery committed on a violent night in Mississippi 40 years ago. They were U.S. Marshals assigned to protect James Meredith, the first African-American to attend the University of Mississippi. The marshals say they were just doing their job that night. But historians have a different view. They say the marshals are some of the unsung heroes of the American civil rights movement.
"It was a war zone. It was war, pure hell," Carl Ryan remembers that night as though it were yesterday
Mr. Ryan was one of 127 U.S. Marshals assigned to carry out the integration of the University of Mississippi on September 30, 1962.
The marshals were there to ensure that James Meredith would become the first black to register at the university affectionately known by locals as 'Ole Miss.'
It turned out to be a pivotal moment in the struggle for equal rights. But at the time, Carl Ryan saw it differently.
"It was just that we had a job to do, we had a court order to enforce and that is what we were there to do," he said.
The confrontation was set in motion when President John Kennedy set out to enforce a federal court order that James Meredith be allowed to attend the university.
An angry white mob gathered on campus and the president placed a phone call to Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett seeking assurances that local police would prevent violence:
" Now Governor, can you maintain this order?" president Kennedy asked.
"Well, I don't know. That is what I'm worried about. I don't know whether I can or not," responded governor Barnett.
That night, as the standoff at the university began to unfold, President Kennedy made an appeal for calm on national television.
"Americans are free, in short, to disagree with the law, but not to disobey it," the president said. "For in a government of laws and not of men, no man, however prominent or powerful, and no mob, however unruly or boisterous, is entitled to defy a court of law. The eyes of the nation and all the world are upon you and upon all of us and the honor of your university and state are in the balance."
The man at the center of the storm was James Meredith, the grandson of a slave and an Air Force veteran. He knew the eyes of the world were on him and he had no doubts about the significance of what he was about to do.
"My divine responsibility was to destroy the system of white supremacy and to restore the power and the glory to my bloodline," he said.
The marshals sent to guard James Meredith were outnumbered and outgunned. Thousands of angry and well-armed whites surrounded the building where the marshals had hunkered down to protect Mr. Meredith.
Author William Doyle has written a book about the incident entitled An American Insurrection.
"Now, this was a ferocious and homicidal mob," he recalled. " They attacked the marshals with bare hands, shotguns, rifles, acid bombs, Molotov cocktails. They charged the marshals in human waves the size of an army battalion -- five, six seven-hundred people at a time.
Though they were shot at, the marshals were under orders not to return fire. Two bystanders died in the violence and scores more were injured, including 80 of the 127 marshals.
All of the marshals sent to escort James Meredith where white men and many came from the south. Al Butler saw many of his colleagues fall in the line of duty that night but says he never heard a complaint.
" Every man in this room knew fear. But, it was afraid of not being able to complete the job, not afraid of physical injury, not afraid of death," he said. " I don't recall hearing a single man, and as has been said before, most of them were southerners, I don't recall hearing a single man saying, 'why in the hell are we here?' They knew why they were there. It is pure and simple. You hold up your hand, put on the badge, you do the job. If you can't, go home. And these men did the job, the greatest bunch of men I've ever been associated with."
This week, Al Butler was one of 29 surviving former marshals honored at the Justice Department in Washington for their heroism 40 years ago.
Attorney General John Ashcroft was among those paying tribute.
"At the University of Mississippi, the Marshals defended one man's aspirations and the promise of our founding. Both James Meredith and the U.S. Marshals exhibited the kind of courage that sustains freedom," he said.
Author William Doyle says what happened that night in Mississippi had an impact throughout the American south.
"Now, this was a watershed moment in the civil rights era, a symbolic turning point in our history and it marked the death of massive resistance to integration in our country," noted Mr. Doyle.
As a young black man in Mississippi, Donald Cole watched the events unfold that night on television. A few years later, he followed in James Meredith's footsteps and graduated from the University of Mississippi. Today he is one of the university's top administrators. But he says all of that would never have happened without the efforts of the marshals.
"You came to protect an individual. But you succeeded in protecting much, much more," he said. "For sheltered in the protection of a single individual dwells the basic rights and liberties that protect us as a nation."
Each of the marshals honored was given a commemorative medallion for their bravery on that night 40 years ago. But they continue to insist that no special recognition is necessary because, in their words, "we were just doing our job."