James Meredith in 1962
June 25, 1933 |
|Education||University of Mississippi; Columbia Law School, LL.B.|
|Known for||becoming the first black student at the University of Mississippi|
James Howard Meredith (born June 25, 1933) is an American civil rights movement figure, writer, and political adviser. In 1962, he was an Air Force veteran and the first African-American student admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi, an event that was a flashpoint in the African American civil rights movement. Inspired by President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, Meredith decided to exercise his constitutional rights and apply to the University of Mississippi. His goal was to put pressure on the Kennedy administration to enforce civil rights for African Americans.
In 1966 Meredith planned a solo 220-mile March Against Fear from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi; he wanted to highlight continuing racism in the South and encourage voter registration. He did not want major civil rights organizations involved. The second day, he was shot by a white gunman and suffered numerous wounds. Leaders of major organizations vowed to complete the march in his name after he was taken to the hospital. While he was recovering, more people became involved as marchers. When Meredith and other leaders entered Jackson on June 26, marchers were an estimated 15,000 strong, in what was the largest civil rights march in Mississippi. During the course of it, more than 4,000 African Americans had registered to vote, and the march was a catalyst to continued community organizing and additional registration.
In 2002 and again in 2012, the University of Mississippi led year-long series of events to celebrate the 40th and 50th anniversaries of Meredith's integration of the institution. He was among numerous speakers invited to the campus, where a statue of him commemorates his role. The Lyceum-The Circle Historic District at the center of the campus has been designated as a National Historic Landmark for these events.
Early life and education
Meredith was born in 1933 in Kosciusko, Mississippi, of African-American, British Canadian, Scots and Choctaw heritage. His family nickname was "J-Boy". European traders intermarried with some Choctaw during the colonial period. In the 1830s, thousands of Choctaw had chosen to stay in Mississippi and become United States citizens when most of the tribe left their traditional homeland for Indian Territory during the federally imposed removal. There were unions with European Americans and African Americans (some of whom were enslaved), adding to the multi-racial population in the developing territory.
After attending local schools (which were segregated as "white" and "colored" under the state's Jim Crow laws) and graduating from high school, Meredith enlisted in the United States Air Force. He served from 1951 to 1960.
For two years, Meredith attended Jackson State University, where he achieved good grades. Inspired by President John F. Kennedy, he applied to the University of Mississippi, intending to insist on his civil rights to attend the state-funded university. It had accepted only white students under the state's legal system of racial segregation. In Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the US Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional in public schools, which are supported by all the taxpayers.
Challenge to University of Mississippi
Meredith wrote in his application that he wanted admission for his country, race, family, and himself.
"Nobody handpicked me...I believed, and believe now, that I have a Divine Responsibility... I am familiar with the probable difficulties involved in such a move as I am undertaking and I am fully prepared to pursue it all the way to a degree from the University of Mississippi."
He was denied twice. During this time, he was advised by Medgar Evers, a civil rights leader who was head of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
On May 31, 1961, Meredith, with backing of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, alleging that the university had rejected him only because of his race, as he had a highly successful record. The case went through many hearings and finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court. It ruled that Meredith had the right to be admitted to the state school. Though Meredith was legally entitled to register, the Governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, tried to block him by having the Legislature pass a law that “prohibited any person who was convicted of a state crime from admission to a state school.” The law was directed at Meredith, who had once been convicted of “false voter registration.” In 1890, white Democrats dominating the state legislature had passed a new constitution that effectively disfranchised black voters by making voter registration more difficulty by poll taxes, literacy tests administered by white officials, grandfather clauses and other devices. In the 1960s, most African Americans were still excluded from the Mississippi and other southern political systems.
On September 13, 1962, the District Court entered an injunction directing the members of the Board of Trustees and the officials of the University to register Meredith. Meanwhile, the Mississippi Legislature had adopted the above emergency measure to prevent this. On September 20, the federal government gained an enjoinment against enforcement of this Act, and of two state court decrees barring Meredith's registration.
On September 20, Meredith was rebuffed by official at the university in his efforts to gain admission. On September 28, the Court of Appeals, en banc and after a hearing, found the Governor in civil contempt and ordered that he be arrested and pay a fine of $10,000 for each day that he kept up the refusal, unless he complied by October 2. On September 29, Lieutenant Governor Johnson was found in contempt by a panel of the court, and a similar order was entered against him, with a fine of $5,000 a day. On September 30, President Kennedy issued a proclamation commanding all persons engaged in the obstruction of the laws and the orders of the courts to "cease and desist therefrom and to disperse an retire peaceably forthwith", citing his authority under 10 U.S.C. § 332, § 333, and § 334 to use the militia or the armed forces to suppress any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy.
The US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had a series of phone calls with Governor Barnett between September 28 or 29 to October 1. Barnett reluctantly agreed to let Meredith enroll in the university.
On October 1, 1962, Meredith became the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi. a crowd of white students and segregationists, many who had driven in for the event, protested his enrollment by rioting on the Oxford campus over the next few days. A French journalist and another man were killed.
Robert Kennedy called in 500 U.S. Marshals to take control, who were supported by the 70th Army Engineer Combat Battalion from Fort Campbell, Kentucky. They created a tent camp and kitchen for the US Marshals. To bolster law enforcement, President Kennedy sent in U.S. Army troops from the 2nd Infantry Division from Fort Benning, Georgia under the command of Maj. Gen Charles Billingslea, and military police from the 503rd Military Police Battalion. Kennedy also ordered in troops from the Mississippi Army National Guard.
The white mob attacked Gen. Billingslea's staff car and set it on fire as his party entered the university gate. General Billingslea, the Deputy Commanding General John Corley, and aide, Capt Harold Lyon, were trapped inside the burning car, but they forced the door open, then crawled 200 yards under gunfire from the mob to the University Lyceum Building. The Army did not return this fire. To keep control, Gen Billingslea had established a series of escalating secret code words for issuing ammunition down to the platoons with another one for issuing it to squads, and a third one for loading, none of which could take place without the General confirming the secret codes.
In the violent clashes, two people were killed, including the French journalist Paul Guihard, on assignment for the London Daily Sketch. He was found dead behind the Lyceum building with a gunshot wound to the back. One third of the US Marshals, a total of 166 men, were injured in the melee, and 40 soldiers and National Guardsmen were wounded.
The US government fined Barnett $10,000 and sentenced him to jail for contempt, but the charges were later dismissed by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Meredith's entry is regarded as a pivotal moment in the history of civil rights in the United States. He persisted through harassment and extreme isolation to graduate on August 18, 1963, with a degree in political science.
Many students harassed Meredith during his two semesters on campus, but others accepted him. According to first-person accounts chronicled in Nadine Cohodas's book, The Band Played Dixie (1997), students living in Meredith's dorm bounced basketballs on the floor just above his room through all hours of the night. Other students ostracized him: when Meredith walked into the cafeteria for meals, the students eating would turn their backs. If Meredith sat at a table with other students, all of whom were white, the students would immediately get up and go to another table.
In 2014, vandals linked to the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity vandalized Meredith's honorary University of Mississippi campus statue by putting a noose around its neck and draping it with a former Georgia state flag, controversial because it had incorporated the Confederate flag. In response, Meredith said "that just clearly shows that we’re not training our children like the Bible says. They don’t know right and wrong, good and bad and how to apply it to life."
Education and activism
Meredith continued his education, focusing on political science, at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. He returned to the United States in 1965. He attended law school through a scholarship at Columbia University and earned an LL.B (law degree) in 1968.
In 1966 Meredith organized and led a solo, personal March Against Fear for 220 miles from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi, beginning on June 6, 1966. Inviting only black men to join him, he wanted to highlight continuing oppression in the Mississippi Delta, as well as to encourage blacks to register and vote following passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, with enforcement of rights. The governor Paul Johnson promised to allow the march and provide State Highway Police protection. Meredith wanted blacks in Mississippi to overcome fear of violence. Despite police, on the second day, Meredith was shot and wounded by Aubrey James Norvell, a white man whose motives were never determined as he pleaded guilty at trial. Meredith was quickly taken to a hospital. Leaders of major organizations rallied at the news and vowed to complete the march in Meredith's name. They struggled to reconcile differing goals, attracting marchers from local towns and across the country by the end.
Meredith recovered from his wounds and rejoined the march before it reached Jackson on June 26, where 15,000 marchers entered the city in what had become the largest civil rights march in state history. During the march, more than 4,000 black Mississippians registered to vote. Continued community organizing was catalyzed by these events, and African Americans began to enter the political system again. Black voters in Mississippi have established a high rate of voter registration and voting participation.
In 1967 while living and studying in New York, Meredith decided to run as a Republican against the incumbent Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a multi-term Democrat, in a special election for the Congressional seat in Harlem, but withdrew. Powell was re-elected. Meredith said, "The Republican Party [of New York] made me an offer: full support in every way, everything." He had full access to top New York Republicans.
After returning to Mississippi to live, in 1972 Meredith ran for the US Senate against the Democratic senator James Eastland, who had been the incumbent for 29 years because of the lack of competitive party politics. During most of that time, African Americans in the state had been disfranchised and the Republican Party had been crippled, following provisions of a constitution new in 1890 that made voter registration extremely difficult. Meredith conceded that he had little chance of winning unless Governor George Wallace of Alabama entered the presidential race and split the white vote.
An active Republican, Meredith served from 1989 to 1991 as a domestic adviser on the staff of United States Senator Jesse Helms. Faced with criticism from the civil rights community for working for the former avowed segregationist, Meredith said that he had applied to every member of the Senate and House offering his services, and only Helms' office responded. He also wanted a chance to do research at the Library of Congress.
In 2002, officials at the University of Mississippi celebrated the 40th anniversary of Meredith's historic admission and integration of the institution with a year-long series of events. Of the celebration, Meredith said,
"It was an embarrassment for me to be there, and for somebody to celebrate it, oh my God. I want to go down in history, and have a bunch of things named after me, but believe me that ain't it."
He said he had achieved his main goal at the time by getting the federal government to enforce his rights as a citizen. He saw his actions as "an assault on white supremacy." In 2003, he was far more proud that his son Joseph Meredith graduated as the top doctoral student at the university's graduate business school.
During the anniversary year, Meredith, 69, was the special guest speaker for a seminar at Mississippi State University. Among other topics, Meredith spoke of his experiences at Ole Miss. During a question-and-answer session, a young white male asked Meredith if he had taken part in a formal rush program. Meredith replied, "Doesn't that have something to do with being in a fraternity?" The young man replied "Yes," and Meredith did not respond further. It was enough for the audience to remember that Meredith, a 29-year-old veteran, had to be accompanied at the time by armed military personnel to secure his safety.
In 2012, Meredith received the Harvard Graduate School of Education 'Medal for Education Impact' and was the school's convocation speaker. According to Meredith, the award was the first he has accepted in 50 years.  That year, the University of Mississippi planned another year of programs celebrating 50 years of integration, featuring a range of speakers, artists, lectures and events.
A highly independent man, Meredith has identified as an individual American citizen who demanded and received the constitutional rights held by any American, not as a participant in the U.S. civil rights movement. There have been tensions between him and leaders of major organizations of the movement. When interviewed in 2002, the 40th anniversary of his enrollment at University of Mississippi, Meredith said, "Nothing could be more insulting to me than the concept of civil rights. It means perpetual second-class citizenship for me and my kind."
In a 2002 interview with CNN, Meredith said, "I was engaged in a war. I considered myself engaged in a war from Day One. And my objective was to force the federal government—the Kennedy administration at that time—into a position where they would have to use the United States military force to enforce my rights as a citizen."
- 1966, his memoir, Three Years in Mississippi, was published by the Indiana University Press.
- He has self-published several books on politics and society.
Marriage and family
On March 14, 1956, two and a half months after they met, Meredith married Mary June Wiggins. She later worked as a high school English teacher. They had three sons, James, John and Joseph Howard Meredith. Mary June Meredith died of heart failure in December 1979.
- Dave, Paresh (February 18, 2014). "James Meredith talks about vandals". The Los Angeles Times.
- Bryant 2006, p. 60.
- Meredith Coleman McGee. (2013) James Meredith: Warrior and the America That Created Him. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger, p. 15. Note: In her biography of him, his niece, Meredith Coleman McGee describes his ancestry as "a Negro of Choctaw descent," p. 133, and provides extensive genealogical material in the Appendix: "Family Tree of James Howard Meredith"
- Schlesinger 2002, p. 317.
- "James Meredith". Spartacus Educational. Retrieved 2007-10-02.
- "The States: Though the Heavens Fall". TIME. 1962-10-12. Retrieved 2007-10-03.
- United States v. Barnett, 376 U.S. 681 (1964)
- 76 Stat. 1506
- Schlesinger 2002, p. 318.
- "Days of Confrontation: Telephone Conversations". John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
- "1962: Mississippi race riots over first black student". BBC News - On this day. 1962-10-01. Retrieved 2007-10-02.
- Schlesinger 2002, pp. 319-322.
- Farber, David and Beth Bailey. The Columbia Guide to America in the 1960s.
- Leslie M. Alexander; Walter C. Rucker (2010). Encyclopedia of African American History, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO. p. 890.
- "6 June 1966: Black civil rights activist shot". BBC News - On this day. 1966-06-06. Retrieved 2007-10-02.
- "James Meredith", Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, 1966-1968, photos, Seattle Times, 2008
- "Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Movement". pbs.org. Retrieved 2011-10-18.
- "Meredith Makes Bid For U.S. Senate in Mississippi". Jet. March 2, 1972.
- Haygood, Wil (2006). The King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. HarperCollins. p. 363.
- Nash, Jere; Andy Taggart and John Grisham (2009). Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976-2008. University Press of Mississippi. p. 51.
- Shelia Hardwell Byrd (21 September 2002). "Meredith ready to move on". Associated Press, at Athens Banner-Herald (OnlineAthens). Retrieved 2007-10-02.
- Anderson, Jill. "James Meredith to Speak at Convocation". Harvard Ed School. Retrieved May 2012.
- Christine Gibson (June 6, 2006). "A Shooting—And the Civil Rights Movement Changes Course". American Heritage. Archived from the original on 2009-01-09.
- "Mississippi and Meredith remember". CNN. 2002-09-29. Retrieved 2007-10-02.
- Meredith Coleman McGee, James Meredith: Warrior and the America That Created Him (ABC-CLIO, 2013):125.
- Michael T. Johnson, "Of Dr. King and Mrs. Meredith: A Tribute in Honor of Dr. King", (January 16, 2012).
- Meredith C. McGee, [www.meredithetc.biz/downloads/James%20Meredith's%20Biography.rtf "James Meredith's Biography"].
- Meredith Coleman McGee, James Meredith: Warrior and the America That Created Him (ABC-CLIO, 2013):124-125.
- Meredith C. McGee,[www.meredithetc.biz/downloads/James%20Meredith's%20Biography.rtf "James Meredith's Biography"].
- Meredith Coleman McGee, James Meredith: Warrior and the America That Created Him (ABC-CLIO, 2013):174.
- "James Meredith, Central Figure In Ole Miss Integration, Reflects On 50th Anniversary, Resents 'Civil Rights' Moniker (PHOTOS,)". Huffington Post. 2012-10-01.
- Meredith, James (1966). Three Years in Mississippi. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. This book is readily available in the used book market and libraries.
- Meredith, James (1995). Mississippi: A Volume of Eleven Books. Jackson, MS: Meredith Publishing.
- Bryant, Nick (Autumn 2006). "Black Man Who Was Crazy Enough to Apply to Ole Miss". The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (53): 60–71.
- Doyle, William (2001). An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-49969-8.
- Schlesinger, Jr., Arthur (2002) . Robert Kennedy and His Times. New York: First Mariner Books. ISBN 0-618-21928-5. This book is readily available.
- Stanton, Mary (2003). Freedom Walk: Mississippi or Bust. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 1-57806-505-4.
- Hendrickson, Paul (2003). Sons of Mississippi. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-375-40461-9. Contains revealing interviews with Meredith conducted by the author.
- Eagles, Charles W. (2009). The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-3273-1.
- Lyon, Harold C (1974). It's Me & I'm Here! New York: Delacorte
- McGee, Meredith Coleman. James Meredith: Warrior and the America That Created Him. ABC-CLIO, 2013.
- University of Mississippi biography (Archive)
- James Meredith Collection (MUM00293), University of Mississippi, Archives and Special Collections.]
- James Meredith Small Manuscripts (MUM00594), University of Mississippi.]
- "Mississippi and Meredith remember", 30 September 2002, CNN
- Associated Press: "Meredith ready to move on"
- "The Integration of the University of Mississippi", U.S. Marshals Service
- "On this day in History: 1 October 1962", BBC
- Facsimiles of letters to the Justice Department and Thurgood Marshall, Kennedy Library
- James Meredith's oral history video excerpts, The National Visionary Leadership Project
- James Meredith's website