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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, a writer, and a political adviser. In 1962, he was the first African American student admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi, an event that was a flashpoint in the American civil rights movement. Motivated 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.
Early life and education
Meredith was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi of Choctaw and African American heritage. Thousands of Choctaw had stayed in Mississippi when most of the people left their traditional homeland for Indian Territory in the removal of the 1830s.
After attending local segregated schools and graduating from high school, Meredith enlisted in the United States Air Force. He served from 1951 to 1960.
He attended Jackson State University for two years, then applied to the University of Mississippi which, under the state's legally imposed racial segregation, had traditionally accepted only white students. In Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the US Supreme Court ruled that publicly supported schools had to be desegregated.
University of Mississippi
Meredith wrote that he wanted admission for his country, race, family, and himself. Meredith said, "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.
On May 31, 1961, Meredith with backing of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed suit in the U.S. District Court, alleging that the university had rejected Meredith only because of the color of his skin, as he had a highly successful record. The case went through many hearings and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court, which 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 been convicted of “false voter registration.” Since passage of its 1890 constitution, the state had voter registration rules that effectively disfranchised black voters.
The US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had a series of phone calls with Governor Barnett. Barnett reluctantly agreed to let Meredith enroll in the university. After being barred from entering on September 20, on October 1, 1962, he became the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi. White students and anti-desegregation supporters, many who had driven in for the event, protested his enrollment by rioting on the Oxford campus.
Robert Kennedy called in 500 U.S. Marshals to take control, who were supported by the 70th Army Engineer Combat Battalion from Ft Campbell, Kentucky. They created a tent camp and kitchen for the US Marshals. To bolster law enforcement, President John F. Kennedy sent in U.S. Army military police from the 503rd Military Police Battalion, and called in troops from the Mississippi Army National Guard. In the violent clash, two people died, 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 hundred-sixty US Marshals, one-third of the group, 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 graduated 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.
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.
During this time, Meredith organized and led a civil rights march, the March Against Fear from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi beginning on June 6, 1966. This was his public effort to encourage blacks to register and vote after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which promised federal enforcement of rights. He hoped to help blacks overcome fear of violence at the polls. During this march he was shot by Aubrey James Norvell. Jack R. Thornell's post-shooting photograph of Meredith on the ground won the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in 1967. Meredith recovered from his wound and rejoined the march before it reached Jackson. During his march, 4,000 black Mississippians registered to vote.
In 1967 while living and studying in New York, Meredith decided to run as a Republican against the incumbent Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. 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. 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 1989-1991 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 marked the 40th anniversary of Meredith's historic admission to the University of Mississippi 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." That year he was far more proud that his son Joseph Meredith graduated as the top doctoral student at the university's 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 as a 29-year-old veteran, he had to be accompanied by armed military personnel to secure his safety at that time.
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 representatives 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 also self-published several books.
Marriage and family
Meredith was married to Mary June Wiggins Meredith, now deceased. They had one daughter, Jessica Meredith Knight, and three sons: James, John and Joseph Howard Meredith.
In 1989, the junior James Meredith (then 20) was sentenced to one year's house arrest for his role in a 1987 car crash, in which two of his co-workers were killed and he suffered serious injuries.
John Meredith is the founder of the Meredith Advocacy Group, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy firm.
In 2002, Joseph Meredith graduated from the University of Mississippi as the most outstanding doctoral student in the School of Business Administration. Joseph had previously earned degrees from Harvard University and Millsaps College. James Meredith said of the occasion, "I think there's no better proof that white supremacy was wrong than not only to have my son graduate, but to graduate as the most outstanding graduate of the school...That, I think, vindicates my whole life." Joseph Meredith died in 2008 at age 39 of complications from lupus. At the time of his death, he was an assistant professor of finance at Texas A&M International University. He was survived by his wife and a daughter, Jasmine Victoria.
- Bryant 2006, p. 60.
- 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.
- Schlesinger 2002, p. 318.
- "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.
- Schlesinger 2002, pp. 319-324.
- 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.
- "The Pulitzer Prize Winners - 1967". The Pulitzer Board. Retrieved 2008-09-29.
- "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.
- 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.
- "Boston Globe, August 24, 1989".
- "Meredith Advocacy Group".
- "James Meredith returns to see son take top honors at Ole Miss - noteworthy news - University of Mississippi Brief Article". Black Issues in Higher Education. 2002. Retrieved 2007-12-01.
- "Son of James Meredith dies from complications of lupus". Star Herald.
- "James Meredith, Central Figure In Ole Miss Integration, Reflects On 50th Anniversary, Resents 'Civil Rights' Moniker (PHOTOS) Huffington Post , August 24, 1989". Huffington Post.
- 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.
- University of Mississippi biography (Archive)
- James Meredith Collection (MUM00293) can be found at the University of Mississippi, Archives and Special Collections.
- James Meredith Small Manuscripts (MUM00594) can be found also at the University of Mississippi.
- CNN: "Mississippi and Meredith remember"
- Associated Press: "Meredith ready to move on"
- U.S. Marshals Service and the Integration of the University of Mississippi
- BBC On this day in History 1 October 1962
- Facsimiles of letters to the Justice Department and Thurgood Marshall from the Kennedy library
- James Meredith's oral history video excerpts at The National Visionary Leadership Project
- James Meredith's website