James Meredith

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For other people named James Meredith, see James Meredith (disambiguation).
James Meredith
James Meredith.jpg
James Meredith in 1962
Born (1933-06-25) June 25, 1933 (age 81)
Kosciusko, Mississippi
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,[1] 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.[2] His goal was to put pressure on the Kennedy administration to enforce civil rights for African Americans.[2]

Early life and education

Meredith was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, of Choctaw and African-American heritage. His recent biography titled "James Meredith: Warrior and the America that created him" was written by his niece, Meredith Coleman McGee, who refers to his racial identity as "a Negro of Choctaw descent" with extensive genealogical material in the appendix.[3] 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. The subject's family nickname was "J-Boy".[4]

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...[5] 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.[6] 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 for the Southern District of Mississippi, 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.[7] 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.

On September 13, 1962, the District Court entered its injunction directing the members of the Board of Trustees and the officials of the University to register Meredith.[8] Meanwhile, the Mississippi Legislature had adopted an emergency measure in an attempt to prevent Meredith from attending the University, but, on September 20, upon the Government's application, the enforcement of this Act was enjoined, along with two state court decrees barring Meredith's registration.[8] Also on September 20, Meredith was rebuffed in his efforts to gain admission.[8] 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 of his recalcitrance, unless he complied by October 2.[8] On September 29, Lieutenant Governor Johnson was found in contempt by a panel of the court, and a similar order was entered with a fine of $5,000 a day.[8] 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.[9][8]

The US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had a series of phone calls with Governor Barnett between September 28 or 29 to October 1.[10][11] 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.[12] Some white students and segregationists, many who had driven in for the event, protested his enrollment by rioting on the Oxford campus.[13]

US Army trucks loaded with steel-helmeted US Marshals roll across the University of Mississippi campus on October 3, 1962.

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 troops from the 2nd Infantry Division from Ft. Benning, GA under the command of Maj. Gen Charles Billingslea and military police from the 503rd Military Police Battalion, and called in troops from the Mississippi Army National Guard.[13] Gen. Bllingslea's staff car was mobbed and set on fire at the entrance to the university gate. General Billingslea, the Deputy Commanding General, John Corley, and aide, Capt Harold Lyon, were trapped inside the burning car but managed to force the car door open and had to crawl 200 yards into the gate to the University Lyceum Building while someone was shooting at them and continued to shoot the windows out, though the Army never returned fire. 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 himself, confirming the secret codes.

In the violent clash, two people died, including the French journalist Paul Guihard,[7] 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.[7][14] 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.[15]

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.[citation needed]

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 controversial former Georgia state flag. In response, he 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."[1]

Education and activism

Meredith continued his education, focusing on political science, at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.[citation needed] 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.[16] Jack R. Thornell's post-shooting photograph of Meredith on the ground won the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in 1967.[17][18] Meredith recovered from his wound and rejoined the march before it reached Jackson. During his march, 4,000 black Mississippians registered to vote.[19]

Political career

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.[20] 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.[21]

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.[22] Meredith conceded that he had little chance of winning unless Governor George Wallace of Alabama entered the presidential race and split the white vote.[20]

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.[23]

Statue of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi

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."[23]

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."[23] That year he was far more proud that his son Joseph Meredith graduated as the top doctoral student at the university's business school.[23]

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.[citation needed]

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. [24]

Political viewpoint

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."[23][25]

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."[26]


Marriage and family

James Meredith in 2007

On March 14, 1956, two and a half months after they met, Meredith married Mary June Wiggins Meredith,[27] later a High School English teacher, who died of heart failure in December 1979.[28][29] They had three sons, James, John and Joseph Howard Meredith, and one daughter, Jessica Meredith Knight. In 1982 Meredith married Judy Alsobrooks in Gary, Indiana.[30][31] They had two children: Kemp Naylor and Jessica Howard Meredith.[32]

James Meredith currently lives in Jackson, Mississippi,[33] with his second wife, Judy Alsobrook Meredith.

See also


  1. ^ a b Dave, Paresh (February 18, 2014). "James Meredith talks about vandals". The Los Angeles Times. 
  2. ^ a b Bryant 2006, p. 60.
  3. ^ Meredith Coleman McGee. (2013) James Meredith: Warrior and the America that created him. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. p. 133 & "Family Tree of James Howard Meredith" Appendix. ISBN 978-0-313-39739-4
  4. ^ Ibid, p. 15.
  5. ^ Schlesinger 2002, p. 317.
  6. ^ "James Meredith". Spartacus Educational. Retrieved 2007-10-02. 
  7. ^ a b c "The States: Though the Heavens Fall". TIME. 1962-10-12. Retrieved 2007-10-03. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f United States v. Barnett, 376 U.S. 681 (1964)
  9. ^ 76 Stat. 1506
  10. ^ Schlesinger 2002, p. 318.
  11. ^ "Days of Confrontation: Telephone Conversations". John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. 
  12. ^ "1962: Mississippi race riots over first black student". BBC News - On this day. 1962-10-01. Retrieved 2007-10-02. 
  13. ^ a b Schlesinger 2002, pp. 319-322.
  14. ^ Farber, David and Beth Bailey. The Columbia Guide to America in the 1960s. 
  15. ^ Leslie M. Alexander; Walter C. Rucker (2010). Encyclopedia of African American History, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO. p. 890. 
  16. ^ "6 June 1966: Black civil rights activist shot". BBC News - On this day. 1966-06-06. Retrieved 2007-10-02. 
  17. ^ "The Pulitzer Prize Winners - 1967". The Pulitzer Board. Retrieved 2008-09-29. 
  18. ^ "James Meredith", Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, 1966-1968, photos, Seattle Times, 2008
  19. ^ "Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Movement". pbs.org. Retrieved 2011-10-18. 
  20. ^ a b "Meredith Makes Bid For U.S. Senate in Mississippi". Jet. March 2, 1972. 
  21. ^ Haygood, Wil (2006). The King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. HarperCollins. p. 363. 
  22. ^ Nash, Jere; Andy Taggart and John Grisham (2009). Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976-2008. University Press of Mississippi. p. 51. 
  23. ^ a b c d e Shelia Hardwell Byrd (21 September 2002). "Meredith ready to move on". Associated Press, at Athens Banner-Herald (OnlineAthens). Retrieved 2007-10-02. 
  24. ^ Anderson, Jill. "James Meredith to Speak at Convocation". Harvard Ed School. Retrieved May 2012. 
  25. ^ Christine Gibson (June 6, 2006). "A Shooting—And the Civil Rights Movement Changes Course". American Heritage. Archived from the original on 2009-01-09. 
  26. ^ "Mississippi and Meredith remember". CNN. 2002-09-29. Retrieved 2007-10-02. 
  27. ^ Meredith Coleman McGee, James Meredith: Warrior and the America That Created Him (ABC-CLIO, 2013):125.
  28. ^ Michael T. Johnson, "Of Dr. King and Mrs. Meredith: A Tribute in Honor of Dr. King", (January 16, 2012).
  29. ^ Meredith C. McGee, [www.meredithetc.biz/downloads/James%20Meredith's%20Biography.rtf "James Meredith's Biography"].
  30. ^ Meredith Coleman McGee, James Meredith: Warrior and the America That Created Him (ABC-CLIO, 2013):124-125.
  31. ^ Meredith C. McGee,[www.meredithetc.biz/downloads/James%20Meredith's%20Biography.rtf "James Meredith's Biography"].
  32. ^ Meredith Coleman McGee, James Meredith: Warrior and the America That Created Him (ABC-CLIO, 2013):174.
  33. ^ "James Meredith, Central Figure In Ole Miss Integration, Reflects On 50th Anniversary, Resents 'Civil Rights' Moniker (PHOTOS) Huffington Post , August 24, 1989". 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. 

Further reading

  • 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) [1978]. 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.
  • Rogers, Carl R, Lyon, Harold C, Tausch, Reinhard: (2013) On Becoming an Effective Teacher - Person-centered Teaching, Psychology, Philosophy, and Dialogues with Carl R. Rogers and Harold Lyon. London: Routledge ISBN 978-0-415-81698-4

External links