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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 James Howard Meredith
(1933-06-25) June 25, 1933 (age 82)
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, writer, political adviser and Air Force veteran. In 1962, he became the first African-American student admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi,[1] after the intervention of the federal government, 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.[2] His goal was to put pressure on the Kennedy administration to enforce civil rights for African Americans.[2]

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 after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 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 Meredith was recovering, more people from across the country became involved as marchers. He rejoined the march and when Meredith and other leaders entered Jackson on June 26, they were leading an estimated 15,000 marchers, 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, the son of Roxie (Smith) and Moses Meredith.[3] He is of African-American, British Canadian, Scots and Choctaw heritage.[4] His family nickname was "J-Boy".[4] European traders intermarried with some Choctaw during the colonial period. In the 1830s, thousands of Choctaw chose 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. Those in the state had unions with European Americans and African Americans (some of whom were enslaved), adding to the multi-racial population in the developing territory.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Afterward Meredith attended Jackson State University for two years, achieving good grades.

Challenge to University of Mississippi

In 1961, inspired the day before by President John F. Kennedy, he started to apply to the University of Mississippi, intending to insist on his civil rights to attend the state-funded university.[5] It still admitted only white students under the state's culture of racial segregation, although the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional, as they are supported by all the taxpayers.

Meredith wrote in his application that he wanted admission for his country, race, family, and himself. He said,

Nobody handpicked me...I believed, and believe now, that I have a Divine Responsibility...[6] 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 twice denied admission.[7] During this time, he was advised by Medgar Evers, 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 of military service and academic courses. The case went through many hearings, after which the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that Meredith had the right to be admitted to the state school. The state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which supported the ruling of the appeals court.[8]

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.[9] The Democratic Governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, declared "no school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your governor". The state legislature quickly passed a law that denied admission to any person “who has a crime of moral turpitude against him” or who had been convicted of any felony offense or not pardoned. The law was directed at Meredith, who was accused and convicted of “false voter registration” in Jackson County.[5]

On September 20, the federal government gained an enjoinment against enforcement of this Act, and of two state court decrees barring Meredith's registration.[9] That day Meredith was rebuffed again by Governor Barnett in his efforts to gain admission, though university officials were prepared to admit him.[9] 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.[9] 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.[9]

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

The US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had a series of phone calls with Governor Barnett between September 27 to October 1.[10][11][12] Barnett reluctantly agreed to let Meredith enroll in the university, but secretly bargained with Kennedy on a plan which would allow him to save face.

Barnett committed to maintain civil order. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered 500 U.S. Marshals to accompany Meredith during his arrival and registration. On September 29, 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 and 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.[13][14][9]

Rioting at the University

Main article: Ole Miss riot of 1962

On the evening of September 29, after State Senator George Yarbrough withdrew the State Highway Police, a riot broke out. Whites opposing integration had been gathering at the campus. Despite the Kennedy administration's reluctance to use force, it ordered the nationalized Mississippi National Guard and federal troops to the campus. In the violent clashes which followed, two men were killed by gunshot wounds, and the white mob burned cars, pelted federal marshals with rocks, bricks and small arms fire, and damaged university property.

The next day on October 1, 1962, after troops took control, Meredith became the first African-American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi.[15] Meredith's admission 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.[16]

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,[clarification needed] the students would immediately get up and go to another table.[citation needed]

African-American students at University of Mississippi

In the next two years, additional African-American students enrolled at the university. In early June 1963, Cleve McDowell enrolled in the law school and became the 2nd black student to attend the University of Mississippi. He was Meredith's roommate. After Meredith finished classes in July, the federal marshals left campus. McDowell was concerned for his safety, and asked for permission to carry a concealed weapon, but it was denied. He carried one anyway, and when it was discovered, he was expelled.[17] He completed his law degree and became a civil rights lawyer and public defender in Mississippi. McDowell was shot and killed in 1997; a 19-year-old client was charged in his death.[18]

Cleveland Donald Jr. enrolled at the University in 1964, under a federal protection order. He graduated with a history degree in 1966, becoming the second black graduate. After serving as a professor at universities, in 1978 he returned as an academic to help establish a black studies program at "Ole Miss" (as the University of Mississippi is colloquially known).[19]

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.

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 racial 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, which authorized federal oversight and 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; he pleaded guilty at trial. Meredith was quickly taken to a hospital.[20][21] 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, when 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.[22] Black voters in Mississippi have established a high rate of voter registration and voting participation.

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., a multi-term Democrat, in a special election for the Congressional seat in Harlem. He withdrew from the race and Powell was re-elected.[23] Meredith said later of his campaign, "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.[24]

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 in what had operated as a one-party state. Following provisions of a new state constitution in 1890 that made voter registration extremely difficult, African Americans had been effectively disenfranchised and the Republican Party had been crippled.[25] Meredith conceded that he had little chance of winning unless Governor George Wallace of Alabama entered the presidential race and split the white vote.[23]

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.[26]

Statue of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi, installed in 2002 for 40th anniversary of his admission

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.[26]

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."[26] 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.[26]

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. Meredith, a 29-year-old veteran when he entered the university, had to be accompanied at the time by armed military personnel to secure his safety.[citation needed]

Legacy and honors

  • In 2002 the University of Mississippi honored the 40th anniversary of Meredith's admission with numerous events. A bust of him was installed on campus in his honor.
  • In 2012 the University commemorated the 50th anniversary of the historic admission, featuring a range of speakers, artists, lectures and events during the year.
  • That year Meredith received the Harvard Graduate School of Education 'Medal for Education Impact' and was the school's convocation speaker. Meredith said it was the first award in 50 years he had accepted.[27]

Cultural depictions

In 2011 miniseries The Kennedys he was portrayed by Matthew G. Brown in episode five of the series, Life Sentences.

Political viewpoint

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."[26][28]

Controversially, James Meredith was a supporter of the unsuccessful 1967 gubernatorial bid of ex-Mississippi Governor (and avowed segregationist) Ross Barnett, as well as the 1991 gubernatorial campaign of Louisiana State Representative and ex-Klansman David Duke.[29]

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."[30]


Marriage and family

James Meredith in 2007

On March 14, 1956, two and a half months after they met, Meredith married Mary June Wiggins.[31] She later worked as a high school English teacher.[32][33] They had three sons, James, John and Joseph Howard Meredith. Mary June Meredith died of heart failure in December 1979.

In 1982 Meredith married Judy Alsobrooks in Gary, Indiana.[34][35] They had two children: Kemp Naylor and Jessica Howard Meredith.[36] The couple live in Jackson, Mississippi.[37]

See also


  1. ^ Dave, Paresh (February 18, 2014). "James Meredith talks about vandals". The Los Angeles Times. 
  2. ^ a b Bryant 2006, p. 60.
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ a b 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"
  5. ^ a b Kelley Anne Donovan (2002). "James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss" (PDF). Chrestomathy: Annual Review of Undergraduate Research at the College of Charleston (Volume 1). pp. 24–3. Retrieved 2015-03-22. 
  6. ^ Schlesinger 2002, p. 317.
  7. ^ "James Meredith". Spartacus Educational. Retrieved 2007-10-02. 
  8. ^ "The States: Though the Heavens Fall". TIME. 1962-10-12. Retrieved 2007-10-03. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f United States v. Barnett, 376 U.S. 681 (1964)
  10. ^ Branch 1988, pp. 650–69.
  11. ^ Schlesinger 2002, p. 318.
  12. ^ "Days of Confrontation: Telephone Conversations". John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. 
  13. ^ 76 Stat. 1506
  14. ^ Branch 1988, p. 659.
  15. ^ "1962: Mississippi race riots over first black student". BBC News – On this day. 1962-10-01. Retrieved 2007-10-02. 
  16. ^ Leslie M. Alexander; Walter C. Rucker (2010). Encyclopedia of African American History, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO. p. 890. 
  17. ^ "The Black Students Who Followed in the Footsteps of James Meredith at Ole Miss – ProQuest". The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 66. 2009. pp. 58–63. Retrieved 2015-05-26. 
  18. ^ "Cleve McDowell, Second Black Student to Attend Ole Miss, Found Shot to Death; Client Charged". Jet – Google Books. 1997-03-31. Retrieved 2015-05-26. 
  19. ^ "Cleveland Donald Jr., 2nd Black Graduate Of University Of Mississippi Dies". Huffington Post. 2012-02-01. Retrieved 2015-05-26. 
  20. ^ "6 June 1966: Black civil rights activist shot". BBC News – On this day. 1966-06-06. Retrieved 2007-10-02. 
  21. ^ "James Meredith", Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, 1966-1968, photos, Seattle Times, 2008
  22. ^ "Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Movement". Retrieved 2011-10-18. 
  23. ^ a b "Meredith Makes Bid For U.S. Senate in Mississippi". Jet. March 2, 1972. 
  24. ^ Haygood, Wil (2006). The King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. HarperCollins. p. 363. 
  25. ^ Nash, Jere; Andy Taggart and John Grisham (2009). Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976–2008. University Press of Mississippi. p. 51. 
  26. ^ a b c d e Hardwell Byrd, Shelia (21 September 2002). "Meredith ready to move on". Associated Press, at Athens Banner-Herald (OnlineAthens). Retrieved 2007-10-02. 
  27. ^ Anderson, Jill. "James Meredith to Speak at Convocation". Harvard Ed School. Retrieved May 2012. 
  28. ^ Christine Gibson (June 6, 2006). "A Shooting – And the Civil Rights Movement Changes Course". American Heritage. Archived from the original on 2009-01-09. 
  29. ^ [ James Meredith, still a loner, still on a mission, 50 years later], by Joe Atkins (Facing South, the journal of the Institute for Southern Studies, October 1st, 2010 - retrieved on November 21st, 2015).
  30. ^ "Mississippi and Meredith remember". CNN. 2002-09-29. Retrieved 2007-10-02. 
  31. ^ Meredith Coleman McGee, James Meredith: Warrior and the America That Created Him (ABC-CLIO, 2013):125.
  32. ^ Michael T. Johnson, "Of Dr. King and Mrs. Meredith: A Tribute in Honor of Dr. King", (January 16, 2012).
  33. ^ Meredith C. McGee, ['s%20Biography.rtf "James Meredith's Biography"].
  34. ^ Meredith Coleman McGee, James Meredith: Warrior and the America That Created Him (ABC-CLIO, 2013):124–25.
  35. ^ Meredith C. McGee,['s%20Biography.rtf "James Meredith's Biography"].
  36. ^ Meredith Coleman McGee, James Meredith: Warrior and the America That Created Him (ABC-CLIO, 2013):174.
  37. ^ "James Meredith, Central Figure In Ole Miss Integration, Reflects On 50th Anniversary, Resents 'Civil Rights' Moniker (PHOTOS,)". Huffington Post. 2012-10-01. 


  • Branch, Taylor (1988). Parting the Waters : America in the King Years, 1954-63. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-68742-7. 
  • 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. 
  • Goudsouzian, Aram (2014). Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
  • 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.

External links