James Howard Meredith
CIVIL RIGHTS pioneer and activist James Howard Meredith put his life at risk by being the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi in 1962. After the state repeatedly blocked his attempts to register at the university, a legal battle waged by Meredith and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) achieved a landmark victory for INTEGRATION. When violence erupted on the day that Meredith enrolled, President JOHN F. KENNEDY sent several thousand U.S. Army troops to the campus to quell bloody rioting.Armed federal marshals protected Meredith in every classroom until he graduated in 1963. In 1966, the James Meredith March against Fear united traditional and radical civil rights leaders in a voter-registration march across Mississippi. Meredith was shot, but he recovered and joined MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., and others in a month-long demonstration that marked a turning point in the civil rights struggle. In later years, Meredith, who had always maintained independence from the inheritors of the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, became one of their sharpest critics.
Meredith was born June 25, 1933, in Kosciusko, Mississippi. He was one of ten children of Roxy Patterson Meredith and Moses Cap, a poor farmer in Kosciusko. As a young child, Meredith became aware of racism. He would refuse the nickels and dimes that a local white man regularly gave to black children, calling the gifts degrading. More painful was the realization he made as a young man on a trip to visit relatives in Detroit, where he saw blacks and whites sharing the same public facilities. He rode the train home from this brush with integration, and when he arrived in Memphis, the conductor told him to leave the whites-only car. "I cried all the way home," Meredith later recalled, "and vowed to devote myself to changing the degrading conditions of black people." He also had other ambitions and goals. Ever since a childhood visit to a white doctor's office, he had harbored a dream of attending the University of Mississippi, the physician's alma mater.
After high school, in 1951, Meredith joined the U.S. Air Force. He rose to the rank of staff sergeant, earned credits toward a college degree,
and served in the KOREAN WAR. Following his discharge in 1960, he attended the all-black Jackson State College, but the courses he wanted to take were offered only at the state university. As a 28-year-old, he followed with hopefulness the speeches of President John F. Kennedy, which promised greater enjoyment of opportunity for all U.S. citizens. Change was in the air, and many African Americans were heartened by the portents in Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address. On the same day that Kennedy became president, Meredith applied for admission to the University of Mississippi.
The school turned down his application. Mississippi still practiced SEGREGATION, and
that meant that no African Americans could attend the all-white university. Even seven years after BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), southern states resisted complying with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that compulsory segregation was unconstitutional. Knowing that he had a constitutional right that the state refused to recognize, Meredith turned to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. This arm of the civil rights organization, accustomed to fighting segregation cases, extended help to him. Meredith and his attorneys fought some 30 court actions against the state.
At last, a federal court ruled that a qualified student could not be denied admission on the ground of race. Meredith had won, but the court order infuriated segregationists. Playing to popular sentiment, Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett promised to stop Meredith. Barnett pressured the state legislature to give him authority over university admissions, a power that usually was exercised by the state college board.
As Meredith's enrollment date, September 20, 1962, approached, Meredith received death threats; Barnett continued to promise to prevent his enrollment; and segregationists spread the word to be at "Ole Miss" to save it from integration. On the day that Meredith arrived to register, white students massed around a Confederate flag chanting anti-integration slogans. Barnett stood blocking the door to the admissions office. A university official read a proclamation naming Barnett as acting registrar, by order of the university's board of trustees, and a satisfied Barnett told Meredith that his application was denied.
The governor's action was purportedly good politics in his home state. Across the South, leaders such as Alabama Governor GEORGE WALLACE were prospering politically by staging similar acts of defiance. However, Barnett's refusal to let Meredith in was a serious problem for Washington, D.C. It represented a challenge to the authority of the federal courts, and in a short time, the JUSTICE DEPARTMENT entered the dispute. Attorney General ROBERT F. KENNEDY confronted Barnett, demanding assurances that Meredith's next attempt to register would be successful and that the student would be protected. Barnett gave none. He replied that the situation was beyond his control. Where civil rights were concerned, the young attorney general was quickly learning that only federal intervention could bring the southern states under the mandate of the courts. He sent 500 federal marshals to the University of Mississippi campus with strict orders: They were to protect Meredith, but not to shoot anyone. Only tear gas and clubs were to be used for their own defense.
On September 30, Meredith arrived at Ole Miss to try to enroll for a second time. Protected by the marshals, he finally registered, and then took refuge in his dormitory. Students and outsiders gathered in front of the school's administration building, known as the Lyceum. The angry mob began throwing rocks at the outnumbered marshals, who were soon besieged by thousands of new protesters streaming onto the campus. A vicious riot erupted, with the armed agitators firing shots and hurling rocks, bricks, bottles, flaming gas, and acid. By late evening on the day Meredith registered, a French journalist and an onlooker were dead. More than 160 marshals were wounded; the rest were exhausted, and their tear gas supply was running out. Reluctantly, Kennedy dispatched 5,000 Army troops to Ole Miss; their numbers were finally enough to disperse the mob and to regain control of the battered campus.
Meredith attended classes under armed guard, but persevered, graduating in August 1963. By the summer of 1966, Meredith was enrolled at Columbia University School of Law, but he interrupted his studies to launch a bold personal demonstration for civil rights. Meredith announced plans to march across the state of Mississippi, covering the 220 miles from Memphis to Jackson in 16 days. The James Meredith March against Fear would show African Americans that they could safely assert their right to vote, despite years of legal obstruction, harassment, and murder. As he had done at Ole Miss, Meredith ignored several death threats, proclaiming that he would survive his long march along the state's back roads.
On June 5, 1966, Meredith set out from Memphis with an ebony walking stick that an African chieftain had given him. When he crossed into Mississippi the following morning, he was ambushed and shot; remarkably, he survived. His assailant, an unemployed member of the KU KLUX KLAN, pleaded guilty and received a five-year prison sentence (of which three years were suspended). While Meredith recovered in his hospital bed, he was visited by the leaders of major civil rights organizations. A group including STOKELY CARMICHAEL, of the STUDENT NON-VIOLENT COORDINATING COMMITTEE (SNCC), and Dr. King wanted to stage a protest. Meredith wanted to go on. He continued the march joined by other civil rights workers.
The marchers completed their journey by late June against often-violent opposition. It was a great symbolic victory for civil rights, but the movement itself had begun to factionalize. King and his supporters, who advocated peaceful resistance, were at odds with Carmichael's BLACK POWER MOVEMENT, which advocated violence if necessary to secure equal rights for African Americans.
Meredith returned to Columbia, completing his law degree in 1968. In the years that followed, Meredith embarked on a series of pursuits. He studied economics at a Nigerian university, established the African Development and Reunification Association, and worked as a consultant, financial planner, tree farmer, and educator.
In the 1980s, Meredith returned to the public eye, this time as a critic of integration, WELFARE, and AFFIRMATIVE ACTION, programs that he believed did more to hurt black people than to help them. He joined the staff of conservative senator JESSE HELMS and later supported former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke, whose welfare views he praised, in Duke's campaign for governor of Louisiana. He also took a series of walks that were reminiscent of his 1966 march, to promote his conservative vision. Meredith is the author of Three Years in Mississippi (1966).
Meredith published an historical work entitled Mississippi: A Volume of Eleven Books in 1995. In March 1997, the University of Mississippi's J.D. Williams Library accepted Meredith's donation of his personal papers, which are now housed in the library's Special Collections branch. In September 2002, Meredith was a participant in a forum sponsored by the Kennedy Library to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his admission to the University of Mississippi.