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Thursday, September 20, 2012

First black at the University of Mississippi.

James Meredith

James H. Meredith (born June 25, 1933) is an American civil rights movement figure. He was the first African American student at the University of Mississippi, an event that was a flashpoint in the American civil rights movement. Motivated by the broadcast of
President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address (which did not mention civil rights per se) Meredith decided to apply his democratic rights and then made the ultimate decision to apply to the University of Mississippi. Meredith's goal was to put pressure on the Kennedy administration as to the issue.

Entrance to the University of Mississippi

Meredith was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi of Native American (Choctaw) and Black American heritage. He enlisted in the United States Air Force immediately after high school and served from 1951 to 1960. He attended Jackson State College for two years[citation needed], then applied to the University of Mississippi, saying that he wanted to make this move in the interest of his country, race, family, and himself. Meredith stated, "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." However, even after all the trouble he went through he was denied twice. On May 31, 1961, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a suit in the U.S. District Court alleging that the color of his skin was the only reason for Meredith not being accepted into the university. The case went through many hearings and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled that he had the right to be admitted. Though Meredith was now allowed to register to the school, the Governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, attempted to block his entrance, passing a law that “prohibited any person who was convicted of a state crime from admission to a state school.” This law was directed at Meredith, who had been convicted of “false voter registration.”

A deal was finally reached between the Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Governor Barnett and Meredith was allowed to attend the university. On October 1, 1962, he became the first black student at the University of Mississippi, after being barred from entering on September 20. His enrollment sparked riots on the Oxford campus, and required enforcement by U.S. Marshals. They were supported by the 70th Army Engineer Combat Battalion from Ft Campbell, Kentucky, who created a tent camp and kitchen for the US Marshalls. Thereafter, (federal) U.S. Army military police from the 503rd Military Police Battalion were sent in by President John F. Kennedy. Troops from Mississippi Army National Guard and U.S. Border Patrol were also called in, as well. The riots led to a violent clash which left two people dead, including French journalist Paul Guihard, on assignment for the London Daily Sketch, who was found behind the Lyceum building with a gunshot wound to the back. 160 soldiers were injured, and 28 U.S. Marshals were wounded by gunfire. Barnett was fined $10,000 and sentenced to jail for contempt, but the charges were later dismissed by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Bob Dylan sang about the incident in his song "Oxford Town". Meredith's actions are 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. Though the majority of students accepted Meredith's presence, according to first person accounts chronicled in Nadine Cohodas's book The Band Played Dixie, students living in Meredith's dorm bounced basketballs on the floor just above his room through all hours of the night. When Meredith walked into the cafeteria for meals, the students eating would all 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.

After graduation

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. There Meredith received an LL.B (law degree) in 1968. Meredith ceased being a civil rights activist in the late 1960s.

He organized and led a civil rights march, the March Against Fear from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi on June 6, 1966. This was Meredith's attempt to draw people's attention to black voting rights in the South and to help blacks overcome fear of violence. During this march he was shot by Aubrey James Norvell, who attempted to assassinate Meredith. The photograph of Meredith after being shot won the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in 1967. J. B. Lenoir sings about this incident in the song "Shot on James Meredith".

As an author Meredith wrote a memoir of his days at the University of Mississippi entitled Three Years in Mississippi, published by the Indiana University Press in 1966, and also self-published several books. He was an active Republican and served for several years as a domestic advisor on the staff of United States Senator Jesse Helms. Faced with harsh criticism from the civil rights community, Meredith said that he wrote every member of the Senate and House offering his services to them in order to gain access to the Library of Congress, and that only Helms replied.

Meredith made several attempts to be elected to Congress as a Republican. He became increasingly conservative in later life.

In 2002, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his desegregation of the University of Mississippi, at the age of 69, Meredith was the proprietor of a small used car lot in Jackson, Mississippi. On the celebration activities surrounding the anniversary he said, "It was an embarrassment for me to be there, and for somebody to celebrate it, oh my God." Around this same time, Meredith was the special guest speaker for a seminar at Mississippi State University. Among other topics, Meredith spoke of his experiences at the school. During a question and answer session, a young white male in attendance stood up and asked Meredith if he had participated in a formal Rush program during his historic tenure at the University of Mississippi. 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. The audience found humor in Meredith's dismissal of the idea that he, who was accompanied by armed military personnel in order to safely attend the university, would be either allowed to or interested in gaining membership into a fraternity at that time.

Anti-Civil Rights stance

Meredith has characterized himself as an individual American citizen who demanded and received the rights properly extended to any American, not as a participant in the U.S. civil rights movement. There is considerable enmity between Meredith and the organized Civil Rights Movement. Meredith once said that "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 an interview for CNN, Meredith stated, "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".

After all of his historic work through Ole Miss, more awareness was brought to him when the film Ghosts of Mississippi came out in 1996. The film portrayed the life of Medgar Evers who was Meredith's advisor in the whole integration of Ole Miss.

Personal life

James Meredith in 2007

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.

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 left behind a daughter, Jasmine Victoria.

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


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