James Meredith in 1962
|Born||James Howard Meredith
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 a 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, after the intervention of the federal government, an event that was a flashpoint in the 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. His goal was to put pressure on the Kennedy administration to enforce civil rights for African Americans.
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.
Meredith was born in 1933 in Kosciusko, Mississippi, the son of Roxie (Smith) and Moses Meredith. He is of African-American, British Canadian, Scots and Choctaw heritage. His family nickname was "J-Boy". 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.
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.
Afterward Meredith attended Jackson State University for two years, achieving good grades.
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. 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... 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. 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.
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. 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.
On September 20, the federal government gained an enjoinment against enforcement of this Act and of the two state court decrees that had barred Meredith's registration. That day Meredith was rebuffed again by Governor Barnett in his efforts to gain admission, though university officials were prepared to admit him. 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. 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.
The US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had a series of phone calls with Governor Barnett between September 27 to October 1. 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.
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. 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.
Many students harassed Meredith during his two semesters on campus, but others accepted him. According to first-person accounts, 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.
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. 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.
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).
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.
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. 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. Black voters in Mississippi have established a high rate of voter registration and voting participation.
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. 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.
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. 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 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.
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.
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." 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.
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.
In 2011 miniseries The Kennedys he was portrayed by Matthew G. Brown in episode five of the series, Life Sentences.
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 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."
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.
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."
On March 14, 1956, two and a half months after they met, Meredith married Mary June Wiggins. She later worked as a high school English teacher. They had three sons, James, John and Joseph Howard Meredith. Mary June Meredith died of heart failure in December 1979.