James Meredith Defeats Racism in Mississippi
By Sherwood Ross
The inscription on the life-sized bronze statue of James Meredith on the campus of the University of Mississippi at Oxford reads “courage,” “perseverance,” “opportunity,” and “knowledge.” Certainly those generalities apply to Meredith, the state’s unflinching African-American native son who on Monday, Oct. 1, 1962, acted on his “divine calling” to integrate “Ole Miss”---and who, against the heaviest odds, succeeded. Yet they hardly serve history as they fail to tell the story of the state’s virulent racism and of the extraordinary effort required on the part of Meredith to overcome it, even though he came armed with a U.S. Supreme Court decision to open the doors to him and was backed by the White House of President John Kennedy who deployed troops and U.S. marshals to put down rioting mobs congregating on the campus. To protect Meredith, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy dispatched 123 deputy federal marshals, 316 border guards and 97 federal prison guards, with orders not to shoot. At the height of the disorder, some 2,000 rioters attacked them hurling bottles, bricks, and Molotov cocktails and firing guns. The Federals replied with tear gas. Nearly 200 U.S. marshals and soldiers were wounded and two persons---a French journalist and an innocent bystander---were killed in the ensuing mele, sometimes referred to as “the last battle of the civil war.” The phrase was no fancy turn of speech. The marshals proved to be only the vanguard of the 31,000 troops and lawmen President Kennedy subsequently was obliged to deploy to Oxford to maintain order. This was nearly as many as the 35,000 bluecoats General Ulysses Grant initially committed to capture Vicksburg, Miss., a century earlier in one of the pivotal battles of the Civil War. Meredith won the right to attend Ole Miss after his lawsuit alleging racial discrimination had kept him out was determined on appeal in his favor in Sept., 1962, by the U.S. Supreme Court. The suit was filed in his behalf by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
“White militants, encouraged by (Gov. Ross) Barnett’s resistance and the inflammatory rhetoric of segregationist and states’ rights leaders, joined the violent students in launching bricks, bottles, and gunfire toward the marshals,” observes historian Charles Eagles of the University of Mississippi, looking back at those tumultuous days at Oxford. “After the military secured the campus early Monday morning (October 1, 1962), Meredith registered and attended his first classes, and a critical stage in the desegregation crisis passed,” Eagles explains. “In a major victory against white supremacy, he had inflicted a devastating blow to white massive resistance to the civil rights movement and had goaded the national government into using its overpowering force in support of the black freedom struggle.”
Eagles believes it is “unfortunate” that nowhere on the memorial to Meredith---which depicts him striding forward---does it say that he “was African-American or black or colored or Negro. In no way does it identify his race” and “the words are not the words associated with the civil rights movement.” The fact that the university could not bring itself to even outline the story with an ordinary plaque testifies to the same hesitancy about acknowledging an embarrassing past that the Turks display in dealing with their massacre of the Armenians during World War One or that the Japanese show in failing to reveal in their text books the atrocities their armed forces inflicted across Asia during World War Two. “You gotta understand,” Meredith said years later, “the state of Mississippi was in rebellion. It had rebelled against the United States. Now that has been a very difficult story for America to tell, but that’s what actually happened.”
That’s likely quite true as reflective Mississippians today are embarrassed not only by the armed resistance put up by defiant whites, many of whom were off-campus rowdies, but by the stentorian resistance of Governor Barnett, and by the continuing harassment Meredith endured at the hands of fellow classmates. White students not only would turn their backs on him when he entered the cafeteria but those in the dormitory room above him moved furniture around at night to keep him awake---even if it meant that they got no sleep themselves. Harassment took many forms: throwing rocks and bottles and water bombs and lit firecrackers at him. The ongoing assaults made what Jackie Robinson endured breaking the color line in organized baseball look like a Little League game. Meredith had to be accompanied by federal marshals at all times. The problem was compounded by the silent complicity of some racist university officials during the brief year and a half it required this outstanding black scholar to obtain his political science degree.
Meredith’s integration of Ole Miss was a momentous event. As instructor and journalist Curtis Wilkie there told the Associated Press, “Ole Miss was the most powerful institution in the state---no question. Once segregation fell at Ole Miss, it was almost like conquering the highest mountain. We owe a lot to him… It led to the integration of public schools, and after the Civil Rights Act, the integration of public accommodations.” Wilkie might have mentioned that when segregation was toppled in diehard Mississippi it broadcast a message to the rest of the Deep South that Jim Crow’s days were numbered.
Eagles portrays Meredith as a “gutsy guy,” one who, doing what he did in 1962 to gain admission, showed “phenomenal resolve and dedication and commitment. He didn’t give up when his 1961 application to study at Ole Miss was rejected. A weaker person might have continued his studies at segregated Jackson State but Meredith was anything but weak. He conducted himself as a soldier who had been assigned a difficult task, and he was going to see it to the end, Eagles said. Years later, Meredith told CNN News, “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.”
Eagles is the author of “The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss”(University of North Carolina Press). In an interview on “Books of Our Time,” Eagles told host Lawrence Velvel, dean of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, that Meredith was brought up by his parents to think that he should be treated equally and that in the eight years he spent in the U.S. Air Force after being graduated from high school he was treated equally. When the Air Force stationed him in Japan “he realized that he was not treated like a black person there; he was treated as a human being, as an American.”
Eagles believes the military did much to mature Meredith. “He went to school in the Air Force (and took)a lot of training programs, extension courses from colleges, and correspondence courses, and became a much more mature and thoughtful person,” Eagles said. “He was from the beginning, financially very responsible, very frugal, saving money, investing in land in Attala County when he was in the service, supporting his parents. He really did believe in his own responsibility for his own success. And he believed in the whole idea of bootstraps.” Eagles goes on to say that Meredith was in what W.E.B. DuBois dubbed the “Talented Tenth” (of top individuals) at the same time he was pulling himself up through self-improvement in the manner urged by Negro educator Booker T. Washington, the most prominent African-American leader of the 19th century. DuBois was the black sociologist who wrote prophetically in 1903---almost as though he had Meredith in mind: “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.”
All the while he was in Japan, Eagles says, Meredith watched the civil rights movement unfold at home. On one occasion when he was called in for a performance review by his Air Force superiors, a white officer urged him upon returning to Mississippi “to change things,” Eagles said. This was not that surprising as the armed forces had integrated smoothly after President Truman in July, 1948, wiped out segregation with the stroke of the pen he used to sign Executive Order 9981. These factors caused Meredith to recognize that “something has to be done,” Eagles says. Upon his return Stateside, Meredith was also encouraged by State NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers to break the color barrier at Ole Miss. Evers counseled Meredith on integration and put him in touch with NAACP lawyers who acted as his legal counsel. Meredith was devastated when in June, 1963, Evers was shot dead in the driveway of his Jackson, Miss., home by Klu Klux Klan member Byron De La Beckwith.
Asked why whites opposed integration, Eagles replied it was due to a fear of the unknown plus the fear that “white women needed to be protected from black men.” The fear of miscegenation was very real, “the fear that the white race would no longer be pure, that just drove lots of people to do what we now would see as kind of extreme things to protect segregation.” Particularly in areas where Negroes were in the majority, whites felt that their “Southern Way of Life” was in jeopardy. White southerners were “comfortable with a system of segregation and white supremacy, and if that changes they don’t know what’s going to be next. And that’s a real gamble, and most people are not willing to risk changing something that fundamental to their way of life.”
If abandoning segregation made whites fearful, it would liberate blacks from the bondage of fear. “All through slavery,” Eagles said, blacks “had no way, legally, to protect themselves. The legal system was controlled by whites, so if a lynch mob gathered, what could blacks do? The sheriff could be there and later would say the lynching was conducted by persons and parties unknown” even when none of the culprits wore masks, because nothing was ever done to punish the guilty. Blacks not only feared lynching but suffered “fear of losing their jobs, fear of losing housing, all kinds of fears.” They could even be penalized for breaking a segregation law, such as drinking out of a “whites only” water fountain. “There were these constant worries that they would somehow violate the line between the races, and face some kind of retribution, whether it would be physical or economic, it didn’t matter. It could be potentially very severe,” Eagles said.
He pointed out that when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its historic “Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka” decision in May, 1954---that struck down the notion that segregated educational facilities could be “separate but equal”---Mississippians were devastated. “One local judge wrote a pamphlet called Black Monday. This was evil and awful and could not be allowed to happen,” Eagles said. Shortly thereafter, whites began to organize the Citizens’ Council to resist the Brown decision and the State Sovereignty Commission was established, “in effect, (to) police the racial barrier between blacks and whites,” he added. What’s more, at the time of the Meredith challenge, “the main advisors to Gov. Barnett were powerful people in the Citizens’ Council.”
Selecting Ole Miss for integration was an insightful choice by Meredith and the NAACP. That’s because events on the Ole Miss campus resonated across the state. Apart from Jackson, the capital, Mississippi was largely rural and the Ole Miss athletic teams were followed the way major league ball clubs today are followed in big cities. (Because Ole Miss officials clung to segregation, they did not allow their football and basketball teams to play in national tournaments for fear that they might have to compete against clubs with African-American athletes.) Campus doings regularly made the State’s dailies as there was not much else going on, Eagles says. Ole Miss also was important as the State’s elite sent their children there. Those who graduated from the law school were automatically admitted to the bar without having to take an exam and many future politicians got their start just that way. “The alumni were influential and controlled virtually all aspects of the state,” Eagles said.
Given his academic background and attainments when he first applied at Oxford, Meredith’s rejection by Ole Miss authorities was more than ironic as the school was then admitting white students who “were not overly qualified for college,” Eagles said. “They (Ole Miss) had to do that in order to get state funding.” Neither was the faculty “the strongest.” Bluntly, he says, Ole Miss was, in fact, “mediocre”---yet it was keeping out a gifted scholar. Perhaps this was because the university was “provincial” and represented “a society that did not encourage free thought, because if you get people thinking, then they think about the race question, and if they begin to think about that, they may question segregation, and that would have been a taboo.
At the time, in Mississippi and across the South, race affected nearly every aspect of daily life, Eagles said. “It affects athletics, it affects academic freedom, it affects religious activities on campus, it affects entertainers and social life on campus, it affects employment patterns and who works at the University and how they interact. So I think it reveals that segregation affected everything, and wasn’t limited to politicians and judges and courts, but affected day to day life for most whites,” he said (and Eagles surely could have added “most blacks”).
While Eagles says he would like to see expressions such as “civil rights” on the Meredith statue that he believes would be more appropriate to the integration of Ole Miss, Meredith likely would have objected. Meredith is quoted as saying, “Nothing could be more insulting to me than the concept of civil rights. It means perpetual second-class citizenship for me and my kind.” Four years after he integrated Ole Miss---sending shock waves across the nation---Meredith undertook a “March Against Fear” to win voting rights for Mississippi Negroes and was shot down by a white racist south of Hernando, Miss., on June 6, 1966. After he underwent surgery in the hospital, Meredith’s several marching companions were allowed to visit him in his hospital room. And when one told him, “All the civil rights groups are sending members to finish your march,” Meredith shook his head and said, “it won’t be my march” and turned his face to the wall. Such was his attitude towards civil rights organizations. Their leaders, however, did flock to Mississippi and did complete the march Meredith began, and Meredith did join them after he recovered from his wounds and accepted their support. The upshot of his sacrifice was to pry open the State’s voting rolls to blacks as once again Federal officials were sent in to the State, this time to register black voters who had been denied the franchise. Their votes sounded the death knell for white demagogues who henceforth had to squelch their racist to remarks, or face defeat at the hands of angry black voters. Together with the integration of Ole Miss, Meredith’s second strategic strike against the denial of voting rights literally marked the beginning of the end of Mississippi despotism---and by extension the end of Jim Crow everywhere in the South. Extending the franchise to all also fulfilled the hopes of Southern white moderates who sought to put an end to political demagoguery. They shared the vision of Editor Ralph McGill of The Atlanta Constitution who wrote in the early Fifties: “I see a new South coming over the horizon.”
At the dedication of the Meredith monument on October 1, 2006, the 44th anniversary of the Ole Miss integration, Rep. John Lewis (D.-Ga.), a former civil rights activist, delivered the keynote address to an audience of 1,500. “With the unveiling of this monument,” Lewis said, “we free ourselves from the chains of a difficult past. Today we can celebrate a new day, a new beginning, the birth of a new South and a new America that is more free, more fair, and more just than ever before.” Whatever the inscription on Meredith’s statue at Ole Miss, it is hard to think of any one individual apart from the Rev. Martin Luther King who, by his determination and courage, did more to change the South and the nation for the better.
(Disclosure: Sherwood Ross accompanied Meredith as his “press coordinator” on the 1966 March Against Fear in Mississippi.)