“Which one of you’all is Meredith?” Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett shouted on the steps of the University of Mississippi, as a sea of federal marshals escorted James Meredith to become the first-ever Black student at the institution commonly known as “Ole Miss.”
To many who were there in Oxford (Mississippi) on October 1, 1962, or watched events unfold on national television, Barnett’s remarks seemed almost facetious. To a man, the 127 U.S. marshals, 316 deputized border patrolmen, and 97 Federal Bureau of Prisons officers all under the command of Chief U.S. Marshal James P. McShane were white and Meredith — 29, a U.S. Air Force veteran who had completed two years at Jackson State University in Florida — was the lone Black person in the crowd.
He was also visibly nervous. A day before, citizens of the Magnolia State had rioted and, in the resulting clash with U.S. troops and National Guardsmen federalized by President John F. Kennedy, cars were burnt, troops were pelted with rocks, and two civilians (one a French journalist) were killed by gunfire.
But Meredith made it inside Ole Miss and was registered as a student.
Sixty years later, Mississippians recently hailed Meredith for breaking the color barrier in their state with the highest honor they could offer: introducing and commemorating Meredith at half-time during an Old Miss football game last Saturday. Now 89 and a resident of Jackson, Meredith called his role in integrating the university “the best day he ever lived.”
It was significant, he told Newsmax last week, “because it was in Mississippi.” Noting that his state in 1962 was passionately committed to segregation of the races and that Gov. Barnett spoke for many of its politicians when he vowed “no school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your governor,” Meredith pointed out that Mississippi is now an integrated society.
“Many folks think there hasn’t been much change here,” he told us, “I don’t agree with them.”
In celebrating Meredith’s niche in history, many contemporary civil rights leaders either forget that his own political activism was as a Republican.
Inspired to apply at the University of Mississippi by JFK’s inaugural address, Meredith could also see the contrast between the Democrats in his state who were to almost to a person segregationists and Republicans who seemed more open-minded. Rubel Phillips, Republican nominee for governor in 1963 when the party was in the proverbial telephone booth, said he would have admitted Meredith to Ole Miss.
Having defied harassment and cold shoulders from white students, Meredith graduated from the university in 1963 with a degree in political science. After studies in Nigeria and the leadership of a 1966 march to register voters from Memphis (Tenn.) to Jackson (Miss.) in which Meredith survived a gunshot wound, the Mississippian moved to New York to earn a law degree at Columbia University.
At that time, the U.S. House of Representatives denied Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., D.-NY his seat over refusal to comply with House rules. When a resulting special election was called in 1967 to fill Powell’s Harlem district, Meredith said he was running as a Republican. Salivating at the scenario of a national civil rights figure as their candidate, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and GOP National Chairman Ray Bliss offered him their full support. But Meredith soon withdrew to complete his law studies.
In 1972, back in Mississippi, Meredith made headlines by announcing he would seek the Republican nomination to oppose arch-segregationist Democratic Sen. James Eastland. But, noted Eastland’s biographer J. Lee Annis, Jr., “[Meredith] had no standing among Mississippi Republicans and, having lived in New York for the past three years, little among Mississippi blacks.” Republican leaders sought another candidate and finally Volkswagen dealer Gil Carmichael stepped forth and handily beat Meredith for nomination (and then went on to lose to Eastland).
Meredith stunned the civil rights community in 1989 when sought and accepted a job as legislative assistant to Sen. Jesse Helms, R.-NC, a swashbuckling conservative who had opposed the federal desegregation that Meredith embodied. Meredith countered that he admired Helms for other reasons, that Helms was the lone member of Congress who offered him a job. During his two years as a Helms staffer, Meredith was a fixture at conservative meetings in Washington and once had a lively exchange with conservative philosopher Russell Kirk when he delivered a lecture.
“I’ve been out of politics for a long time,” Meredith told us last week, “Basically, I don’t think politics is the answer to our current problems. The answer is God and Jesus Christ.” He went on to emphasize his worry that society’s biggest problem today is people not following the Ten Commandments.
James Meredith and second wife Judy live in Jackson. A source of pride to him has been his four children. Son Joseph, who died of lupus in 2008, earned the Outstanding Doctoral Student Achievement Award, while studying for his doctorate in business administration at his father’s alma mater Ole Miss. Another son John has been elected to the Huntsville, Alabama City Council and was recently chosen as council president. Like his father, John is a Republican.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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