James H. Meredith, the first African American to attend a public college in Mississippi , was born on June 25, 1933. He grew up in a poor family on a central Mississippi farm. In 1950, upon graduating from high school, he volunteered for service in the U.S. Air Force . During his nine years in the Air Force, he achieved the rank of sergeant. He also pursued a college education through correspondence courses.
Confronting the system
In 1960, Meredith returned home, hoping to continue his education in Mississippi. Well aware that no African American had ever been admitted to Mississippi's only university, “Ole Miss” (the University of Mississippi) in Oxford, Meredith made it his mission to be first. After John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) was elected president in November 1960, Meredith believed the time was right to bring the civil rights movement to Mississippi.
The university repeatedly denied Meredith admission, citing various technicalities of school policy. Meredith, who was unquestionably qualified to enroll, sought the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to fight the university in federal court.
Feds vs. Mississippi
After more than a year of trials and appeals, U.S. Supreme Court justice Hugo Black (1886–1971) ordered the University of Mississippi to desegregate by admitting Meredith as a transfer student. Mississippi governor Ross Barnett (1898–1987) vowed to block Meredith's admission by any means necessary, thus setting up a showdown between the federal government and the state of Mississippi in September 1962. The Kennedy administration tried to promote civil rights while keeping peace in the South. Threatening Barnett in public while carefully negotiating with him in secret, the administration convinced the governor to back down and allow Meredith to enter the university peacefully.
On September 30, 1962, in an international media spectacle, federal marshals escorted Meredith from Memphis, Tennessee , to Oxford. Upon his arrival on campus, two thousand white protesters greeted Meredith, calling him names, throwing rocks, and ultimately pointing firearms. A riot broke out in which two people were killed and nearly four hundred were injured. President Kennedy ordered more than twenty thousand federal troops to Oxford to quell the riot. Meredith, who was unharmed, attended classes under armed guard. On August 18, 1963, after less than one year of study, he graduated with a bachelor's degree from the University of Mississippi.
Meredith had been victorious, but the costs were great. More than twenty-five thousand federal troops had been needed to allow his enrollment. Five hundred troops were maintained at the university to ensure his safety throughout his year there. Two lives had been lost in the rioting, and the federal government had spent nearly $5 million. In the aftermath of the riot, forty professors resigned, and many students left Ole Miss to pursue degrees elsewhere.
The fall of 1964, however, saw two black students enroll at the University of Mississippi with little fanfare. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 further encouraged integration by denying federal aid to any public institution discriminating against students on the basis of race. By January 1966, all but one of the public institutions of higher learning in Mississippi had signed an agreement to comply with the act.
After the victory
James Meredith continued his struggle to achieve equal opportunity for blacks. While traveling into Mississippi to lead a civil rights march in June 1967, he was shot twice in the back. He survived.
Meredith ceased being a civil rights activist in the late 1960s and alienated many African Americans with his frequent criticism of civil rights leaders. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968. He has authored several books and started a publishing company in 1991. From 1989 to 1991, Meredith worked for ultraconservative U.S. senator Jesse Helms (1921–2008) of North Carolina . He also supported former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke's (1950–) unsuccessful run for governor of Louisiana in 1991. Meredith ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate.