Meredith, James H. 1933—
James H. Meredith 1933—
Civil rights pioneer, lecturer
When James Meredith became the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi in 1962, he became one of the civil rights movement’s most recognizable figures. His enrollment at the previously all-white school sparked riotsand required the combined forces of the National Guard and the U.S. Army to enforce a court order. Since that time, Meredith frequently has shocked civil rights backers with his unusual and controversial views on race and politics. These views have led Meredith to forge some surprising alliances in later years, including well-publicized associations with conservative North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms and Louisiana politician David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Along the way, Meredith repeatedly has proclaimed that he was selected by divine forces to save western civilization from its own self-destructive ways.
Meredith was born on June 25, 1933, in rural Kosciusko, Mississippi, the seventh of 13 children. His father, Moses “Cap” Meredith, owned an 80-acre farm, on which he grew cotton, corn, and a variety of other food crops. Cap Meredith was a strong-willed, fiercely independent patriarch, who refused to accept the secondclass status thrust upon blacks by the white south. His way of combating white domination was to isolate his family from white society altogether. Cap’s philosophy kept James-who went by his initials J. H.-from even entering the homes of white neighbors throughout his childhood. On a train trip home from Chicago at the age of 15, James and his brother were forced to move to a “colored car” as the train moved into southern territory. Meredith has often pointed to that event as the launching point of his personal battle against the racism that saturated every facet of southern life.
At 16, Meredith was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the public schools offered a much better education than was available in Kosciusko. He finished high school in St. Petersburg. Since there was no money for college, Meredith joined the Air Force, which was generally perceived as the least segregated of the U.S. armed services. Meredith served
At a Glance…
Bom James Howard Meredith, June 25, 1933, in Kosciusko, MS; son of Moses “Cap” (a farmer) and Roxie (Smith) Meredith; married Mary June Wiggins (deceased), 1956–1979; children: John Howard, Joseph Howard, James Henry; married Judy Alsobrooks (television news reporter), 1981 ; children: Kip, Jessica Howard. Education: Attended Jackson (Mississippi) State College, 1960–62; University of Mississippi, B.A., 1963; University of lbadan, Nigeria, certificate, 1964–65; Columbia University, J.D.,, 1968. Politics: conservative Republican. Religion: Christian.
United States Air Force, reaching the rank of sergeant, 1951–60; first black to enroll in University of Mississippi, 1962; civil rights activist, 1963-c 1968; Meredith Enterprises, independent businessman, 1968-; ran unsuccessfully for several political offices, 1972-79; University of Cincinnatti (Ohio), visiting professor of Afro-American Studies, 1984-85; domestic policy advisor to Senator Jesse Helms (Republican, North Carolina), 1989-91; Meredith Publishing, owner and operator, 1991–.
Addresses: Office-Meredith Publishing, P.O. Box 10951, Jackson, MS 39289.
in the Air Force from 1951 to 1960 where he began going by the name James rather than J. H.
During his Air Force years, Meredith was able to further his education. While stationed in Kansas, he took extension courses at the University of Kansas and at Washburn University in Topeka. Between 1954 and 1960, he also enrolled in the U.S. Armed Forces Institute, which offered courses to military personnel through colleges and universities all over the country. He also spent time in Japan, where he attended the Far Eastern Division of the University of Maryland. In 1955 Meredith met Mary June Wiggins at a USO dance. They were married the following year.
In 1960 Meredith returned to Mississippi. By this time, he had concluded that it was his mission in life not only to vanquish white supremacy in Mississippi, but also to return civilization itself to its proper, more humane course. Upon their arrival in Mississippi, both James and Mary June entered all-black Jackson State College (now University). By 1961, however, Meredith believed that the time was ripe for the color line to be broken at the state’s premier academic institution, the University of Mississippi, known affectionately throughout the region as “Ole Miss.”
A number of factors contributed to Meredith’s decision to begin his battle at that time. President John F. Kennedy had just been elected on a pro-civil rights platform, and it was widely believed that African Americans accounted for a significant share of Kennedy’s slim victory margin. Meredith correctly presumed that Kennedy’s administration would therefore be on his side if enrollment at Ole Miss boiled down to a power struggle between the federal and state governments. On January 31, 1961, Meredith submitted his application to the registrar at the university, along with a photograph of himself and the statement, “I am an American-Mississippi-Negro citizen.” As expected, he was denied admission.
At this point, Meredith enlisted the help of Medgar Evers, Mississippi’s field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Evers suggested that he contact Thurgood Marshall, director of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. With the NAACP working on Meredith’s behalf, the matter became a legal battle, and the case was assigned to well-known civil rights attorney Constance Baker Motley. In May of 1961, Meredith filed a class-action suit in U.S. District Court claiming that the university’s application process was discriminatory. The court ruled in favor of Ole Miss. In June of 1962, however, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision, and ordered that Meredith be admitted as a student.
Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi had other ideas. Barnett refused to accept the court’s decision, and when Meredith showed up to enroll, Barnett personally and physically blocked his entrance into the university. President Kennedy was enraged and ordered that federal marshals escort Meredith into the school. Barnett still refused to yield, invoking the concept of the state’s right to control the affairs of its schools. Finally, the National Guard was brought in, and Meredith was able to enter the university by sheer force. Meanwhile, the campus around him was in turmoil. Violent riots left two men dead while scores more were injured and more than 200 were arrested amidst the tear gas fumes and debris. Not until approximately 33,000 Army troops joined the National Guardsmen already on the scene was some semblance of order restored to the campus.
Despite the ultimate success of Meredith’s mission to enter Ole Miss, his life there was anything but routine. Because of ongoing harassment and threats, federal marshals had to escort him to class every day. Students and professors who tried to befriend Meredith often were ostracized or tormented. He considered leaving school many times, but his supporters managed to convince him to stay. In August of 1963, Meredith graduated from the University of Mississippi with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
After graduating from Ole Miss, Meredith spent time in Nigeria, where he studied economics at the University of Ibadan. When he returned to the United States, Meredith settled in New York City and entered law school at Columbia University. In 1966 Meredith’s autobiography, Three Years in Mississippi, was published. While at Columbia, he continued his work as a civil rights activist and organizer.
One such effort almost proved fatal. In June of 1966, Meredith organized a “March Against Fear” along Route 51 from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. The purpose of the march was to encourage black voters to overcome the fear that too often kept them away from the polls. On the second day of the march, Meredith was wounded by scores of shotgun pellets fired by a would-be assassin named James Aubrey Norvell, who had waited in ambush along the march route. Many of the pellets have remained in Meredith’s body since the attack, a proof and permanent reminder of his growing belief that nonviolent means of change are futile in a violent society.
By the late 1960s, Meredith was already at odds with a lot of the civil rights movement’s most visible figures. He clashed with the NAACP, for example, over whose idea his enrollment at Ole Miss had been and about its policy of nonviolence. He also angered many Harlem residents by challenging the popular Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. for his congressional seat in 1967. Powell was being censured by the House of Representatives at the time, prompting many to believe Meredith was simply a pawn in the scheme to remove another powerful black man from his position of authority.
Meredith received his law degree from Columbia in 1968. He returned to Mississippi in 1971, settling in Jackson. Over the next several years, nightclubs, investment banking, cosmetics sales, farming, and television repair were among the businesses at which he tried his hand, mostly with little success. A healthy share of his income came from appearances as a guest lecturer, for which he was in fairly regular demand. Meredith also ran, unsuccessfully, for public office at least five times during the 1970s, including a run in the 1972 Republican senate primary in Mississippi. He also started his own church, the Reunification Under God Church, which sought, among other things, to teach African Americans to grow their own food.
The 1970s brought more changes. Meredith began to feel that the true enemies of blacks in America were not white supremacists, but white liberals. He believed the liberal-sponsored social welfare programs kept African Americans from becoming self-sufficient. Not surprisingly, these views alienated him even further from the civil rights mainstream.
Meredith began looking for college teaching positions in the 1980s. After failing to catch on at Ole Miss, his top choice, Meredith was offered a year-long job as a visiting professor in Afro-American Studies at the University of Cincinnati (Ohio). Controversy quickly surrounded Meredith at Cincinnati, as it had everywhere else he had made his home. He outraged university and city officials with claims of discrimination that were not supported by fact. He also provoked a confrontation with police by refusing to produce his identification at a health club-of which he was a paying member-so that he could then accuse both the club and the police of racism. Meredith made at least one friend in Cincinnati, however. In 1991, two years after the death of his wife, Mary June, he married a local television reporter, Judy Alsobrooks.
In 1988 Meredith wrote a letter to every member of Congress and to the governor of every state. In the letter he proclaimed that he was destined to become the most important black leader in the world. He also wrote letters to newspapers outlining his belief that liberals were to blame for most of what was wrong with the United States. One of the two politicians who responded to Meredith’s letter was Jesse Helms, the conservative Republican senator from North Carolina. Helms offered Meredith a $30,000 a year position as domestic policy advisor in 1989, an act of great irony given Helms’s harsh criticism of Meredith in the 1960s.
As a member of Helms’s staff, Meredith’s odd and infuriating statements grew in number and shrank in credibility. In 1989 he told Washington Post reporter that 60 percent of black leaders were involved in the drug culture and 80 percent were involved in corruption of one sort or another. He also turned the rhetoric up another notch about his role as the divinely appointed leader of the black race. In 1990 Meredith issued a press release on Helms stationery charging, among other things, that many NAACP officials and other black leaders were puppets of an elite group of white liberals. He did not offer any names or any evidence.
Meredith eventually found even Jesse Helms too liberal for his tastes, and the two parted company. In 1991 Meredith managed to shock those who had become accustomed to his flights of political fancy by throwing his support to the Louisiana gubernatorial campaign of David Duke, an acknowledged former Ku Klux Klan leader. Meredith asserted that Duke’s current beliefs were actually fairly close to his own, since both felt that the restoration of family values and the elimination of affirmative action and other liberal social programs were among the keys to saving the country from ruin.
Throughout his life, but especially in the later years of his life, Meredith began devoting more of his time to writing, while still making an occasional lecture appearance. He formed Meredith Publishing in 1991 as an outlet for his own works. The bulk of his writings are contained in Mississippi: A Volume of Eleven Books, which covers topics ranging from his own experiences as a young man in Mississippi to his research on his ancestors, the Choctaw Indian Nation. The company has also published some small, Meredith-authored booklets that purport to educate black families on subjects like money, education, and politics.
There is no doubt that James Meredith’s unusual political meanderings and occasionally overzealous self-promotion have alienated him from many influential African American leaders. His position in history nevertheless remains secure. Despite the inevitable failure of his own messianic urges and predictions, Meredith remains an important icon in the struggle for racial justice in America.
Three Years in Mississippi, Indiana University Press,1966, pp. 23-27.
Mississippi: A Volume of Eleven Books, Meredith Publishing, 1994.
”Big Changes are Coming,” Saturday Evening Post, August 13, 1966.
Flynn, James J., Negroes of Achievement in Modern America, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1970, pp. 159-167.
Lord, Walter, The Past That Would Not Die, Harper & Row, 1965.
Metcalf, George R. .Black Prof i les, McGraw-Hill, 1968, pp. 219-254.
Ebony, December 1984, pp. 38-40.
Esquire, December 1992, pp. 101-110.
Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1991, p. El.
New York Times, July 21, 1990, p. 8.
People Weekly, October 16, 1989, p. 40.
Southern Sentinel (Blue Mountain, Mississippi), February 23, 1995.
Star-Herald (Kosciusko, Mississippi), February 16, 1995, p. 1A.
Washington Post, November 3, 1989, p. CI.
—Robert R. Jacobson
James H. Meredith
James H. Meredith
As the first black to attend the University of Mississippi, James H. Meredith (born 1933) scored one of the earliest important victories against segregation in Mississippi.
Fiercely independent and keenly intelligent, James Meredith was the great iconoclast of the civil rights movement. As the first black to attend the University of Mississippi, Meredith scored one of the earliest important victories against segregation in Mississippi. At the same time, he remained largely aloof from the established civil rights organizations. Medgar Evers and the NAACP helped Meredith win his legal battle to integrate Ole Miss, but as Meredith proudly noted, "Nobody hand picked me. I made the decision myself. I paid my own tuition."
Born on a small farm near Kosciusko, Mississippi, on June 25, 1933, Meredith was the seventh of Cap Meredith's 13 children, and the first of seven by Cap's second wife, Roxie. Meredith, baptized simply as "J.H.," inherited his independent streak from his father. The family was poor and their home lacked running water, but they were self-sufficient. "I was taught," Meredith said later, "to believe the most dishonorable thing a Meredith could do was to work in a white woman's kitchen and take care of a white man's child." Seeking a better education than he could attain in Mississippi, Meredith moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, where he lived with an aunt, and graduated from high school in 1951. Lacking money for college, he joined the U.S. Air Force, under the name "James Howard Meredith." To the young Mississippian, attacking Jim Crow meant self-improvement, and that required money and education. In the service, Meredith saved much of his modest pay and routinely took classes at nearby schools, including the University of Kansas, Washburn University in Topeka, New Mexico Western College, and even the University of Maryland's Japan campus. After a nine-year hitch in the Air Force, Meredith returned to Mississippi and entered the all-black Jackson State University. His decision to seek admission at the all-white University of Mississippi reflected his strategy to attack a system of segregation that limited the economic opportunities open to blacks. "Before I could engage in business at the level I desired," he believed, "the system would have to be broken." Convinced that the new president, John F. Kennedy, would support his efforts, Meredith, on January 21, 1961, the day after Kennedy's inauguration, wrote Ole Miss for an application form.
Meredith's letter touched off an 18-month legal battle. Mississippi's white authorities had already demonstrated that they would try virtually anything to avoid integrating the state's colleges and universities. A black teacher, Clennon King had been committed to a mental institution in 1958 for attempting to attend summer school at Oxford. Another black man, Clyde Kennon, was sent to prison on trumped-up charges after attempting to enroll at the University of Southern Mississippi. In Meredith's case, state officials resorted to a variety of legal ploys, but in June 1962, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ordered Meredith admitted to the university. Nevertheless, Mississippi's racist governor, Ross Barnett, personally intervened to bar Meredith physically from entering Ole Miss. In a televised address, Barnett incited white resistance and warned: "There is no case in history where the Caucasian race has survived social integration." Finally, late in September, Kennedy ordered federal troops and Justice Department officials to enforce the court order admitting Meredith to school. On Sunday afternoon, September 30, 1962, Meredith arrived on campus accompanied by a federal entourage that included over 120 U.S. marshals and Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. The result was a night-long riot that resulted in two deaths, 175 injuries, and 212 arrests. Despite one of the most violent challenges to federal authority since the Civil War, Meredith was quietly registered the next day. Enduring taunts and abuse from many of his fellow students, in August 1963 Meredith became the first black graduate of the University of Mississippi.
In 1964-65, Meredith studied economics at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. The following year, he proposed to walk from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to encourage blacks to register to vote. The walk attracted widespread attention after a white supremacist wounded Meredith with a shotgun blast, and black leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., and Stokely Carmichael, flocked to Mississippi to help him complete his trek. Meredith later moved to New York City where he bought an apartment house and experienced a variety of financial and legal problems, among them a conviction for harassing his tenants. Meredith briefly considered running for Congress against Harlem's incumbent Adam Clayton Powell. In 1968, Meredith received a law degree from Columbia University, but by the early 1970s, he had returned to Mississippi, where he continued to pursue a variety of business, political, and community activities. In 1972, Meredith ran unsuccessfully as a Republican against Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland. He served as a visiting professor at the University of Cincinnati in 1984-85, and was defeated in 1986 in a race for a position on the Cincinnati school board. In recent years, Meredith has been associated with conservative causes and candidates, but his historical significance derives from his integration of Ole Miss, which heralded the changes that would eventually come to the most racially divided state in the nation.
Flynn, James J., Negroes of Achievement in Modern America, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1970, pp. 159-167.
Lord, Walter, The Past That Would Not Die, Harper & Row, 1965.
Metcalf, George R., Black Profiles, McGraw-Hill, 1968, pp. 219-254. □