How did you celebrate Black History Month? Last week three white University of Mississippi fraternity brothers partied by throwing a noose around the neck of a life size bronze casting of James Meredith. In 2006 that statue was dedicated to commemorate Ole Miss’ first black undergraduate. In 1962 Meredith, a World War II veteran, applied to and was accepted by Ole Miss and showed up to register for classes under the G.I. Bill. When it was discovered that he was black Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett personally blocked his entrance to the Administration Building. The day before, the State Legislature had appointed their governor “emergency university registrar.” After Meredith finally signed up for classes (accompanied by federal marshals and national guardsmen) the campus rioted. When the smoke cleared two people were dead and many more injured.
For the next four years Meredith attended classes, submitted term papers, took tests and eventually graduated with honors. Technically he’d won. His reward? A diploma and a statue erected by his alma mater sixty-four years later. But that is not the whole story…
On June 5, 1966 Meredith left Memphis, Tennessee for Jackson, Mississippi to begin a one-man 220 mile March Against Fear. He hoped to encourage Mississippi blacks to register to vote. “If I can walk through Mississippi without harm,” he told reporters, “other Negroes will see that they can too.”
He didn’t seek endorsements for his march nor did he ask anyone to walk with him. After two days on Highway 51 Meredith was shot near Hernando, Mississippi and rushed back to Memphis where he spent a week in the hospital. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) recruited volunteers to complete the March Against Fear. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (SCLC) and Stokely Carmichael (SNCC), not the warmest of colleagues, led them. When he was arrested for trespassing during the March Carmichael told a crowd, “This is the twenty-seventh time I’ve been arrested. I ain’t going to jail no more. We’ve been demanding our freedom for six years and have gotten nothing. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!’ With that he provided the fifty reporters following them with a page one story. Meredith, still recuperating in Memphis, was furious. His focus on voting rights had gotten lost. But this is still not the whole story…
In 1972 James Meredith campaigned for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senator from Mississippi. He said that he’d become disillusioned by black dependence on the federal government. Later he endorsed Ronald Regan for president. From 1989 to 1991 Meredith served as domestic PR advisor to North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms an enemy of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. When criticized, Meredith replied that he’d offered his services to every member of the House and the Senate and only Helms had responded
Now eighty years old, James Meredith describes his Ole Miss statue as “hideous” and maintains that he’s asked the Administration several times to take it down. He says that it “glosses over the magnitude of Mississippi’s resistance to his exercise of what should have been recognized as his obvious, inherent right as an American citizen.”
This is what makes American history so fascinating. Take a young black veteran seeking an education, add an angry mob fighting to retain white privilege, bring in the federal government to resolve the crisis, enter three destructive frat boys with no sense of history fifty years later. Why? And how could James Meredith work for Jesse Helms the spiritual grandfather of those stupid boys?
Historians faithfully document the what, but the why is open to endless speculation.
Mary Stanton is the author of four books on civil rights era history including From Selma To Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo; Journey Toward Justice: Juliette Hampton Morgan and the Montgomery Bus Boycott; The Hand of Esau: Montgomery’s Jewish Community and the Bus Boycott and Freedom Walk:Mississippi or Bust that includes a chapter on the Meredith March Against Fear.