Born June 25, 1933 in Kosciusko, Mississippi
First black to enroll in the all-white University
of Mississippi on October 1, 1962; also
conceived and led the 1966 "Meredith
Mississippi March Against Fear"
James Meredith was the first black to enroll in the University of Mississippi on October 1, 1962. His attempt to attend the all-white university forced the President John F. Kennedy to use federal troops against the state of Mississippi’s forces to allow for Meredith to become a student at the school. Because of this historic event, Meredith has authored several books about his experience and continues to fight for the rights of blacks.
James Howard Meredith was born in Kosciusko Mississippi on June 25, 1933 to Moses “Cap” Meredith and Roxie Patterson Meredith. He was raised on his father’s farm outside of Kosciusko along with his nine siblings and educated at the Attala County Training School. Shielded as a child by his father from the racism that affected blacks in Mississippi, it was not until the age of thirteen that Meredith felt the harsh reality that to be black in America meant to be considered as inferior to whites. Meredith came to this realization during a train ride from Chicago with his brother. When the train stopped in Memphis, Tennessee Meredith and his brother were ordered to move from their seats to the overcrowded black section of the train where they stood for the remainder of their trip to Mississippi. It is at this time, that Meredith states that he vowed to devote his life to ensuring that citizenship rights of blacks were legally recognized.
After completing his secondary education, Meredith joined the United States Air Force in 1951 where he served until 1960. His participation in the military allowed the young soldier to travel to posts in both the United States and abroad. His experiences, especially while stationed in Japan, made Meredith further aware of his responsibility to improve the plight of black Americans.
In 1960, James Meredith returned to Mississippi and enrolled in Jackson State College, a black college in Mississippi. While in attendance, he studied political science and history and organized the Mississippi Improvement Association of Students (MIAS). In 1961, Meredith decided to challenge the system of educational racism in Mississippi, a state which at the time was the only state in the South that had not integrated higher education. In doing so, on January 12, 1961 he applied to the all-white University of Mississippi sparking a highly publicized battle between the federal government and Mississippi officials. The school did not accept Meredith based on his race and the young man took his battle to the courts. Although the state courts ruled against Meredith’s favor, the Supreme Court ruled that Meredith had the right to attend the school. Riots broke out between angry whites and federal officials, causing many to be injured and two people to die. President John F. Kennedy ordered federal troops to go to Mississippi to stop the riots and ordered the governor to allow Meredith to enroll into the university. As a result, on October 1, 1962, James Meredith enrolled into the University of Mississippi and became the first black to attend the institution. Meredith’s action made him a target of angry whites and also caused many to consider him as a civil rights activist, a title he is reluctant to accept.
Less than a year later, Meredith graduated on August 18, 1963 with a degree in political science. Since the events at Ole Miss, Meredith has stated that his intent was not to integrate a school but to dismantle the system of white supremacy in Mississippi. Although the incident is viewed by many as one of the most important events in civil rights history, it is Meredith who maintains that the incident was not intended to be an act for the movement.
After graduating from the University of Mississippi, Meredith left his home state to travel to Washington D.C., Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. From 1964-1965, he attended the University of Ibadan in Nigeria and earned a postgraduate degree in economics. He then attended Columbia University Law School from 1966 to 1968 and received his law degree, so that he could better prepare himself for his life in politics.
In 1966, Meredith continued to fight against white supremacy in his Meredith March Against Fear. The march which took place from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi was an attempt by the leader to take a stand against the fear that affected blacks and prevented many from voting. During the march, he was shot by James Aubrey Norvell, who became the first white person to go to jail for attempting to kill a black person. While Meredith was recovering from his injuries, Martin Luther King along with Stokely Carmichael continued the march until Meredith returned to finish the final trek. It was during this march, that Carmichael’s call for “black power” became popular. During the 1970’s, he also ran for the Congress as a Republican nominee. In September 1989, he joined the staff of North Carolina senator, Jesse Helms as a Domestic Policy Advisor until February 1991.
Meredith continues to participate in political issues. An advocate of education, he remains very vocal about the educational inequalities that continue to face young blacks, especially in Mississippi.
URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/meredithjames