How did you celebrate Black History Month this
year? Did you know that three white Ole Miss
fraternity brothers celebrated by throwing
a noose around the neck of a life size bronze casting of
James Meredith. In 2006 the statue was commissioned
to commemorate Ole Miss’ first black undergraduate.
In 1962 Meredith, a World War II veteran, applied to and was accepted by the University of Mississippi as a full time student and showed up to register for classes under the G.I. Bill When the Trustees learned that he was black, Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett personally blocked his entrance to the Administration Building. Just the day before the State Legislature appointed their governor “emergency university registrar.” Accompanied by federal marshals and national guardsmen, Meredith finally signed up for classes after which time the campus rioted. When the smoke cleared two people were dead and many were seriously injured. For the next four years Meredith attended classes, submitted term papers, took tests and eventually graduated with honors. It appears that he’d won. And what was his reward? A degree and sixty-four years later a statue erected on the campus of his alma mater. But that is not the whole story….
On June 5, 1966 Meredith began his 220 mile March Against Fear from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson Mississippi. He wanted to encourage the state’s black residents to register to vote. “If I can walk through Mississippi without harm,” he told reporters, “other Negroes will see that they can too.” He did not seek any endorsements nor did he ask anyone to walk with him. After two days on Highway 51 Meredith was shot 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 colleges, led them. When he was arrested for trespassing during one leg of 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 reporters following along with a page one story. Meredith, still recuperating in Memphis was furious. His focus on voter registration had gotten lost. But that this is still not the whole story….
In 1972 James Meredith unsuccessfully pursued the Republican nomination for U.S. Senator from Mississippi. He said that he’d become disillusioned by black depended on the federal government. Later he endorsed Ronald Regan for president. From 1989 to 1991 Meredith served as a PR advisor to North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, a long time enemy of the civil rights movement. When criticized, Meredith replied that he’d offered his services to every member of the House and Senate and only Helm had responded.
Now, eighty years old, Meredith calls his Ole Miss statue “hideous” and maintains that he’s asked the Administration several times to take it down. “It glosses over the magnitude of Mississippi’s resistance to my exercise of what should have been recognized as my inherent right as an American citizen.”
Outcomes like this are what makes history---especially American history---so fascinating. Take a young black war veteran seeking an education, add a furious mob determined to retain white privilege, bring in federal marshals and the national guard to end the violence and half a century later watch three destructive frat boys without a clue make a tasteless, vicious statement. Why now? And how could Meredith ever work for Jesse Helms, the spiritual grandfather of those stupid boys? Historians faithfully document the what of what-came-before before but the why is always open to speculation and debate. What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts…..