US civil rights pioneer Meredith recalls 1960s battles | The Storytellers | DW | 28.08.2013
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US civil rights pioneer Meredith recalls 1960s battles

In August 1963, just days ahead of Martin Luther King Jr's famous "I have a dream" speech, James Meredith was also making history: becoming the first black American to graduate from the University of Mississippi.

It was 1962 and the campus of the University of Mississippi, known as "Ole Miss," had turned into a battlefield. The rioting had erupted as James Meredith was about to be enrolled as the first black person at the university.

"My goal was to destroy the system of white supremacy and Ole Miss was the most vulnerable, the weakest spot," Meredith, now 80, recalls.

"It was like World War II and the invasion of Normandy: They didn't invade Normandy for the sake of invading Normandy; they calculated it as being the weakest point to hit Hitler and destroy his forces. I knew Ole Miss ran Mississippi. It was tactical."

A battle for life

Meredith had been battling racial prejudice all his life. Before beginning his studies, he had served in the US Air Force, which was permeated with racism.

"It was really preparation for Ole Miss and the rest of my life," he notes. "For nine years, I was always the first and often only black ever in the outfit I was in. There's nothing I hadn't experienced in terms of racism."

The lines of racism were clearly drawn in the United States, but they were more explicit in some places than others.

"My first assignment was to an Air Force base in Kansas. Every little town around that base had signs up at the city limit which said, 'No niggers allowed after 6 p.m.,'" he says.

"In Mississippi, they didn't need to put the sign up; everybody knew. America's problem might have been at the apex in Mississippi, but I guarantee you, it was truly American all around," he stresses.

After serving in the Air Force, Meredith attended Jackson State University for two years, before setting his sights on Ole Miss. He was denied entry twice, but that didn't stop him. Meredith took the case all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled that he was legally entitled to enroll at the state school. Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett first tried to block his enrollment, but reluctantly conceded after being put under pressure by the White House.

Federal protection

Still, on the eve of his first day in class, then 29-year-old Meredith found himself holed up in a secret hideaway for his safety.

Meredith, escorted by US Marshals to class on Oct. 1, 1962

Meredith, escorted by US Marshals to class on October 1, 1962

Rioting by students protesting his enrollment had broken out at the campus. Hundreds of US Marshals, federal law enforcement officers, were sent in to protect Meredith and take control. Later, President John F. Kennedy would deploy additional troops and military police to back them up.

The president also took to the airwaves.

"What really happened in Ole Miss was that for the first time in history, the United States used the military to enforce the rights of an American citizen," Kennedy said in his radio and television address on September 30, 1962.

"I deeply regret the fact that any action by the executive branch was necessary in this case, but all other avenues and alternatives, including persuasion and conciliation, had been tried and exhausted," Kennedy said.

During the campus riots, two people were killed and at least 75 people injured. Tear gas was used on rioters armed with rocks, petrol bombs and shotguns. More than 100 people were arrested during the trouble.

All the while, Meredith remained under guard in a university dormitory.

The next morning he was escorted by US Marshals through jeering crowds to his first class - a seminar on American colonial history.

Though he knuckled down to his studies, there was always tension.

"I was never a student there," Meredith recalls. "I declared war on Mississippi and that was a major part of my war. I never considered myself a student there, I was a soldier."

Keeping up the fight

Meredith studied political science, history and French at the University of Mississippi, graduating on August 18, 1963 - shortly before Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic "I have a dream" speech in Washington.

As a law student at Columbia University in June 1966, Meredith set out to lead a 220-mile (354 kilometer) march on Jackson, Mississippi's state capital, to encourage blacks to register to vote.

He was tracked down by a lone gunman at the beginning of the march and, shouting "I just want James Meredith!" sprayed him with birdshot pellets.

The picture of Meredith, crying out as he lay wounded on the ground, won a Pulitzer Prize for Photography and became a symbol of the agony of racism in America.

Jack Thornell's Pultizer Prize-winning photo of Meredith, after being shot down on the street in 1966

Jack Thornell's Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Meredith, after being shot down on the street in 1966

He recovered enough to rejoin the march on its final day. The march ultimately saw 4,000 black Mississippians register to vote as it moved from Memphis to Jackson.

Worse-off today

Despite his achievements and those of the civil rights movement, Meredith says the education system is still failing black Americans.

"When I graduated from high school 60 plus years ago, every black who got a high school diploma could go to some good college somewhere in the world," he says. "Today, less than one out of 10 who get a high school diploma - and over half don't - can go to any school, any university in America today, including all the black colleges in Mississippi, because they don't make a high enough qualifying score.

"In other words, every day for the last 50 years, the education opportunity and accomplishment of blacks in Mississippi has gotten worse."

Despite his age, Meredith remains active, writing books and giving talks at universities. While the battle lines have changed since his own struggle five decades ago, he says the war against racism is as relevant now as it was then.

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