Historically Speaking: James Meredith and Desegregating Ole Miss
Today, October 1st, marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most important events in the history of American civil rights: James Meredith, an African-American transfer student, was allowed to register for school and attend classes at the University of Mississippi following the order of the United States Circuit Court of Appeals. A truly inspiring story, the case of James Meredith shows how the perseverance of one man allowed for the defeat of racism in the face of overwhelming opposition, and left higher education forever changed.
While Brown v. Board of Education had initially deemed segregation to be an unlawful practice in 1955, the practice of segregation on the college and university level instead entered a new phase in which institutions could not be explicitly racist, but found other methods of excluding non-white students from their schools.
Having a laudable academic record that surpassed standards for admission, he was initially accepted to the Univerity of Mississippi, nicknamed “Ole Miss,” until his race was revealed and his admission revoked. Meredith subsequently filed suit with the Court of Appeals, and after a long judicial battle, Ole Miss’s ruling was overturned and Meredith was allowed to enroll.
However, on September 20th, 1962, Meredith was barred from the registrar by Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett when attempting to register for classes. It would take another court order and the actions of both US President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to get Meredith through the door. The president publicly denounced Governor Barnett, and on September 28th, the governor was found guilty of civil contempt, and would face arrest and a $10,000 a day fine if he continued to not comply with the process of desegregation.
When Meredith finally returned to the university to register on September 30th , US Marshalls were ordered to accompany him to campus to both protect him from possible violence and force university officials to comply with the court order.
“This is not a happy occasion,” he said that morning, speaking of the amount of vitriolic anger and death threats hurled against him. That night, the students began a race riot that took the lives of two students. On October 1st, after months of hardship, Meredith finally attended his first class at the University of Mississippi.
Meredith went on to found the March Against Fear, in 1966, an event where he was shot by a sniper and was forced to be hospitalized. After a few days recuperation, he was able to complete the march to its intended destination of Jackson, Mississippi.
Today, Meredith still echoes the sentiment he had on that day 50 years ago. He does not see the events of desegregation at Ole Miss to be a cause worth celebrating, due to it being only a small fracture in the systematic racism endemic in America both then and now, and the modicum of justice he received does not make up for the legacy of denying African-Americans their basic human rights.
“I’ve always found the rhetoric of mainstream civil rights leaders and organizations to be far too timid, accommodationist and gradualist. It always seemed to me that they behaved like meek and gentle supplicants begging the oppressor for a few crumbs of justice, for a few molecules of citizenship rights,” said Meredith.
“When it comes to my rights as an American citizen, and yours, I am a triumphalist and an absolutist. Anything less is an insult.”