By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
In spite of the murder of 17-year-old African-American, Trayvon Martin, by George Zimmerman (who was found not guilty of the murder) it is difficult to imagine a time when White Americans rioted and killed to prevent African-Americans from attending “White” universities.
At the end of September 1962, the efforts of James Howard Meredith – an African-American who had served his country as a member of the United States Air Force from 1951 to 1960 – to enroll in the University of Mississippi was met with rioting Whites and resulted in the deaths of at least two people.
The riots made news internationally and the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) report on the day (October 1, 1962) Meredith was finally admitted to class stated: “Two people have been killed and at least 75 injured in rioting at the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford. Hundreds of extra troops have been brought in to join federal forces already stationed in the nearby town of Oxford as the violence spread to its streets. The protesters are angry at the admission of James Meredith, a black American, to the university. Rioting erupted last night as President Kennedy addressed the nation in a televised broadcast urging a peaceful settlement to the dispute over racial segregation.”
In the prologue of his 2012 book “A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America”, Meredith describes his experience as he integrated the University of Mississippi:
“It is October 1962. I am walking across the campus of the University of Mississippi, surrounded by a crowd of screaming young white men. They are sometimes joined by young white women, freshly scrubbed, lipsticked, and powdered paragons of southern beauty, who run up to me and scream the most filthy combinations of curses you could ever imagine, their faces contorted in paroxysms of rage. The men surround me in teams by day and spend their nights trying to torment me out of my sleep with noise and threats that continue all night, every night. Death threats are pouring in from across the United States, nearly one thousand so far, many detailing the gruesome ways I will be killed. Rocks start to fly in my direction, the screaming intensifies, and the crowd surges closer. I am unarmed and wear no protective gear. But I have no fear, not a molecule of it. I am thinking of history, of America’s and my own, of black kings and Indian queens, of vanished ages and empires. I am thinking of generations long dead and far in the future. I have a slight smile of serenity on my face. I have no fear. I have no fear because I am a black man in Mississippi and to be so means I am already dead. And a dead man has nothing to fear.”
On October 1, 1962 Meredith was able to enter the University of Mississippi unharmed because he was surrounded by United States marshals and United States Army troops. There were approximately 30,000 U.S. troops, federal marshals and national guardsmen protecting Meredith from the baying mob of some 3,000 White Americans determined to tear him limb from limb.
According to the BBC report of the day Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi: “U.S. marshals, military police and National Guardsmen used teargas to take on rioters armed with rocks, lead pipes, petrol bombs and in some instances rifles and shotguns. More than 100 people were arrested during the night. One U.S. marshal was shot in the neck and critically wounded. Cars and television trucks were smashed and burned and journalists and cameramen were beaten, as rioters turned on the media. Mr. Meredith remained under guard inside the campus in a university dormitory during the fighting.”
On January 21, 1960 when he first attempted to register at the University of Mississippi Meredith was a 26-year-old (born June 25, 1933) African-American man who had served his country in the armed forces and was attending Jackson State University which is one of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Meredith anticipated that the University of Mississippi would reject his application and he made plans to take his fight to the courts. He writes in “A Mission from God” about the beginning of the court battle: “On May 31, 1961, we filed suit against state officials and the University of Mississippi in the U.S. District Court in Meridian, Mississippi, under Judge Mize, alleging that my admission had been denied on the basis of race.”
From there, the battle was on and never giving up Meredith took his battle all the way to the United States Supreme Court. As Meredith explains, President John F. Kennedy was forced to intervene when the Governor of Mississippi refused the directive of the U.S. Supreme court to admit Meredith to the University:
“I left President Kennedy no choice in the matter. I had compelled the U.S. Supreme court to uphold the federal court orders mandating my admission to Ole Miss, and JFK was bound by his oath of office to enforce the order.” Meredith also wrote of his feelings about the Kennedys at the time. “John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy were not civil rights heroes to me, but super-rich politicians who spent their lives ignoring the plight of black Americans and had to be forced to do the right thing.”
Sometimes we read or hear about “great people” who have achieved what most of us can only dream about and we admire the courage of such people. Sound bites and stories about these people told from the point of view of others most likely would not give us a clear picture of those heroes and/or sheroes. In many cases it is all we have but if one of those considered “great people” write about their life, we can get a clearer picture of that person and some of their remarks that may have been taken out of context and glorified or vilified can be clarified.
I had to read this book to try to understand this complicated (as all we humans are) and seemingly conflicted man.
Meredith is not merely a human rights icon (much as he denies this), he is a human being; an African-American man who was born and shaped by the circumstances of the White supremacist culture into which he was born.
Meredith writes: “I am not a civil rights activist, I am not a protester, and I am not a pacifist. I am not a Republican and I am not a Democrat. My political affiliation is Black. I am an American citizen, and a son of Mississippi. I am a warrior. And I am on a mission from God.”
Meredith’s fight with White supremacy was not over after he integrated Ole Miss and graduated. On June 6, 1966, while he was on summer break from his studies at Columbia University Law School in New York City, he travelled back to Mississippi to make a one-man 220-mile walk to encourage African-Americans to stand up against White supremacy and register to vote. This “Walk Against Fear” was almost his last walk when he was ambushed at Hernando, Mississippi, 30 miles from his starting point and shot three times, twice at point black range.
Meredith describes the moment before he was shot as he faced his would-be lyncher: “I’ve seen a lot of movies, but no Hollywood director could have made a man look as cold-blooded as this one. This was the white face the southern black man had been staring at through 30 years of history: the hard eyes; the fleshy face; the hard line of mouth; the supremely confident, homicidal arrogance of the Beast of White Supremacy.”
The photograph of Meredith lying bleeding on the road gained a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for the White photographer, Jack Randolph Thornell, who captured the moment for posterity.
As a child leafing through old copies of Ebony and Jet magazines I saw photographs of African-Americans who were brutalized (Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis) traumatized (Elizabeth Eckford) and killed (Emmett Till, Medgar Evers) by White Americans. I had read about James Meredith and seen photographs of him being escorted into Ole Miss by guards. I had seen photographs of him lying on the ground after being shot by a White supremacist as he made his one person “Walk Against Fear.” As I grew older, gazing at those photographs published in Ebony and Jet magazines which my family had stored for years, I often wondered about the feelings of those African-Americans. After reading “A Mission from God” I am truly amazed at the strength and resilience of African-Americans, how far they have come and that any of them is still standing given what they have experienced and continue to experience.