By Joe Atkins, Labor South
OXFORD, Miss. – James Meredith's new book, A Mission from God, co-authored with William Doyle, sometimes reads like the opening confession in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground.
"I befuddle people," Meredith admits. "People have an awfully hard time trying to figure me out."
"I'm not a team player. I am my own team."
"A lot of folks think I'm a real odd bird."
Like the unnamed narrator in Dostoevsky's classic 19th century novel, Meredith confesses he's a self-absorbed loner.
"I am immortal. … I am a moment in history … My ego is so enormous. … Someone once wisecracked that my name should be changed to 'I, James Meredith.'"
Meredith has baffled admirers and detractors much of his life, certainly since that day 50 years ago when he, the lone black man in a sea of white, entered the campus of the University of Mississippi and enrolled as its first black student (photo at left via Library of Congress). A riot by angry whites left two dead, dozens shot, and more than a hundred more injured. President John F. Kennedy sent 20,000 troops to Oxford in what some have called "the last battle of the Civil War." Oct. 1 marks the 50th anniversary of Meredith's admission to Ole Miss.
In his own words, the Attala County native is "a civil rights hero who absolutely hates to talk about civil rights," a black man who rejects the term "African-American," a man who once joined the staff of the original modern-day GOP obstructionist, the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina (also known as "Senator No").
Meredith endorsed Mississippi segregationist Ross Barnett's gubernatorial bid in 1967 and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke's bid for Louisiana governor in 1991.
Meredith's career after his dramatic showdown at Ole Miss has been a series of fits and starts: abortive runs for Congress and other offices, including president of the United States; a mixed record of business ventures; a law degree from Columbia University although he never took the bar exam and never practiced law.
When I first met James Meredith in Jackson back in the early 1980s, he had just founded what he called the Reunification Church, which he believed would help him fulfill his "divine responsibility assigned by God," revealed in a "series of dreams," and "use my life for the betterment of my people and mankind."
The church turned out to be a dream that never quite worked out.
Today, nearing 80, he admits he has one great regret: "I have not done nearly enough to help America's poor, and especially its poorest black citizens." As for communicating his ideas of "triumphant American citizenship, black advancement, and black self-transformation" effectively to others, "I have failed completely" so far.
He always set his sights high, and he always had a strong sense of self. When the mob at Ole Miss crowded close to him in 1962, shouting epithets and threats, he said his view of himself was this: "I am a Zen samurai. I am invincible. Nothing can harm me."
After all, he had come back to Mississippi after years in the U.S. Air Force to declare war on racism at "the holiest temple of white supremacy in America," Ole Miss. A man who eschewed Martin Luther King's philosophy of nonviolence, Meredith "believed in overwhelming physical force and the threat of organized violence, legally applied by the federal government" as the only means to defeat the Jim Crow South.
When he began his lonely 220-mile "March Against Fear" from Memphis to Jackson in 1966, "I could feel the spiritual presence of my late father walking beside me, and along with him were no less than Jesus Christ and the Founding Fathers of America. There was George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Frederick Douglass, along with my African and Indian royal ancestors … ."
He would be shot on the second day of that journey.
Today, when I walk the tree-lined pathways of the beautiful campus of Ole Miss, I see what James Meredith helped accomplish here. I see students of all races burrowing in their books, hurrying to their classrooms, laughing outside the Student Union. What Meredith did not only changed a university but also a state and a nation.
He admits he has always been "a loner among blacks as well as whites." He would never be the leader on the steps of a great memorial preaching to the multitudes, never the congressman negotiating compromises over thick stacks of legislation, certainly never the civil rights leader-turned-media celebrity.
He would and will always be that lonely figure, a mystic and a mystery, who stepped onto the stage at a critical moment, braving more than his share of what Shakespeare called the "slings and arrows," showing unimaginable courage and fortitude, enough to override those baffling moments since then. That includes even now as he rejects the statue of him on the campus he integrated as a "false idol" that "must be destroyed and ground to dust."
Meredith is still on a mission today, and again it has to do with public education. He wants to "challenge every American citizen to commit right now to help children in the public schools in their community." And, in doing that, he says, "I'm still marching against fear" and for courage and commitment.
One key to the James Meredith mystery that's never been much discussed is provided in his book: his love for Mississippi. He left it many times, but he kept coming back. "Mississippi is mine. And one must love what is his. I love Mississippi like a bee loves honey."
That's a profound statement from someone whose love hasn't always been requited.
(Photo of James Meredith during a recent book signing at Off Square Books in Oxford, Miss. by Joe Atkins via Labor South.)
By Joe Atkins, Labor South
Joe Atkins is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of "Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press." A veteran journalist, Atkins previously worked as the congressional correspondent with Gannett New Service's Washington bureau and with newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi.