JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – James Meredith is a civil rights icon who hates the term “civil rights.”
It’s as if civil rights were somehow set apart from – well, rights.
“When it comes to my rights as an American citizen, and yours, I am a triumphalist and an absolutist. Anything less is an insult,” said the black man who 50 years ago inflamed the anger of white Mississippi by quietly demanding admission to the state’s segregated flagship university.
Now 79 and living in Jackson, Meredith sees himself as a messenger of God – a warrior who crippled the beast of white supremacy by integrating the University of Mississippi.
These days, he frequently wears an Ole Miss baseball hat in public. When the university’s football team recently played the University of Texas in Oxford, Meredith was a guest in the chancellor’s stadium skybox, and the crowd applauded when that was announced over the loudspeakers.
Yet he says he doesn’t plan to participate in the university’s commemoration of his history-making enrollment, which prompted a state-federal standoff, sparked deadly mob violence and ultimately ended the university’s official policy of racial segregation.
The university says Meredith has been invited to take part in events to mark the anniversary, including a walk that student leaders will take Monday to retrace his first day on campus.
Meredith says he doesn’t see the point.
“I ain’t never heard of the French celebrating Waterloo,” he told The Associated Press. “I ain’t never heard of the Germans celebrating the invasion of Normandy, or ... the bombing and destruction of Berlin. I ain’t never heard of the Spanish celebrating the destruction of the Armada.”
Asked to clarify, Meredith said: “Did you find anything 50 years ago that I should be celebrating?”
Ole Miss administrators today don’t shy away from the history of a half century ago. For the past year, Ole Miss has sponsored lectures and other events to commemorate Meredith’s Oct. 1, 1962, enrollment and the ensuing changes that have made the university more diverse.
In a state with a 37 percent black population, Ole Miss now has a black enrollment of about 16.6 percent, and the current student body president, Kim Dandridge, is black – the fourth black person elected to the post.
University officials are careful to say the events are for commemoration, not celebration.
Mississippi’s segregationist governor in 1962, Ross Barnett declared that no school would be integrated on his watch. He denounced the federal government as “evil and illegal forces of tyranny” for ordering Ole Miss to enroll Meredith, a 29-year-old Air Force veteran who had already taken classes at historically black Jackson State College.
But even as Barnett whipped the white populace into a segregationist frenzy, he privately negotiated with President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to try to save face as it became clear that federal authorities would escort Meredith onto campus and make sure he enrolled.
In the face of Mississippi’s defiance, federal authorities deployed more than 3,000 soldiers and more than 500 law enforcement officers to Oxford. An angry mob of students and outsiders yelled and hurled bricks. Tear gas canisters exploded amid the oaks and magnolias. Two white men were killed. More than 200 people were injured, including 160 U.S. marshals.
In his new book, “A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America,” Meredith and co-author William Doyle recall the court battle and mob violence.
“I chose as my target the University of Mississippi, which in 1960 was the holiest temple of white supremacy in America, next to the U.S. Capitol and the White House, both of which were under the control of segregationists and their collaborators,” Meredith writes.
“I reasoned that if I could enter the University of Mississippi as its first known black student, I would fracture the system of state-enforced white supremacy in Mississippi. It would drive a stake into the heart of the beast.”
At Ole Miss today, many fraternities and sororities remain all-white or all-black, but it’s common to see students socialize across racial lines. When Dandridge ran for student body president, she said race was not an issue because the only other candidate also was black.
“Students don’t really look at color when they choose their friends,” said Dandridge, who’s the only black member of her sorority, Phi Mu.
“I want people to know that this university has made a lot of progress,” she said in a phone interview from Oxford.
Ole Miss has distanced itself from some Old South imagery. Although its sports teams are still called the Rebels, the university a few years ago retired the Colonel Rebel mascot, a cane-wielding, white bearded old man who looked to many observers like the caricature of a plantation owner.
Meredith – who sometimes goes on campus wearing a white suit that bears more than a passing resemblance to Colonel Reb’s outfit – saw the change as an effort to downplay his triumph over the old Ole Miss. He suggested that he “captured” the colonel when segregation fell.
Meredith writes that although people consider him a “civil rights hero,” that’s not how he sees himself: “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.”
During an hourlong AP interview at a Jackson restaurant, two white men interrupted to shake Meredith’s hand. Both men, who were strangers to Meredith, appeared to be in their 40s.
“Thank you for all you’ve done over the years,” one man said. “Thank you for your message.”
However, when the man mentioned Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Meredith shook his head and replied: “Bobby died and still didn’t get it.”
The man looked puzzled. Meredith chuckled, and the man walked away.
Rather than talking, for the umpteenth time, about what things were like in 1962, Meredith expounds on what he sees as his current mission from God. He wants every black congregation in Mississippi to take responsibility for each child born within 2 miles of the church and make sure each receives a good education and proper moral upbringing.
“The real problem in Mississippi is almost a complete moral breakdown,” Meredith told the AP. “In order to move Mississippi from the bottom to the top, all we have to do is just get people to do a little more what they know, to practice a little more of what they preach.”
Meredith is now memorialized by a bronze statue near the University of Mississippi’s main administrative building. Yet he calls it “hideous,” and wants it destroyed.
Meredith says the monument glosses over the magnitude of Mississippi’s resistance to his exercise of what should have been recognized as his obvious, inherent rights as an American citizen.
It was, he said, a war.
“Mississippi has so humiliated me — they ain’t never acknowledged that there was a war,” Meredith said.
Chancellor Dan Jones says the university won’t destroy the statue, which was dedicated in 2006.
In a letter to Meredith in August, Jones wrote that the monument recognizes Meredith’s courage.
“Your determination to enroll under the most difficult conditions and to successfully complete your degree in the midst of constant hostility was a turning point in the life of our University, State and Nation,” Jones wrote. “It was instrumental in changing lives not just for black Americans, but for all of us.”
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .