Conversations; 404; James Meredith, Civil Rights Activist
Born in 1933 and Mississippi he is best known as the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1962 he risked his life when he successfully applied the laws of integration and became the first black student at Ole Miss in 1066 he was shot by a sniper while leading the walk against fear a march organized to encourage blacks to get out and vote. When he was physically able to resume that March he did so joined this time by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. another prominent civil rights leaders of the day. I'm Jean Edwards and tonight it is a pleasure to welcome to our conversations program my friend James Meredith. Yes it's my pleasure. Good to see you again. Thank you for your health first of all are you aren't you doing OK.
It's it's not what it used to be I guess it never will be but it's getting better almost every day.
And you have lots of things to talk about. I'm going to ask you about your current projects in a minute. The first I want to go back we need to go back to 1962 my goodness 40.
It'll be 40 years 140 years this year.
Did you have any idea or when you walked in and talked to Medgar Evers about what you want to do. They really did want to support you very much today.
And I certainly can't say that about Meg. No not if I had her but what about the organization.
Right. As a matter of fact he didn't even ask his organization because he knew they would not. He went directly to the NBA Double-A CPD Legal Defense Fund which was a separate operation that was headed by Thurgood Marshall. Of course my lawyer was kind of a make a model. So Meg I have as I must say was an extremely wise man and I have to say without Meg I don't think it would have ever happened.
But Eva grating old Miss was not a real priority at the time was it. I mean there were a lot of other things that seemed much more important to Oh yes no.
I spent nine years in the military before. Coming back to Mississippi in 1960 and I got out and came back with the plan that I had drawn up over the year is to break the system of white supremacy. So I came to fight a war and the war was not against Ole Miss. It was against the white supremacist a that was legally an official established in the state of Mississippi.
He became a cause for Ross Barnett. Didn't you.
Yeah that's that's that's not an easy subject. No because I always thought that Ross Barnett really was on my side. Really. Oh yes from day one. And I've always actually credited him with the fact that during the entire three years that my deal was going on not a single guy was ever hurt or harmed by anyone. And I think that was exactly the reason that button had played it the way he did.
Did you listen to his speech that night on television. It was was it the weekend before it was a Friday night before when he talked about at the ballgame.
No the speech that was televised around the state.
What did you think of the other well I thought he was governor and I thought he was ruling he was making sure that he kept control of the population in Mississippi that he would be the one making the decision and choices. It's just like when he had all of the sheriffs and deputies coming to the governor's mansion to surround the governor's mansion to keep the Federals from the west in him he knew the Federals were not going to arrest him. Right. What he brought those people there for was to get control over them so they didn't go back out in the counties and take control themselves.
So you didn't feel like the that the riot was partly his fault.
Well I know I mean as he claimed he always was trying to maneuver to keep down the those kind of things and I genuinely believe that he was.
He spoke to the football game that Saturday night. The right crowd encouraged him to get up. How did you feel at that moment.
Well I didn't really know about that till later because they're already there same time I was on my way from Memphis. And before the game was over I was on the campus of University of Mississippi in the custody of the marshals. Well under the protection of the protection of my heart. Right. Because my whole thing was my issue was citizenship and full rights of a citizen. So I always considered that I was in charge of everything. I mean so the Massu only then my pledge.
Tell me about that night.
Well quite frankly I went to bed went to sleep I really didn't know about the activities that had taken place to follow my own. Really you know I couldn't. Could you hear what was going on. No. I was in Baxter hall that was way up on the other end of the campus. And what was going on was going on down in the sense of the gunshots and all those things were far away from you right.
I didn't hear any of that.
But you got up on Monday morning and there was yeah that's it was a Monday morning and that was when I really learned about what had happened. Matias came to get me to take me to register. And what did they say.
Well they didn't really have to say anything. They had to go back in the in the dominator get blankets to throw over the seats because all of the windows were broken out of the car to keep the glass from cutlass. Really. So you know just generally Actually it was much conversation but they generally they probably thought I already knew and you didn't know now.
And you looked around you at that moment and what did you think.
Well quite frankly I thought that the federal government had done its job. You see that was my whole mission was to force the federal government the Kennedy administration into position where they had to use the military power to support my rights of citizenship. They didn't want to do that did that. No no no president has ever done it before. And they in the eyes and how it sent troops into Little Rock. But that was very different from what happened at Oxford. You know I mean they sent what 400 troops in Iraq and so President Kennedy sent 33000 troops including the top troops in America and occupy Oxford in the University of Mississippi not just for a day or so. Was it right now the whole time. I mean the federal government was there the whole time I was there.
Tell me about the first class.
Well I read your shit at 8:00 and went to my first class which started late I was about 15 20 minutes late. Oh and what was the first question. The longer the history of colonial America. Michael O'Neill American history really. And actually I found out the last time I was in Oxford. The professor is still alive he's near 100 now but he's still there.
What was the class like what was it like that day in the class.
Well of course you knew I mean that I was calm and then everyone knew. Right. But he knew they would come into his class I mean and when I walked in he had everybody sit in a circle and nobody act like anything it happened. He had to prep them and the modules started to come in the room with me and he asked him to stay outside and that set a very important precedent I believe because they never came inside a classroom to have again.
Did you ever. Or or how long was it before you began to feel welcome.
Well I wonder about men welcome accept it what about been accepted. It was strictly a matter of enjoying not enjoying citizenship rights. I mean it's so so it didn't make any difference. No I didn't.
He did make a difference whether anybody was kind to you or have similarly said hello to you in the hallway in fact I made a specific point of never recognizing anybody at the campus.
Those who were friendly are those who are unfriendly.
I wanted to because what I was doing was aimed at today 40 years later. I mean as to what the attitude of people would be.
Almost every day now some want to come up to me in the grocery store somewhere and tell me what they thought. Forty years ago they won't camp was when I was there and how they feel now. And of course that's what I wanted and that was only the way I wanted to know those people was bringing themselves out.
So every morning you got up and you put on your clothes and you brushed your teeth and you marched off.
Straight ahead focused and that's right that's right. It was it was strictly a matter of citizenship and who would enjoy it.
Do you remember graduation day.
Yes to most I remember about it as my parents were there and particularly my father after the graduation he made a comment he said these people can be decent.
And I really thought it was significant statement for him to make in his.
Last years after having lived all his life under this system and having seen all the things there I seen now.
Does it seem the people who talk to you a lot in grocery stores are people who were there people who most of what they are people who went through it somewhat not fair but they were just in Mississippi but they had as they were around it right at that time.
And does it seem to you that young people today don't remember it as much don't think about it as much maybe don't respect it as much.
Well of course it is not taught in Mississippi history.
It is also not passed on by Mississippi families. Exactly why I'm not sure but.
Actually. The average young black in Mississippi if you tell them that you couldn't drink water from the public fountain line they won't believe there is no history of it.
There is no memory right. But no knowledge.
Why. Why did you leave all this and not come back for three years. Oh no I graduated from I mean after you got out but you didn't come back until the til the march.
Was it was it. Oh you mean back to Mississippi right. Yeah. Actually I had an invitation to do graduate study in Africa before I left the University of Mississippi and that's where I went and then I came back from Africa after I got my master's degree and went to Columbia Law School for three years.
So your life was full you were busy all yes. What was it that brought you back. Why did you think you needed to come back.
Well because I had at that time three children and I was taught that Mississippi was the best place to raise a family. And I still think that.
Why did you lead the march. Why why.
Well actually the idea come to be it was at least 20 years old. I mean it was in the plan and a whole lot longer didn't even break in the system of white supremacy. Really it was designed to challenge the fear that you see it was fear that kept Mississippi what Mississippi was and it wasn't just the fear of black. You understand whites as FIFA live not more fearful of violating the our way of life and our laws as blacks were and they were a pawn is just a civility.
So that was the thing I knew had to be broken.
So you're right but it was a real change stand up and march from Memphis all the way to Jackson and people would register to vote along the way. Right but the other thing was.
Whites in Mississippi didn't know how they should react. You understand. I mean so I wanted to create a situation where they could be taught.
So you're the average white did not know if a black went to register to vote if they should go up and shake his hand and congratulate him take their rifle out of the truck and shoot him. Yeah. So my mission was to establish a way of letting them know which one. And I actually as it turned out a year later when I started to march less than 8000 blacks in the state of Mississippi was registered a year later. Over 300000 were registered. So it made a difference. Oh yes. So why doesn't loot. But one of them shot you right. But the big difference was he was not a Mississippian. He was from Tennessee. So Mississippi was able to make him the first white man ever punished for shooting a black. He went to Parchment Prison.
Do you remember remember how it happened did you see it happen.
Oh yes I saw an image of your face when it was you know actually that was after I got shot. But one day they had told me a couple of blocks before that there was a man down there in the bush waiting to shoot me. I didn't really pay that much attention but when I got to where he was he called out. I only want James Merrett at that point I started it toward you know I was going take his gun away from me when I got close enough to see his eyes. I knew that he would know. So I just figured I better get out of his way. So I started back across the highway and that's when he shot me. I mean I you shot me three times I actually shot four times. He hit me three times. And so. Yeah I saw it and heard it.
You're in the hospital and in Memphis recovering from all of it. And Dr. King and some of the other leaders of the time came to you did the march then become a political event.
You say it wasn't a March when I started it was a walk. You see individual citizens walk right. I mean because it's their right. Marches the protests. Well James Meredith have never engaged in a protest. I mean they they. But after I got shot the others wanted to do that which I gave my blessing to. But then it became the merit of March but they named it that. And I mean yes and they should have called it the Meredith walk. Well no because that was what they did right. They conducted a mob. Right. Yeah. Which is entirely a different thing.
You were there at the end of it and at the campus at Tougaloo when it when it was all over Tell me about that last day.
Well if they want a lot of people oh no I never participated in what became the Meredith March.
Because for two reasons One I didn't. Protests which are marches the protests the other I didn't do anything were women and children were involved. And Dr. King wanted his wife to walk with us. And I absolutely wouldn't permit that. So actually. I was only Dyess when they spoke at the Capitol. But I never was in the mob. I mean I rode and was up on the dias but they must do the cap.
You thought it was too dangerous for women and children.
All right well it meant not I'm not a bit dangerous. I just thought that women and children should not be engaged in war. And that's what I was engaged in and it was a I mean that is so it was absolutely and of course I never believed in any way in nonviolence I thought that was on America. And about the worst thing ever happened to the black race was the promoting of the nonviolence idea.
Do you want to be remembered as the man who changed old Miss or the man who taught young people how to read and speak.
Well actually what I really want to be remembered for and if I'm able to live another five years and have good health I want to be remembered for solving the problems that people face today in Mississippi and that the number one problem is that particularly black people at least 40 percent of the Whites don't speak proper English.
They speak black and when did you become aware of this.
When are they going to lie for quite a long time to become something that became so important.
Well I studied it for many years. I've mean and.
I guess about twenty five years ago I studied linguistics at the University of Cincinnati and that's when I really discovered this how important language was in any society. And number one in order to be competitive in society you have to master the language of that society. Now Black English is a foreign language to propping these totally far. I mean they and the big mistakes that blacks have tried particularly the education system they have tried to block English into proper NGs and that is it can never happen. It's easier to correct Russian into profit than it is lacking in the propping. So what's the solution.
What the Europeans did it did tie against the Jews the Germans the Scandinavians when they came to America the first thing they did was made proper English their first language and their children never knew they foreign language. And that's what has to happen with the blacks in America and also the Spanish to a large extent. I mean they're going to have to make a proper english their first language and it's a matter of economics. Well that's a different issue and that's my present Mish. If I live and have good health my main goal is to become the biggest businessman in the state of Mississippi. And the reason is because of my age.
If I'm successful then I hope it will inspire are many people who think about it. So this is a capitalistic society and anyone not a captive of us will never rise to the top of this society.
You've never been interested in that before have you.
Well I'm just doing less interestingly never really back actually had a lot of money quite frankly I've always been a captive.
I mean they see a lot of people no no. I mean I'm a tree farmer. I'm the biggest black tree farm in the state of Mississippi. I mean what you do don't hear about that. I mean but in New York when I was in law school I had the biggest television repair operation in the city of New York the biggest Motorola TV operation in the state of New York. So I mean it was I've always been a capitalist but right now I've decided to go into the used car business and I intend to make it the biggest business in the state of Mississippi.
You have a pretty good feeling about Jackson now don't you. Well yes I really think that the Jackson is going to turn around. I mean why do you think that.
Well because a lot of people are really down on Jackson or they're right.
But number one I think that the present administration of Jackson has now understood that this cannot be an all black city.
And I think that they taken steps to make everybody welcome in this city. And also I think that people who have not left.
I'm more comfortable.
And there's a lot of planning and a lot of activity. Downtown Jackson and I believe that Jackson is going to become very similar to the hub. It has always been I mean they of course everybody been notice in the build up in rank and then right matter sun in all of the surrounding areas. But that I think is it's going to give a boost. To Jackson I think Jackson is going to be similar to New York City where Manhattan is is the financial and heart of the heart of right a retail center.
Well that bring the pride back with it bring the pride back.
I think it will and I think that Jackson is going to be the first major city in America to solve the racial problem. I mean it is. And I think that's going to make everything better for everybody. And then of course I think the Nissan plant is really a question crucial even though it's say it's in Canton. It's rooted in Jackson now I mean and I believe that that Jackson is once again going to be the center of everything in the state of Mississippi.
Fortieth anniversary comes up this fall when you go when you go back to your mess.
Well I don't know. I really must be talking about a kid in a library or is planning a big celebration. And I've been hearing that Ole Miss may do something but they haven't contacted me but the Kennedy Center. What is the Kennedy Center plan. Well I don't think they're quite sure yet but I. But they.
Plan and something big for the celebration you know I guess they consider this at least the second most important thing of the candid ministration next to the Miss Cuban missile crisis.
The Ole Miss Thing Happened done just three years. And so that's what they're doing.
But I think probably it will be a conflict although they have asked for the prime date.
So I don't really know what you can probably make room for both of them.
I hope hope so. Thank you sir. It's always a pleasure to talk to you because my. Good. Good luck to you. Well thank you so much.
This transcript is machine-generated and has not been corrected. It is likely there will be errors.
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- Series: Conversations Length: 27:45 No. 404 Title: James Meredith, Civil Rights Activist ST CC James Howard Meredith (b.1933) is an American civil rights movement figure, a writer, and a political adviser; the first African-American to attend the segregated University of Mississippi.
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- Chicago: “Conversations; 404; James Meredith, Civil Rights Activist,” Mississippi Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 16, 2019, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_60-23612mrj.
- MLA: “Conversations; 404; James Meredith, Civil Rights Activist.” Mississippi Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. February 16, 2019. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_60-23612mrj>.
- APA: Conversations; 404; James Meredith, Civil Rights Activist. Boston, MA: Mississippi Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_60-23612mrj