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  • Southern Reverie

A Fight For Absolute Rights: James Meredith at The University of Mississippi

United States Air Force veteran, James Meredith won a groundbreaking lawsuit in September 1962 which allowed him admission as the first African American student at The University of Mississippi. A memorial to him now stands at the center of the Ole Miss campus. In 2002 and again in 2012 the University of Mississippi led a year-long series of events to celebrate the 40th and 50th anniversaries of Meredith’s courageous first step towards integration of the institution. He spoke at both events remarking on the challenges and isolation while attending the university. This area of the campus has been designated as a National Historic Landmark for the events leading to Mr. Meredith’s enrollment.

Meredith was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi in 1933. Kosciusko is south of Oxford and also happens to be the birthplace of Oprah Winfrey. James Meredith served in the United States Air Force from 1951 to 1960. He attended Jackson State University for two years and then sought to continue his education at The University of Mississippi. Following two unsuccessful attempts to enroll, he filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi that his denial was based on his race. Ultimately the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that Mr. Meredith had the right to be admitted to the state school. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that ruling.

Meredith attempted to enter the campus and enroll on September 20, 25, and again on the 26th. Though university officials were prepared to admit him, his attempts were blocked by the governor, Ross R. Barnett, who vowed that no Mississippi school would be integrated while he was governor. The state went as far as to quickly pass a law which denied admission to any person “who has a crime of moral turpitude against him” or who has been convicted of any felony offense or not pardoned.” The same day it became law, they created a trumped-up conviction against Meredith based on false information regarding his voter registration. Governor Barnett was ultimately found guilty of civil contempt and was ordered arrested and fined $10,000 per every day he kept up the refusal.

Violent riots broke out at the center of campus causing President John F. Kennedy to order the Mississippi National guard and federal troops to the campus. It took some 30,000 U.S. troops, federal marshals and national guardsmen to get James Meredith to class after the uprising. Two people were killed and more than 300 injured.

Despite the opposition, on October 1, 1962, James Meredith enrolled in the University of Mississippi and graduated in 1963 with a degree in political science. He went on to complete his law degree at Columbia University in 1968. Meredith persisted with great courage against racism and harassment. His enrollment to Ole Miss is considered an extremely important and pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement.

Though Mississippi continued to see violence facing civil rights leaders, it did not escalate to this level again and the events in 1962 marked a turning point in Oxford, Mississippi and the state as a whole. By 2002, African Americans comprised 13% of the enrollment (Mississippi has a 37.3% African American population). James Meredith’s son, Joseph, graduated that year as the top doctoral student at the School of Business Administration.

"“When it comes to my rights as an American citizen, and yours, I am a triumphalist and an absolutist. Anything less is an insult,” --James Meredith

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