James Meredith, the first non-white student to attend a university in Mississippi, still worries about education in the state, especially for African American students. While speaking at three Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College campuses this week, Meredith said that Mississippi is the scimitar that will cut out the rest of nation’s success or failure.
“Mississippi still has the same issues it had in 1962 when I entered the University of Mississippi,” he said. “Its problems still center around the poor and wealthy and black and white. Those very problems are what, if fixed, will save our nation. If we can lead the way in Mississippi, we can make the difference in our nation and in the world.”
Meredith said that public education in Mississippi needs improvement. “Things are much better on the Coast and I see this region as an example that the rest of the state must follow. And let me add that we cannot wait on the government to fix education. As parents and as a community, we must make the changes necessary for our children to be educated.” He called on churches to do their part by preparing children under the age of five years old for school and for life. “The churches and specifically the matriarchs in our churches should focus on preparing all children within a two mile radius of the church. These children need to be taught self-discipline and morals. Because without those two things, they will never be prepared to learn and will not succeed in life.”
Meredith was the first African-American student to enroll at The University of Mississippi and was a champion for the Civil Rights Movement. Born in Kosciusko, Miss., in 1933, he was raised on a farm with nine siblings. He joined the military after high school and attended Jackson State University. In 1961, he applied to Ole Miss, an all-white school at the time. He was admitted, but his admission was withdrawn when the registrar discovered his race. Since all public educational institutions had been ordered to desegregate by this time (following 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling), Meredith filed a suit alleging discrimination. Although the district court ruled against him, the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor.
When Meredith arrived at Ole Miss to register for classes on Sept. 20, 1962, he found the entrance blocked. Rioting erupted, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent 500 U.S. Marshals to the scene. Additionally, President John F. Kennedy sent military police, troops from the Mississippi National Guard and officials from the U.S. Border Patrol. On Oct. 1, 1962, James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at The University of Mississippi.
Meredith graduated with a degree in political science in 1963. He wrote an account of his experience, “Three Years in Mississippi,” which was published in 1966. He went on to receive a master’s degree in economics from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, and a law degree from Columbia University in 1968.
Now 80 years old, he continues to be an activist, speaking around the country. He lives in Jackson, Miss.