CIVIL RIGHTS pioneer and activist James Howard Meredith put his life at risk by being the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi in 1962. After the state repeatedly blocked his attempts to register at the university, a legal battle waged by Meredith and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) achieved a landmark victory for INTEGRATION. When violence erupted on the day
that Meredith enrolled, President JOHN F. KENNEDY sent several thousand U.S. Army troops to the campus to quell bloody rioting.Armed federal marshals protected Meredith in every classroom until he graduated in 1963. In 1966, the James Meredith March against Fear united traditional and radical civil rights leaders in a voter-registration march across Mississippi. Meredith was shot, but he recovered and joined MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., and others in a month-long demonstration that marked a turning point in the civil rights struggle. In later years, Meredith, who had always maintained independence from the inheritors of the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, became one of their sharpest critics.
Meredith was born June 25, 1933, in Kosciusko, Mississippi. He was one of ten children of Roxy Patterson Meredith and Moses Cap, a poor farmer in Kosciusko. As a young child, Meredith became aware of racism. He would refuse the nickels and dimes that a local white man regularly gave to black children, calling the gifts degrading. More painful was the realization he made as a young man on a trip to visit relatives in Detroit, where he saw blacks and whites sharing the same public facilities. He rode the train home from this brush with integration, and when he arrived in Memphis, the conductor told him to leave the whites-only car. "I cried all the way home," Meredith later recalled, "and vowed to devote myself to changing the degrading conditions of black people." He also had other ambitions and goals. Ever since a childhood visit to a white doctor's office, he had harbored a dream of attending the University of Mississippi, the physician's alma mater.
After high school, in 1951, Meredith joined the U.S. Air Force. He rose to the rank of staff sergeant, earned credits toward a college degree,
and served in the KOREAN WAR. Following his discharge in 1960, he attended the all-black Jackson State College, but the courses he wanted to take were offered only at the state university. As a 28-year-old, he followed with hopefulness the speeches of President John F. Kennedy, which promised greater enjoyment of opportunity for all U.S. citizens. Change was in the air, and many African Americans...