This week (Aug. 18) in 1963, James Meredith graduated from the University of Mississippi with a degree in history, which is fitting because when he entered “Ole Miss” he himself made history. Meredith, of course, was the first African-American to enroll in that historically all-white school, and it took a court order and an escort of armed federal marshals for him to accomplish it.
He actually had been admitted to Ole Miss a year earlier, but when the school’s registrar realized that Meredith was black, his admission was rescinded, forcing Meredith, assisted by the NAACP, to file a lawsuit demanding that he be admitted. That suit eventually came before the U.S. Supreme Court, and in September of 1962 that court ordered the university to desegregate.
Unsurprisingly, the governor of this deep-South, proudly segregationist state, Ross Barnett, decided to defy the Supreme Court, vowing that Meredith would “never, never” be allowed to enter Ole Miss, and when Meredith went to register for the 1962 school year, Barnett was there to personally block the door to the registrar’s office.
Immediately Barnett was found guilty of civil contempt and threatened with arrest and a fine, and a constitutional crisis seemed imminent between the civil rights movement, backed by federal law, and state’s rights advocates claiming the preeminence of state law.
At that point President John Kennedy called Barnett to say that the federal government would enforce the court’s order, that U.S. Marshals would accompany Meredith on his first day of classes, and that Mississippi’s state police would be expected to protect Meredith as long as it was necessary. Reluctantly, Barnett gave in, and although there were riots on the day Meredith enrolled in the university, he was admitted, finished out his year, and eventually graduated without any other major incidents. On graduation day Meredith wore — upside down — a Ross Barnett campaign button with the words “Never, never.” on it.
It was another major milestone in the civil rights movement, but interestingly, in his later years Meredith’s relationship with civil rights leaders was a rocky one. On the one hand, in 1966 he led a civil rights “March Against Fear” from Tennessee to Mississippi in which he was shot and wounded by a sniper. On the other hand, he was often highly critical of the official civil rights movement, believing that its leaders’ emphasis on petitioning the government to “grant” them “civil rights” relegated them to second-class status and made them government dependents. As Meredith saw it, there was nothing to grant. He was an American citizen who, by law and nature, had the same rights accorded every other American — no more, no less. That was Meredith’s idea of a truly “color blind” society.