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Decades after desegregation, James Meredith fighting for America's 'moral character'

"The problem with America today is the moral character has fallen to a low level. It's got to be raised," James Meredith said.

By
Daniel Uria
James Meredith (C) is escorted to class at the University of Mississippi in 1962. A year later, Meredith became the first African American to graduate from the Oxford, Miss., campus. Photo courtesy of Marion S. Trikosko/U.S. News & World Report/Wikimedia Commons
James Meredith (C) is escorted to class at the University of Mississippi in 1962. A year later, Meredith became the first African American to graduate from the Oxford, Miss., campus. Photo courtesy of Marion S. Trikosko/U.S. News & World Report/Wikimedia Commons

Aug. 17 (UPI) -- More than a half-century after he became the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi -- an iconic moment in the strive for racial equality -- James Meredith says he's found the courage to embark on another mission from God.

Now 85, Meredith has set out to use his influence within the state as a champion of the African-American community to encourage black lay Christians to hold each other accountable and raise society's "moral character."

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"Maybe in a lot of places James Meredith doesn't count for much, but in Mississippi he does and I believe Mississippi is the center of the universe," Meredith told UPI in a recent interview.

Meredith enrolled and attended the Oxford, Miss., campus in 1962 -- and 55 years ago Saturday, Aug. 18, 1963, he became its first black graduate.

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Then 29, Meredith fought Mississippi's government -- with the full backing of President John Kennedy -- for his civil rights.

"The only word mentioned in the Constitution identifying human beings is 'citizen.' I was born in the United States of America and therefore I was a full citizen," he said. "I may have recognized somebody with the capacity to force me not to enjoy some of my rights, but never would I give up any."

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Meredith rejects the label of "civil rights" icon. While he feels no animosity toward the civil rights movement, he believes it represented a crusade by a select group of white people to encourage African Americans to win some of their rights, as long as they understood they weren't entitled to all of them.

RELATED On this day in history: James Meredith barred from Ole Miss

"That was a theory I could never buy," he said. "So, I never saw anything connected to civil rights being against anything I was for. It was just giving up more than I was willing to give up."

'I won that war'

Like many universities in the South, the University of Mississippi had yet to be integrated by the turn of the 1960s, despite the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education a decade earlier that segregation was unconstitutional. States like Mississippi had conflicting state laws that allowed it to continue, as long as the federal statute wasn't enforced.

Inspired by Kennedy's inaugural address in 1960, Meredith began to apply to the university in 1961 after serving in the U.S. Air Force and studying for two years at Jackson State University.

He was denied admission in Oxford twice and was later advised by the NAACP to file a lawsuit stating his admission was denied based on his race. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, which ultimately upheld the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit's ruling that Meredith had the right to attend the state school.

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Even with the high court ruling in his favor, Meredith still faced strong opposition from Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett and mobs of people who sought to block his entrance to the school.

In his first book, Three Years in Mississippi, Meredith said he returned to Mississippi to fight a war.

"That was all I ever considered I was engaged in, was a war," he said. "And quite frankly, I won that war."

The NAACP pleaded with Kennedy to force Meredith's attendance by withdrawing federal services from the state. The president acquiesced and eventually reached an agreement with Barnett to allow Meredith to register.

With University of Mississippi fraternity houses in the background, U.S. Army trucks loaded with steel-helmeted U.S. marshals roll across the Oxford, Miss., campus in 1962. UPI File Photo

He arrived on campus Oct. 1, 1962, backed by thousands of U.S. troops to quell what Meredith called an insurrection, in which two people died and many were injured.

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"The president brought 33,000 troops into Mississippi to fight my war to kick the white supremacists' butt and that's exactly what happened," Meredith said.

'Never feared nothing'

After winning the battle for admission, Meredith continued his "war" by pursuing a degree and working to advance African-American causes. He was protected by federal marshals throughout his time at the school and continued to face racism from students and some faculty.

He said, however, he received an unaltered education.

"What most people don't know is the thing happened so fast. Mississippi wasn't ready and they taught me the same thing that they didn't want us to learn," Meredith said. "Mississippi taught the same thing and the thing about it was, the good white folks at Ole Miss didn't know the difference."

After graduating from Ole Miss in 1963, Meredith continued his education at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. He returned and earned a law degree from prestigious Columbia University in 1968.

In 1966, he also took on another battle to advance African-American rights by organizing the March Against Fear. Meredith set out to walk 220 miles from Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., to encourage voter registration.

On the second day, Meredith was shot by a white man and hospitalized. Other civil rights activists of the time, including Martin Luther King Jr., carried on the march and Meredith eventually recovered in time to complete it on June 26.

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Despite the opposition he faced, Meredith said he never experienced fear in his unflinching effort to combat the deeply rooted racism of the era.

"Believe it or not, I ain't never experienced the fear that everybody thought -- and as a matter of fact, it's been an embarrassment to me," Meredith said. "Don't you understand how insulting it is to me for people to say I had to be brave to face some ignorant white folks? I ain't never feared nothing."

Meredith twice ran, unsuccessfully, for public office and ultimately served as domestic policy adviser for longtime North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, a former segregationist.

'I'm one of the few that ain't dead'

Last month, the University of Mississippi announced it would induct Meredith and and six others into its Alumni Hall of Fame.

Almost all those already inducted are "people who had pledged their life that what James Meredith stood for would never happen," he said.

Along with the honor from the university that fought to deny he and other African Americans the right to an education, Meredith said there comes a responsibility to continue the fight.

"Most people connected with the movement, as they call it, are dead now," he said. "I'm one of the few that ain't dead. But out of all of these years, I was afraid to say that God had me on a mission to raise the moral character."

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Meredith reflected on the biblical story of Moses while describing his character crusade, saying Moses failed to fulfill God's order to deliver the Ten Commandments to his people by destroying the tablets. Centuries later, he says the responsibility to fulfill that covenant lies with him and the modern black Christian.

"The problem with America today is the moral character has fallen to a low level," Meredith said. "It has got to be raised and that's what the role of the black church is."

He said the black clergy and other leaders have rejected his message because it challenges the status quo, so he has turned his focus toward leading by example to create a grassroots effort for the black Christian community to hold each other accountable.

"According to my understanding of the Bible and the teachings of God and Jesus Christ, all Christians are supposed to do their part to make every community a better community, every family a better family," he said. "And that's my intent to make particularly the lay black Christian feel it's his personal responsibility to make everybody else do right."

The mission is one he believes he's been compelled to complete his entire life, but he said he was previously too apprehensive to execute it.

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"Moral character was a word blacks better not be using, it made other blacks so angry," he said. "It also made them angry saying that we have the obligation of making other people good and better, and I was scared to say it."

Now, though, he said his fear of God has compelled him to finally finish his work.

"I didn't fear God until a few weeks ago," he said. "That's the reason why I didn't go ahead and do what he told me to do, because I thought I didn't even need to fear him.

"I just didn't accept God's direction of what I was supposed to do, and then I just went on and lived on this false pride."

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