Term Paper: James Meredith

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¶ … James Meredith [...] James Meredith's role in the Black Student Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. In 1962, James Meredith attempted to enter the University of Mississippi to study law. He faced a long and very bitter struggle to enter the University (Ole Miss), because he was black. He subsequently became the first black student in the history of the school. Meredith's struggle opened up education to other black students and indicated the great power of one motivated individual.

James Meredith was born in the small town of Kosciusko, Mississippi in 1933. His grandparents had been slaves. He grew up on a small farm owned by his father, the first land the family had ever owned. Since there was no black high school in Kosciusko, he went to live with an uncle in Florida to attend his final year of high school. His propensity for change was evident even during his high school years. In his senior year, Meredith wrote an essay on "Why I am proud to be an American," which said he was proud of what he thought America could become, rather than what it was then. His teacher refused to submit the essay for reading, but he submitted it himself and won the contest.

After he graduated from high school, he joined the Air Force, and served his country in several overseas locations, including Japan, for nine years, rising to the rank of staff sergeant. He left the Air Force in 1960 and decided to study law. He enrolled at Jackson State Community College and graduated from that school in 1962. During his time at Jackson State, he became a school leader and speaker. It is during this time that his fight to attend the University of Mississippi truly began to take shape.

Growing up in Mississippi in the 1950s was incredibly difficult for a black child. Meredith writes of the experience, "It will be difficult, if not impossible, for anyone not growing up in Mississippi to understand the deep separation that exists, not only by race but also by class structure within the races. The side aspects of a society segregated by force are tremendously important and very essential to the social system."

In his memoir, Three Years in Mississippi, he recounts his return to his home from his stint in the Air Force, and his struggle to gain admission to the University of Mississippi. Throughout the memoir, he remembers his boyhood, and paints a graphic picture of life in the Old South. He also indicates he returned to Mississippi expressly to fight white supremacy and work for civil rights. He had a "master plan" to change the future for black Americans, and it all centered on his admission to the University of Mississippi.

It is imperative to understand the atmosphere of the South, particularly in Mississippi, in 1962 when Meredith began his campaign for admission. While blacks had obtained the right to vote after the Civil War, the white supremacist regime in Mississippi kept them from voting by intimidation and violence. Whites would not allow blacks to register to vote, and without registration, they could not vote in any election. This was just one of many ways the whites controlled all aspects of black life. They also segregated everything from schools to restrooms, drinking fountains, and eating establishments. Blacks lived in separate areas of town, and rarely mingled with whites, unless it was in some scrape with the law. Meredith wanted to change all this segregation and prejudice, and he knew it would be difficult, but he felt the results would be worth the pain and suffering it cost him and his family.

It was 1961 at Jackson State when Meredith first applied for admission to Ole Miss. The day after President John F. Kennedy's inauguration in January, he sent his first letter to the University's Admissions Department, requesting an application for admission and college catalog. Knowing he would face an uphill battle, he then visited Medgar Evers, the Mississippi Field Secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi, and told him of his plans. He advised Meredith to write to Thurgood Marshall, the director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to see if Marshall was interested in taking up the case. Marshall was, but wanted more proof Meredith was who he said he was. This put Meredith off, and he stopped for a few days to think the matter over and decide what to do.

However, Evans convinced him to supply the materials Marshall requested, and the fight began in earnest on January 31, 1961, when he sent his application for admission off to the school, accompanied by a letter announcing he was a Negro. On February 4, he received a telegram stating, "IT HAS BEEN FOUND NECESSARY to DISCONTINUE CONSIDERATION of ALL APPLICATIONS for ADMISSION or REGISTRATION for the SECOND SEMESTER WHICH WERE RECEIVED AFTER JANUARY 25, 1961."

While the college refused his application, it is interesting to note that Jackson State, an all-black college, had no qualms about submitting his transcripts to the University of Mississippi, a traditionally all-white institution.

Meredith had the attention of the Federal Government by this time. A friend of his knew the Assistant Attorney General of the United States, Burke Marshall, and he spoke with Marshall who told him the Attorney General's office was extremely interested in his case. On February 7, 1961, Meredith wrote a letter to the U.S. Justice Department outlining his background, his application delay, and his hopes for his future and the future of America. On February 10, Meredith replied to a letter from Thurgood Marshall with his transcripts and more information, and the very next day he received a letter from the NAACP that they had assigned Mrs. Constance Baker Motley, the assistant counsel, to take his case. She suggested it was too late to gain admittance for the February term, and that they should set a goal for admittance in September 1961. She also urged him to continue communications with the University as if he was any other student hoping for admission, and said if it were necessary, they would be happy to take his case.

It took until May 1961 for the University to acknowledge the many correspondences he had sent since January. This letter told him that 48 of his college credits were acceptable for admission to the University, and he asked them to consider his application for the Summer and Fall semesters of 1961. On May 25, they formally denied his application for admission, citing his current school (Jackson State) was not "a member of the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. Our policy permits the transfer of credits only from member institutions of regional associations."

It was shortly after this denial that Meredith began to fear for his own life.

Friends and relative had already warned Meredith not to return to his hometown, as many he might suffer violence or arrest if he did. When the fight to gain admittance began, Meredith knew that he was pushing the old, white standards of the South, and there would be repercussions. He was worried about lynching and Medgar Evers advised him to take security precautions at his home and whenever he went anywhere. Whites threatened his family and friends back home, and told him he needed to withdraw or face death. He did not use security at first, because he knew the fight would be long, and that security might disappear when it was needed the most. Ultimately, it would take two years and dozens of courtroom battles before he gained the right to attend the University.

In Jackson, the police watched him and his neighbors, and he even faced some adversity from his neighbors and other black college students. They feared repercussions against them from the white community, and some black educators even feared losing their jobs if the state closed schools in an attempt to stop integration. On May 31, 1961, the case was filed in the Mississippi courts. The courts continually put off the case, and Ole Miss administrators repeatedly put off requests for interviews and injunctions. It was not until 1962 that an appeals court ruled on the original case, which had been denied and then appealed. Meredith writes, "On June 25, 1962, my twenty-ninth birthday, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that I should be admitted to the University of Mississippi."

Meredith finally entered the University in September 1962, but not without opposition. The governor denied him access to the University three times, and by September 30, the Federal Government decided to bring in force to allow Meredith to enroll. They sent in hundreds of National Guard and U.S. Marshals who suppressed a riot the night before Meredith finally enrolled on October 1, 1962. During the riots, two people were killed and 212 rioters and 120 troops were injured. However, Meredith enrolled, and history was made.

Of course, opposition to Meredith's fight to enter Ole Miss was huge. During the fight,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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