The Civil Rights Movement required throngs of people who were brave enough to demand change. It couldn’t just be Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Thousands of people throughout the country, and even the world, took part in fighting for freedom.
James Meredith was born in 1933 in Mississippi. His nickname as a child was J-Boy. Meredith enjoyed school and excelled. After graduating from high school in 1951, he joined the Air Force and served his country from 1951 to 1960. When he returned, he attended Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi.
After being inspired by President John F. Kennedy, James Meredith applied to the University of Mississippi, also known as Ole Miss. The school had a long-standing tradition of only admitting white students, even after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that stated segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Even amid that ruling, the school still hadn’t changed it’s ways. Meredith was denied admission twice, so then he turned to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund for help.
Leaders in Mississippi had no intention of changing their ways. Governor Ross Barnett stated, “no school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your governor”. The fight to accept Meredith at Ole Miss ended going all the way to U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy warned Governor Barnett that the law wasn’t on his side and he didn’t have much choice in letting Meredith enroll in classes at the University of Mississippi. Governor Barnett eventually gave in, but the U.S. Attorney General sent 500 U.S. Marshals to accompany James Meredith to the campus.
It wasn’t an easy process to allow James Meredith to go on campus and enroll in classes. What happened instead is what is known as the Old Miss Riot of 1962. Even with U.S. Marshals on campus, violence broke out and it ended in two men being killed. Local white mobs burned cars, threw rocks and bricks and even shot at the U.S. Marshals. Right did eventually prevail once troops were able to take control of the university. And James Meredith was able to enroll in his classes and graduate later with a degree in political science.
James Meredith was harassed daily while he attended Ole Miss. What kept him going was that he felt he had a “divine responsibility” to attend the school and blaze a trail for other black students. And he did just that.