James Meredith, central figure in Miss. integration, defies labels

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — James Meredith is a civil-rights icon who hates the term “civil rights.”

It’s as if civil rights were somehow set apart from — well, rights.

“When it comes to my rights as an American citizen, and yours, I am a triumphalist and an absolutist. Anything less is an insult,” said the black man who 50 years ago inflamed the anger of white Mississippi by quietly demanding admission to the state’s segregated flagship university.

Now 79 and living in Jackson, Mr. Meredith sees himself as a messenger of God, a warrior who crippled the beast of white supremacy by integrating the University of Mississippi.

These days, he frequently wears an Ole Miss baseball hat in public. When the university’s football team recently played the University of Texas in Oxford, Mr. Meredith was a guest in the chancellor’s stadium skybox, and the crowd applauded when that was announced over the loudspeakers.

Yet he says he doesn’t plan to participate in the university’s commemoration of his history-making enrollment, which prompted a state-federal standoff, sparked deadly mob violence and ultimately ended the university’s official policy of racial segregation.

The university says Mr. Meredith has been invited to take part in events to mark the anniversary, including a walk that student leaders will take Monday to retrace his first day on campus.

Mr. Meredith says he doesn’t see the point.

“I ain’t never heard of the French celebrating Waterloo,” he told the Associated Press. “I ain’t never heard of the Germans celebrating the invasion of Normandy, or … the bombing and destruction of Berlin. I ain’t never heard of the Spanish celebrating the destruction of the Armada.”

Asked to clarify, Mr. Meredith said, “Did you find anything 50 years ago that I should be celebrating?”

Ole Miss administrators today don’t shy away from the history of a half-century ago. For the past year, Ole Miss has sponsored lectures and other events to commemorate Mr. Meredith’s Oct. 1, 1962, enrollment and the ensuing changes that have made the university more diverse.

In a state with a 37 percent black population, Ole Miss now has a black enrollment of about 16.6 percent, and the current student body president, Kim Dandridge, is black — the fourth black person elected to the post.

University officials are careful to say the events are for commemoration, not celebration.

Mississippi’s segregationist governor in 1962, Ross Barnett, declared that no school would be integrated on his watch. He denounced the federal government as “evil and illegal forces of tyranny” for ordering Ole Miss to enroll Mr. Meredith, a 29-year-old Air Force veteran who had already taken classes at historically black Jackson State College.

But even as Barnett whipped the white populace into a segregationist frenzy, he privately negotiated with President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to try to save face as it became clear that federal authorities would escort Mr. Meredith onto campus and make sure he enrolled.

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