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

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In the face of Mississippi’s defiance, federal authorities deployed more than 3,000 soldiers and more than 500 law enforcement officers to Oxford. An angry mob of students and outsiders yelled and hurled bricks. Tear gas canisters exploded amid the oaks and magnolias. Two white men were killed. More than 200 people were injured, including 160 U.S. marshals.

In his new book, “A Mission From God: A Memoir and Challenge for America,” Mr. Meredith and co-author William Doyle recall the court battle and mob violence.

“I chose as my target the University of Mississippi, which in 1960 was the holiest temple of white supremacy in America, next to the U.S. Capitol and the White House, both of which were under the control of segregationists and their collaborators,” Mr. Meredith writes.

“I reasoned that if I could enter the University of Mississippi as its first known black student, I would fracture the system of state-enforced white supremacy in Mississippi. It would drive a stake into the heart of the beast.”

At Ole Miss today, many fraternities and sororities remain all-white or all-black, but it’s common to see students socialize across racial lines. When Ms. Dandridge ran for student body president, she said race was not an issue because the only other candidate also was black.

“Students don’t really look at color when they choose their friends,” said Ms. Dandridge, who’s the only black member of her sorority, Phi Mu.

“I want people to know that this university has made a lot of progress,” she said in a phone interview from Oxford.

Ole Miss has distanced itself from some Old South imagery. Although its sports teams are still called the Rebels, the university a few years ago retired the Colonel Rebel mascot, a cane-wielding, white bearded old man who looked to many observers like the caricature of a plantation owner.

Mr. Meredith — who sometimes goes on campus wearing a white suit that bears more than a passing resemblance to Colonel Reb’s outfit — saw the change as an effort to downplay his triumph over the old Ole Miss. He suggested that he “captured” the colonel when segregation fell.

Mr. Meredith writes that although people consider him a “civil rights hero,” that’s not how he sees himself: “I’ve always found the rhetoric of mainstream civil rights leaders and organizations to be far too timid, accommodationist and gradualist. It always seemed to me that they behaved like meek and gentle supplicants begging the oppressor for a few crumbs of justice, for a few molecules of citizenship rights.”

During an hourlong AP interview at a Jackson restaurant, two white men interrupted to shake Mr. Meredith’s hand. Both men, who were strangers to Mr.  Meredith, appeared to be in their 40s.

“Thank you for all you’ve done over the years,” one man said. “Thank you for your message.”

However, when the man mentioned Robert Kennedy, Mr. Meredith shook his head and replied, “Bobby died and still didn’t get it.”

The man looked puzzled. Mr. Meredith chuckled, and the man walked away.

Rather than talking, for the umpteenth time, about what things were like in 1962, Mr. Meredith expounds on what he sees as his current mission from God. He wants every black congregation in Mississippi to take responsibility for each child born within two miles of the church and make sure each receives a good education and proper moral upbringing.

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