- The Washington Times - Monday, September 23, 2002

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) James Meredith says he didn't pay much attention to the riot that erupted around him four decades ago when he became the first black man to enroll at the University of Mississippi.
Now he wants little to do with the events marking the anniversary of his arrival celebrated as a landmark of the civil rights movement.
"It was an embarrassment for me to be there, and for somebody to celebrate it, oh my God," says Mr. Meredith, 69. "I want to go down in history, and have a bunch of things named after me, but believe me that ain't it."
Mr. Meredith didn't consider himself a civil rights crusader when he arrived on campus 40 years ago, escorted by federal troops called out by President Kennedy as hundreds of angry whites hurled bricks, rocks, pop bottles and epithets.
"It was of no concern to me, basically," Mr. Meredith recalls. "Long before that I had accomplished my goal of forcing the federal government to use the U.S. military to assert my rights as a citizen."
He says he was not a part of the civil rights movement. He defines his 1962 effort as an assault on "white supremacy."
"Nothing could be more insulting to me than the concept of civil rights. It means perpetual second-class citizenship for me and my kind," he says.
His actions since then have left many puzzled. He endorsed Gov. Ross Barnett's re-election bid in 1967, five years after Mr. Barnett physically blocked him from registering at Ole Miss. In 1989, he joined for 18 months the staff of Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican. He says it was a way to get access to records in the Library of Congress.
Still, most agree that Mr. Meredith's arrival at Ole Miss was the beginning of the end of segregation in the state.
University of Mississippi instructor Curtis Wilkie says the Meredith desegregation was much more than it appeared at the time. It led to the desegregation of public schools and, after the Civil Rights Act, the desegregation of public accommodations.
"Ole Miss was the most powerful institution in the state, no question," Mr. Wilkie says. "Once segregation fell at Ole Miss, it was almost like conquering the highest mountain. We owe a lot to him."
University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat calls this year's commemoration a time for the school to embrace its past and learn from it.
The yearlong commemoration, dubbed "Open Doors: Building on 40 Years of Opportunity in Higher Education," includes an oral history of the university, various symposiums, the April unveiling of a $130,000 civil rights memorial and a reunion of the federal marshals. It culminates in September 2003 with an international conference on race.
"I think looking back over time gives each of us an opportunity to appreciate more fully the magnitude of the event," says Mr. Khayat, who received his undergraduate degree from the University of Mississippi two years before the riot. "We're able to see the negative impact it's had on the university, and we're also able to turn that negative into a positive."
Mr. Meredith, who says he's now in the used-car business in Jackson, has agreed to attend the Oct. 1 Anniversary Day ceremony, which marks the date he registered after a day of rioting. But he says he will not be present for the dedication of the ground where the civil rights memorial will be erected.
His ties to the university continue through his son, Joseph, who graduated earlier this year as the top doctoral student in the business school. Today, nearly 13 percent of the university's students are black.


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