By Wyatt Emmerich, Syndicated columnist
The Picayune Item
James Meredith stopped by my office a few weeks ago and gave me his new book, “A Mission from God.”
When he visited me about 20 years ago, he seemed a bit kooky. It’s amazing how much he’s learned since then.
Reading his book has been a delight, both for the amazing story of racial conflict and for the insight into Meredith’s unique character.
One thing about the book and Meredith: He is brutally honest about himself and laughs at his enormous ego. But at the end of the read, I couldn’t help but be convinced that he was indeed on a mission from God.
In the book, Meredith describes his utter aloofness from the events he set in motion. He portrays himself as a master chessman, manipulating both Gov. Ross Barnett and President John Kennedy, neither of whom wanted the political heat from a huge blowup — a blowup Meredith saw as crucial to breaking the back of Mississippi racism. I quote from the book:
In 1960, I came back to Mississippi to conquer white supremacy. I was at war. And I was prepared to fight to the death.
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.
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 through the heart of the beast. If I managed to not get killed or chased off, I could create an earth-shaking precedent in Mississippi, a moment in the apocalypse of white supremacy. There would be no turning back . . .
My philosophy was that under the conditions that existed in Mississippi, I was a dead man. The only thing I had to gain was life, freedom.
During all those years I was conscious of my purpose in being a soldier: to secure my country and its principles against the enemy. I saw white supremacy as one of the most powerful enemies the United States faced. I considered myself first and foremost an American soldier, not a black soldier, though I was always proud of my black heritage.
As it turned out, events transpired almost exactly as Meredith planned. Thousands of soldiers invaded Mississippi to protect him.
I left President Kennedy no choice in the matter. I had compelled the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the federal court orders mandating my admission into Ole Miss, and JFK was bound by his oath of office to enforce the order. This was a vivid illustration of the fact that the president works for the people of the United States, not the other way around. The president is a public servant, and in this crisis, he was doing my bidding, and through me he was enforcing the citizenship and rights of every American.
During the worst moments, Meredith went to sleep and slept for 10 hours. He writes:
In my dorm room, I read newspaper articles about myself and cracked a book. I was in a kind of serene trance, a state of total peace and relaxation.
I felt I had accomplished my objective. I was an accomplished fact now — I was on the campus and nothing would make me leave. I had great confidence in the marshals and the soldiers to fight off any attempts on my life and to guarantee my rights as an American citizen . . . I made my bed, lay down, closed my eyes, and went to sleep. I slept for 10 hours.
In the end, 20,000 U.S. troops invaded Oxford to see Meredith prevail. For months, he endured vicious verbal and physical abuse with Zen-like calm. In his books, he expressed amazement that for months on end thousands of troops were there just to protect his individual rights.
Some people are chosen for certain lots in life. Meredith’s iconoclastic stubbornness was perfectly suited for his mission. All Mississippians owe him a debt of gratitude. Thank God that chapter in our history is long gone.
One interesting aspect about the book is Meredith’s abiding love of Mississippi which he thinks is paradise on earth. Like most Mississippians, he has great respect for tradition and his ancestors. Interestingly enough, Meredith’s great-grandfather was Confederate official and Mississippi Supreme Court justice J.A.P. Campbell, a founding father of white supremacy in America.
Meredith is a classic Mississippian: traditional, patriotic, religious, conservative, funny, smart, unique and very comfortable in his own skin. He is also a huge Ole Miss football fan.
At 80, Meredith is not about to slow down. He’s as fervent as ever on his latest crusade: to improve our public education system. A father of Harvard graduates who were educated in the private school system, he is shocked at the experiences of his grandchildren in public schools.
On the back of his book is his challenge for America: I challenge every American citizen to commit right now to help children in the public schools in their community, especially those schools with disadvantaged students.
Step one: He wants every church to keep a record of every child in the surrounding area and offer support, concern and help. He believes the church elders need to get involved in tracking and mentoring all the children within a certain radius of the church facility. It takes a village, he says, and it’s high time the village gets involved. He believes that Mississippi is destined to be a beacon to the world, paving the way for success through church leadership and involvement.
Amen, brother James.