History Thread: James Meredith and the Pride of Ole Miss

In 1958, Clennon Washington King, Jr. was a part-time professor at Alcorn State in Mississippi. Son of an activist who’d worked for Booker T. Washington, King generated controversy for calling the NAACP “a tool for conniving whites” while also warning that “a leaderless people fall quick prey to charlatans and demagogues” like militant modern Civil Rights leaders. King’s students branded him an “Uncle Tom” and boycotted his courses; Alcorn ultimately fired him after he refused to cease submitting inflammatory, letters to newspapers. Undaunted, King applied at the University of Mississippi for graduate studies, planning to become the first African-American enrolled there.

On June 4th, King traveled to Oxford to meet with Ole Miss’s registrars, with credentials and a sheaf of character references in hand. Ushered into the campus’s Lyceum, the conference began cordially enough, until the registrars claimed that his application was incomplete and therefore declined his admission. When King refused to accept their refusal, troopers from Mississippi’s Highway Patrol arrested him. King shouted in protest as police dragged him outside into a car, then drove him to a mental institution where he was incarcerated for two weeks. One registrar told reporters that King was clearly “mentally unbalanced”; after all, historian Taylor Branch writes, “only an insane Negro would seek admission to Ole Miss.”1

Clennon King, Jr.

Such was the state of integration in Mississippi, four years after Brown vs. Board of Education. Few states in the Union were as repressive as the Magnolia State, few so vicious in their institutional racism: from the lynching of Emmett Till to the Mississippi Burning triple homicide, it hosted some of the Civil Rights Era’s worst atrocities. Few schools were more defiant than Ole Miss, a beautifully-ornamented, deeply conservative football school whose registrars avidly resisted change. It would take four years after Clennon King’s arrest for another Black man to challenge segregation at Ole Miss; and that resulted in one of the bloodiest clashes of the Civil Rights Era.

James H. Meredith was, perhaps, the ideal candidate to challenge the status quo. Born in the small Mississippi town of Kosciusko, Meredith claimed ancestry from Black, white and Choctaw forbearers. His father Moses, the son of slaves, was a proud, self-sufficient farmer who maintained an 85 acre farm outside Kosciusko. Moses rarely allowed his children to visit town or interact with others, instilling an autonomy in James that shaped his determination (some would say stubbornness) as an adult. “Everything I have ever done in my life,” Meredith recalls, “has been a direct result of what my father taught me.”

Enlisting in the Air Force, Meredith was stationed in Tokyo when he read about the Little Rock crisis, which resulted in President Eisenhower sending troops to enforce a desegregation order. Meredith, who’d experienced remarkably little discrimination as a child, brooded over the story: as he discussed Little Rock with his service mates, the injustice of segregation hit home for the first time. Ultimately, Little Rock triggered “my whole desire to break the system of white supremacy.” As his enlistment neared its end, Meredith began planning his next action. He decided to attend the all-black Jackson State, then to attend the University of Mississippi.

James Meredith

In January 1961, while attending Jackson State, Meredith was introduced to Medgar Evers. The brilliant, beleaguered Field Secretary of Mississippi’s NAACP spent most of his time recounting atrocities against his state’s Black population; his wife, Myrlie Evers, called the experience “a surrealist vision of Hell.” Evers was skeptical about Meredith’s chances of admission to Ole Miss, calling him “the hardest-headed son of a gun I ever met.” Nonetheless, Evers referred him to NAACP counsel Thurgood Marshall for assistance. On January 21st, Meredith submitted his application to Ole Miss registrar Robert B. Ellis.

Meredith received an effusive reply from Ellis, who assured him that “we are very pleased to know of your interest in becoming a member of our student body.” Meredith responded with a formal application complete with references, academic credits from Jackson State and a photograph. “I sincerely hope that your attitude towards me as a potential member of your student body…will not change upon learning that I am not a white applicant,” Meredith wrote. He was not surprised when Ellis wrote back, commenting that his application was summarily rejected.

Within days, Meredith submitted a complaint to the Justice Department and contacted Thurgood Marshall. Perhaps remembering Clennon King, Marshall exclaimed “This guy’s gotta be crazy!” He passed it to his associate Constance Baker Motley, who had drafted the complaint which triggered Brown vs. Board seven years earlier.2 Motley met Meredith in Medgar Evers’ home and was instantly struck by his “no-nonsense demeanor,” though she also worried he harbored a “Messiah complex.” But Meredith’s self-assurance steeled Motley’s resolve; he was incurring a massive, perhaps suicidal risk, but he certainly wasn’t crazy.

Constance Baker Motley, James Meredith and Jack Greenberg

The case wound through the courts, with Ole Miss’s attorneys arguing that Meredith was “highly nervous and excitable…over race matters” while refusing to address Motley by name (calling her “she” throughout the trial). Motley argued that Meredith is “only entitled to the same rights that white persons have in this state,” attacking Mississippi’s constitutionally-sanctioned segregation. Judge Sidney Mizes ruled against Meredith arguing, incredibly, that the school declined his application on grounds unrelated to race. Another judge was dumbfounded by Mizes’ ruling, saying that it smacked of “the eerie atmosphere of never-never land.”

In December, the United States 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Mizes’ decision. “A full review of the record,” Judge John Minor Wisdom wrote, “leads the court inescapably to the conclusion that from the moment the defendants discovered that Meredith was a Negro they engaged in a carefully calculated campaign of delay, harassment, and masterful inactivity.” Motley praised the judges for “thwart[ing] massive resistance in the Deep South and see[ing] it meet an ignominious death in Mississippi.” But it wasn’t so simple; the case was referred to the Supreme Court, while Mississippi officials prepared to resist.

Leading the fight was Governor Ross Barnett, “as bitter a racist as inhabits the nation.” An attorney who’d made his reputation defending poor clients, Barnett won office in 1959 arguing that “the Good Lord was the original segregationist,” while integrationists “drink from the cup of genocide.” Capable of personal charm, Barnett preferred fiery bromides that seemed to welcome violence. “Ross Barnett will rot in jail,” he vowed, “before he will let one Negro ever darken the sacred threshold of our white schools!”3 Where George Wallace and Orval Faubus play-acted racism for political gain, Barnett was bigoted to the core.

Governor Barnett, Inciter-in-Chief

Barnett oversaw what one historian calls “a one-party terrorist police state.” Mississippi ranked last in the Union in education and literacy, a plight Barnett did little to alleviate. Only 6.4% of Mississippi Blacks were registered to vote, which mattered little when the Republican Party barely existed and Barnett’s Democratic Party crushed all dissent.4 Worse, its Sovereignty Commission functioned as a “private Gestapo” that spied on political dissidents and the Governor’s enemies, compiling blackmail ledgers to make J. Edgar Hoover proud. Violence inevitably followed, carried out by the Highway Patrol, the Ku Klux Klan or both.

With a few brave exceptions, white Mississippians embraced this racial order, fearing that integration would trigger chaos, crime and worst of all, interracial sex. William Simmons of the White Citizens Council defended segregation as the “easily acquired customs and a pattern of correct behavior with the races,” necessitated by “the average Negro brain [having] a cerebral cortex fourteen percent thinner than…the average white brain.” A farmer interviewed by Walter Lord argued that Blacks “were monkeys a hundred years ago, and the whites have been around for 6,000 years,” neatly bastardizing both evolution and religion.

William Simmons

The confrontation quickened when, on September 10, 1962 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Meredith and demanded that Ole Miss admit him.5 Meredith had no illusions what enforcing the law would take. “My plan was to get Federal troops on my side to help assure my writes as a citizen,” he recalled. With Barnett spitting defiance, it seemed unlikely that Meredith could otherwise achieve his goals. He forced the hand of a President who, in the words of one of his aides, harbored a “terrible ambivalence about Civil Rights.”

Publicly, John F. Kennedy was given to noble injunctions on Civil Rights. In practice, he supported incremental skirmishes over integration and voter registration while avoiding full-blown confrontations. Privately, Kennedy once chided the Civil Rights Commission for “making my life difficult” before a summit with Khrushchev, and called the Freedom Riders “a pain in the ass.” To appease Southern Democrats, who’d helped secure his nomination, he appointed racist Judges who complicated his own integration efforts. Kennedy’s indecision frustrated Black leaders like Reverend James Bevel, who complained that “some punk who calls himself the president has the audacity to tell people to go slow.”

Kennedy with Martin Luther King and Adlai Stevenson

Biographer Richard Reeves surmises that Kennedy’s privileged background “left him with no particular feelings and great voids of knowledge about the…cares and prejudices of his fellow Americans.” He had known few Blacks growing up except his valet, George Thomas. The increasingly fragile Democratic coalition, with the conservative South and northern liberals butting heads in Congress, further stayed his hand. Kennedy disdained bigotry (during the 1960 campaign, he refused to stay at a hotel which barred a Jet reporter) and sympathized with Blacks in the abstract, but mostly considered Civil Rights “just politics, a volatile issue to be defused.”

On September 20th, Meredith arrived in Oxford with a bodyguard of US Marshals. The campus swarmed with reporters, Highway Patrol and hundreds of curious students. Ignoring racial epithets hurled by onlookers, Meredith confronted Governor Barnett and told him, “I want to register at the University.” Barnett, relishing the situation, produced a gold-sealed proclamation and announced: “Using my police powers as Governor of the Sovereign State of Mississippi…I do hereby deny you, James Meredith, admission to this University.” Meredith and his entourage departed; in a rare show of humor, Meredith quipped, “If Governor Barnett keeps this up, I may not vote for him.”

Meredith tried again five days later, arriving with the Justice Department’s John Doar6 to enforce a contempt citation. “Which one of you is Meredith?” Barnett joked, before getting down to business: he repeated his proclamation from the previous confrontation, then blustered about the Tenth Amendment. “Do you realize you’re breaking the law?” Doar warned, to which the Governor cried, “Who are you to say that I am in contempt?” As Meredith and Doar departed beneath a cascade of jeers and slurs, Barnett bid them to “come see me some time at the mansion!”

Meredith and John Doar

Matters escalated further the next morning, when Attorney General Robert Kennedy called Governor Barnett. “The US Constitution is the law of the land but not what some court says,” Barnett barked, warning Kennedy that “we have been a part of the United States, but I don’t know whether we are or not.” Kennedy was equal parts dumbfounded and irritated that Barnett seemed to threaten secession over James Meredith. “My job is to enforce the laws of the United States,” Kennedy responded tersely; “I intend to fulfill it.”

Further negotiations, including another entry blocked by Lt. Governor Paul Johnson and an appeal from the President (who joked that arguing with Barnett was like “fighting a sofa pillow”), finally yielded a compromise. Barnett would make another stand in the doorway, then assent when marshals drew their weapons (offering the Governor a beautiful photo opportunity, his principled stand overwhelmed by Federal tyranny). Barnett assured the President that he’d dispatch the Highway Patrol to ensure Meredith’s safety, adding that they’d be unarmed. Which stunned the President, who feared armed mobs would force him to mobilize Federal troops.

Paul Johnson, John Doar and James Meredith

Kennedy’s concerns weren’t unfounded. Thousands of Mississippians, inflamed by Barnett’s rhetoric, were converging on Oxford, along with scores of troublemakers from other states. Alabama Klan leader Robert Shelton, who thought the confrontation could trigger “another War Between the States,” sent observers to monitor Barnett’s negotiations with Kennedy; later, hooligans from Alabama Klaverns drove to Oxford in trucks with shotguns, bats and clubs. And from Dallas, Texas, abandoning his uniform for a black sport coat and cowboy hat, came the most dangerous outside agitator of all: Major General Edwin A. Walker.

Walker held a prominent place in bestiary of the postwar Right. A humorless, polo-playing Texan, Walker served with distinction in World War II, leading 47 paratroop jumps in campaigns from Italy to the Aleutians. Encounters with communists in postwar Europe convinced Walker that the Soviets were far more evil than the Nazis. In September 1957, he led the 101st Airborne in its occupation of Little Rock Central High School. “We are all subject to all the laws,” Walker told angry Arkansians, “whether we approve of them personally or not.” Privately, Walker believed that communists used racial strife to destabilize America, and vowed that he’d no longer serve as their pawn.

Edwin Walker

From there, Walker plunged full-throttle into demagoguery. He joined Robert Welch’s John Birch Society, imbibing its message that politicians from Eleanor Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower were Communists. As commander of the 24th Infantry Division in West Germany, Walker instituted a “Pro-Blue” program to inoculate his men against Soviet influences. He issued soldiers literature from the Birchers and segregationist preacher Billy James Hargis while subjecting them to harangues about “pink” politicians. Reprimanded by President Kennedy, Walker complained that his traducers followed “an unwritten policy of collaboration and collusion with the international Communist conspiracy.”

Finally, in November 1961 Walker resigned, asserting that “I must be free from the power of little men who, in the name of my country, punish loyal service to it.” Flush with funds from Hargis and oil magnate H.L. Hunt, Walker relocated to Dallas and launched an apocalyptic speaking tour. He warned that the Kennedys were Soviet agents, raged against the United Nations and accused liberals who supported Civil Rights of imposing “tyranny within our own white race.” Faced with such opponents, “who can be against us except Satan and the Atheistic Communist Conspiracy allied with him?” After a failed gubernatorial bid in 1962, Walker threatened to run for president two years later, saying Americans had “no more choice in their party system than the Russians.”7

Fortunately, Walker’s political career died aborning. He proved an incredibly poor speaker, lacking in charisma, wit or even coherence. His absurd beliefs (claiming that Sputnik was a hoax and water fluoridation a Communist plot), and unhinged behavior (during a Senate hearing, Walker socked a reporter in the face) repulsed more Americans than they attracted. Still, his rants reached an eager audience of racists and reactionaries, while frightening liberals who imagined Walker as a potential fuhrer. Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey’s Seven Days in May features an insubordinate General plotting to overthrow a liberal president; the novel became one of President Kennedy’s favorites. 8

General Walker in Dallas, October 1962

And General Walker seemed even more determined than Governor Barnett to provoke bloodshed. As Meredith’s case gained national attention, Walker appeared on radio and television shows broadcasting his intent to personally resist integration at Ole Miss. “The last time in such a situation I was on the wrong side,” Walker admitted. But “this time I am out of uniform and I am on the right side and I will be there!” On September 29th Walker arrived at Oxford, instructing segregationists to “bring your flags, your tents and your skillets! It is time! Now or never!” 

Meanwhile the Kennedys continued to haggle with Barnett, who now insisted that he wouldn’t move unless Federal troops occupied the campus. The President balked at this, deciding instead to federalize Mississippi’s National Guard and lay down a message Barnett couldn’t miss. Bobby Kennedy told Barnett that “the matter has gone beyond the stage of politics,” notifying him that President Kennedy would address the nation that evening. When the Governor yowled “that won’t do at all!” Bobby reminded Barnett that “you broke your word” to the President.

Finally, Barnett suggested that Meredith be registered at Jackson and “sneak” onto campus afterwards. Bobby Kennedy adopted half the Governor’s suggestion: Meredith would be inserted into a dorm on campus, then registered the next morning. He dispatched his deputy, Nicholas Katzenbach, to Memphis to coordinate the offensive while the President placed military units on high alert. “Don’t worry if you get shot,” Bobby told Katzenbach with a grin; “the President needs a moral issue.” 

Nicholas Katzenbach

On September 30th Meredith arrived in Oxford, with a phalanx of Marshals (supplemented by hastily deputized Border Patrol agents) and sullen Highway Patrolmen monitoring the gathering mob. Meredith, traveling again with John Doar and Chief Marshal James McShane (whom he called “two of the bravest men I have ever known”) drove onto campus using a back road and sought refuge in Baxter Hall. He initially considered the charade “an utter waste of human manpower and intelligence,” but changed his assessment as he spotted the angry crowds swarming the campus.

Dusk descended over Oxford. Thousands of angry whites – some students, some local troublemakers, some General Walker’s outside agitators – massed on the Grove, overlooking the Lyceum (apparently unaware of Meredith’s location). Some wore Confederate uniforms; many more waved Rebel flags. More than a few were armed with handguns and shotguns. Cheerleaders led the crowd in chants of “Go to Hell, JFK!” “Go to Cuba, n****r lovers!” and “the hell with the United States!” If this was treason, they thought, they’d make the most of it.


Nervous US Marshals, wearing white hats and yellow armbands, began deploying around campus around 5:00 pm using Army trucks. Their leader, Joe Dolan, received strict orders from Katzenbach not to use live ammunition; his men would have to make due with tear gas. They remained stoic in the face of abuse; not only insults were thrown, but rocks, bottles and brickbats. One underclassman approached a Black soldier and shot a fire extinguisher in his face. “Your time has come, n****r!” another student jeered as the soldier recoiled from the blast.

Even now, politicians continued to grandstand. State Senator George Yarbrough arrived on campus, telling an astonished Katzenbach that he was withdrawing the Highway Patrol on the Governor’s orders. Meredith’s fate was a Federal matter, he sneered to the Deputy Attorney General, and it would be their responsibility to keep order. Finally, Governor Barnett called and told Yarbrough to reverse his orders…just as the Highway Patrol began withdrawing.

By 7:30 pm, most of the Highway Patrol departed campus, leaving only a scattered handful behind. In one sense it was probably for the best, as Patrolmen made their sympathies clear. When Marshal John Cameron asked for help clearing a row of rowdy protesters, a trooper refused: “to hell with you, you son-of-a-bitch, I didn’t invite you down here.” Another patrolman spotted a student slashing tires on the Marshal’s trucks. He gently took the boy aside and instructed him on the most efficient way to destroy tires.

Back in Washington, President Kennedy tensely monitored the situation as 10:00 pm EST (8:00 pm in Mississippi) approached. He would address the nation with a speech celebrating a peaceful resolution of the Ole Miss stand-off. After receiving assurances from Bobby that things were “in pretty good shape,” he made final revisions with speechwriter Ted Sorensen, then went on the air.

“Mr. James Meredith is now in residence on the campus of the University of Mississippi,” the President told Americans. “This has been accomplished thus far without the use of National Guard or other troops.” Briefly reviewing the tortured negotiations which led to this point, Kennedy reassured viewers that “there is in short no reason why the books on this case cannot now be quickly and quietly closed in the manner directed by the court. Let us preserve both the law and the peace.”

Just minutes before Kennedy went on the air, a Molotov cocktail exploded at the feet of the US Marshals guarding the Lyceum, setting the grass on fire. Rioters raided a nearby construction site and began raining bricks, rocks and pipes on the Marshals; they donned gas masks, which only seemed to anger their assailants. The Marshals were shocked at the fanaticism of their opponents; one spotted a student “literally frothing at the mouth” as he rallied the rioters. Finally, after a protester smashed a Marshal in the head with a lead pipe, Chief Marshal McShane gave orders to fire tear gas.

The campus instantly erupted in a torrent of swirling smoke, gagging the rioters closest to the scene and more than a few officers who hadn’t slipped on their masks. The students fell back to a copse of trees around a Confederate monument, tossing rocks and shouting defiance as they plotted their next move. The mob might well have dispersed had General Walker not arrived, sporting his white cowboy hat and an entourage of armed followers.

“We have a leader now!” the mob cried, as Walker delivered an impromptu speech exhorting their courage and connecting integration to the Communist threat. An appalled Episcopalian minister begged with Walker to defuse the situation. Walker told the minister he too was an Episcopalian, “but I’m ashamed of it when I see people like you.” Instead, Walker held court near the Confederate statue, swarmed by admiring students who showed off their injuries and looked to him for advice.

General Walker at Oxford

Throughout the evening, Walter Lord writes, Walker strutted around campus rallying the mob, “lend[ing] a touch of stature to the vicious racists and irresponsible kids who carried on the riot.” At one point, the General offered to lead them against the Marshals at the Lyceum. Before he could organize his own Pickett’s Charge, a volley of tear gas scattered Walker’s entourage, forcing a retreat to the monument. Walker continued barking encouragement to the rioters, assuring them that “any bloodshed here tonight is on the hands of the Federal government…You may lose this battle, but you will have to be heard.”

The Marshals, firing indiscriminately into the mob, quickly ran low on gas; with the trucks of their tires slashed, they couldn’t easily obtain more. Per Katzenbach’s orders, none carried firearms or ammunition; they were barred from using lethal force. Accordingly, their assailants upped the ante. George Branch, a Border Patrol officer, was shot in the thigh by a sniper. Others began spraying the Lyceum with shotgun blasts; several more Marshals were wounded, but so were many rioters. While Ole Miss students served as the first line of rioters, the shooters were hardened, out-of-town racists eager for bloodshed.

Paul Guihard

It was the bad luck of Paul Guihard, a French journalist with Agence France-Press, to arrive at this heated moment. Guihard complained to Sammy Schutzman, his American cameraman, that “the story’s all over.” Even though an Associated Press reporter had already been shot, Guihard pressed forward to photograph the chaos. Guihard, who’d survived the Suez Crisis and the Bay of Pigs, was never seen alive again. Students later found Guihard’s bullet-riddled body, his tweed suit stained with blood.

By 10:00 pm, Deputy Attorney General Katzenbach called Washington to beg for troops. A dumbfounded President Kennedy learned that despite mobilization orders, only a single, 67-man National Guard company was immediately available. “Where’s the Army? Where are they? Why aren’t they moving?” Kennedy cried, losing his cool. He called General Creighton Abrams9 in Memphis and demanded the immediate dispatch of soldiers to Oxford.

The National Guard company (commanded by Captain Murry Faulkner, cousin of William Faulkner) arrived on campus a few minutes later. Under strict orders not to fire, the presence of their rifles and bayonets provoked the mob to further violence. Several were wounded by the rioters, even as they implored their fellow Mississippians to switch sides. Faulkner commented wryly that “it’s hard to feel brotherly love toward someone who is trying to kill you.”

Soon afterwards, the first Army units arrived on the scene, firing fresh volleys of tear gas to scatter the mob. But the fighting raged on: snipers continued to pepper the Marshals and soldiers with buckshot, while several berserk students tried ramming them with a stolen fire engine. A handful of students attacked Baxter Hall, where Meredith was staying with John Doar, but were swiftly routed. A local repairman named Ray Gutman, who wasn’t participating in the violence, was shot in the head by the mob and killed, becoming the evening’s second fatality.

Finally General Abrams’ second-in-command, Major General Charles Billingslea, arrived around 2:00 am at the head of fully equipped soldiers. His troops methodically cleared the campus at bayonet point, suppressing the riot within a manner of minutes. It wasn’t a moment too soon; two people had died and over 300, most of them Marshals, were injured in the evening’s clash, one of the ugliest riots of the Civil Rights Era. President Kennedy remarked sardonically that “I haven’t had such a good time since the Bay of Pigs.”10

Jack and Bobby

The next morning, Meredith marched to the Lyceum, accompanied by Doar and the usual bodyguard. He scarcely noticed the soldiers, the damaged lawn or the Confederate flag flying defiantly over campus, and ignored reporters jostling for a comment. He filled out the registration form in silence, as hecklers demanded “was it worth two lives?” then attended his first course in Colonial History. The Professor calmly directed Meredith to an empty seat, requesting only that the Marshals remain outside the classroom.

“There were about a dozen students in class,” Meredith recalled. “One said hello to me and the others were silent. I remember a girl…and she was crying. But it might have been from the tear gas in the room. I was crying from it myself.” Despite the previous night’s violence, Meredith never doubted that he’d done the right thing: “The particular steps that I had chosen to take in an effort to carry out the mandate of my Divine Responsibility had been proper and timely.”

Myrlie and Medgar Evers

Ole Miss remained an armed camp for several months, with soldiers establishing checkpoints around campus to avert bloodshed. Governor Barnett was indicted for contempt, though the case was dismissed; he left office in 1963 and mostly retired from public life. “Generally speaking, I’d do the same things again,” he insisted later. General Walker proved similarly unrepentant, despite serving a brief jail term. In October 1963 he incited another riot in Dallas, leading a mob that assaulted UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson. Afterwards Walker finally receded to the fringe, embroiled in libel suits and arrested twice for propositioning undercover policemen.

President Kennedy finally embraced Civil Rights after the following year’s Birmingham protests. Sickened by images of Bull Connor’s police dogs attacking Black children, Kennedy jettisoned caution and gave his greatest speech on June 11, 1963 calling for a new Civil Rights Act.11 “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” he announced, “as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.” Soon after Kennedy finished speaking, in Jackson, Mississippi, James Meredith’s friend Medgar Evers was murdered in his driveway by Byron de la Beckwith.

Meredith survives

After graduating from Ole Miss in 1963, Meredith made another major contribution to the Civil Rights Movement. In June 1966 he organized the March Against Fear, leading a protest march through Mississippi designed to increase voter registration. At Hernando, a sniper shot him three times, leaving Meredith bleeding in the road before horrified onlookers (including photographers). The shooting galvanized radical Black leaders like Stokely Carmichael, who abandoned his support for integration and instead proclaimed a need for Black Power.

Meredith afterwards distanced himself from the Civil Rights Movement, complaining that a focus on racial issues “means perpetual second-class citizenship for me and my kind.” His idiosyncratic politics have drawn controversy; he remained a Republican and ran for Congress in New York, worked for arch-conservative Senator Jesse Helms and even endorsed David Duke’s campaign for Governor of Louisiana in 1991. But in 1962, that stubbornness, contrarianism and sense of mission proved essential to breaking the back of segregation in the Deep South.

Sources and Further Reading

This article draws upon Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (1988); William Doyle, An American Insurrection: James Meredith and the Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962 (2001); Charles W. Eagles, The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss (2009); Walter Lord, The Past That Would Not Die (1965); James Meredith, Three Years in Mississippi (1965); Edward H. Miller, Nut Country: Right Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy (2015); Constance Baker Motley, Equal Justice Under the Law: An Autobiography (1998); and Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile of Power (1993).