I remember the fall of 1962 like it was yesterday. John F. Kennedy was president and the South was in deep turmoil over race and white supremacy. The struggle was now centuries old and the race problem still fundamentally unchanged by a Civil War and a Constitutional amendment. I know these truths firsthand. I am a white son of the South. I am also a white son who longed for change and watched daily reports closely as the civil rights movement grew.
One of the most memorable moments came in the fall of 1962 when James Meredith, a black son of Mississippi, enrolled at the University of Mississippi. James Meredith, a nine-year veteran who was honorably discharged from the U.S. Air Force, engineered two of the most epic events of the American civil rights era: the desegregation of Ole Miss in 1962 and the March Against Fear in 1966, which opened the floodgates of voter registration in the South.
Who is James Meredith? I confess that when I picked up his new book at the library, A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012), I knew very little about the man other than my teenage recollections of his national notoriety. Was he really a civil rights hero? What happened to him after he was shot in Mississippi in 1966? (I had lost complete awareness of him and would not have known that he was even still alive until I found his book!)
In 1966 Meredith published his critically acclaimed book, Three Years in Mississippi. After this I lost track of this fascinating and singularly unique man.
Meredith is clearly a man of faith. I cannot tell you how well-formed his Christian understanding is but I can tell you that he has deep faith and is a singularly unique individual in many respects. He fits no stereotypes and challenges much of what we think of when we think of civil rights. For example, Meredith later earned a law degree from Columbia University School of Law and continued to do various tasks related to civil rights in America. Meredith became, in the very best sense, an entrepreneur. He remained a political activist and a public speaker. But would you guess that the only U. S. Senator who would give him a job as an staff member was the late Republican from North Carolina, Jesse Helms? Or would you guess that Meredith believes he was put on earth by God for a reason, a mission? He says, “I am not a civil rights activist, I am not a protester, and I am not a pacifist. I am not a Republican and I am not a Democrat. My political affiliation is Black. I am an American citizen, and a son of Mississippi. I am a warrior. And I am on a mission from God” (xiii).
Meredith was supposed to be assassinated on June 6, 1966, on a roadside two miles south of Hernando, Mississippi, where he walked in support of voter registration. A young white man, who became the first white man in Mississippi ever convicted of shooting a black man, fired a 16 gauge automatic Remington shotgun at him and Meredith fell to what the news reported at the time as “his death.” Meredith writes:
I’ve seen a lot of movies, but no Hollywood director could have made a man look as cold-blooded as this one. This was the white face the southern black man had been staring at through 350 years of history; the hard eyes; the fleshy face; the hard line of mouth; the supremely confident, homicidal arrogance of the Beast of White Supremacy. . . . He opened fire. The gun roared. I ducked and dived to the pavement, making him miss the first attempt. The shot went skipping across the highway. I went down hard, my arm held out to break the fall. My pith helmet, cane, and sunglasses smashed into the pavement. The shooter calmly moved up closer, raised the gun, and methodically opened fire again, hitting me in the head, neck, back, and legs. I was knocked flat (2-3).
Amazingly Meredith survived. To this day his body is filled with some of the remaining pellets of that shotgun blast forty-seven years ago last week. The man who shot him was sentenced to two years in prison!
Before the shooting Meredith began this historic march for voter registration saying, “Leading our procession, I felt, was God. The Bible in my hand was my ultimate protection, its words my guiding wisdom. Surrounded by all these titanic forces, I felt immortal. I could achieve nothing less than total victory” (9).
Meredith refers to his life and mission as one “inspired by divine responsibility” that he has felt his entire life because of the influence of his father. “This purpose,” he writes so beautifully, “sprang our of my mysticism, a sense of mission and of destiny that has always marked me as a loner among blacks as well as whites” (9). He adds, “I was fighting for full citizenship for me and my kind. I was at war against fear. I was on a mission from God” (10).
An American Rebel
James Meredith writes, “I am immortal. I live in the pages of American history, after the Little Rock Nine and the Freedom Tides, and just before the Cuban Missile Crisis. A half century ago, I engineered a constitutional crisis that forced the president, the Supreme Court, and the armed forces of the United States into a direct legal and physical collision with the governor of Mississippi [Ross Barnett] and thousands of armed forces and civilian workers” (15).
Think of it–30,000 American combat troops descended on the tiny town of Oxford, Mississippi, to make sure that James Meredith could enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962 and graduate in 1963. (Meredith had all but completed a bachelor’s degree at Jackson State University, an all black school, before enrolling at Ole Miss.) Two people eventually died in riots and hundreds were injured. A state was disgraced and a great university nearly destroyed. The state of Mississippi was in open defiance of the federal government, something not seen on such a scale since the end of the Civil War almost a hundred years before. One national magazine said the whole sequence of events “came close to a small-scale civil war” (16).
For eighty years Mississippi, and most deep South states, had enforced white supremacy through fear, terror, physical violence, torture, murder and lynching. And this was all done with the full support of its own police force.
Meredith says his mission was not “to integrate” the University of Mississippi. This was far too tame a goal. His goal was to “physically and psychologically shatter the system of white supremacy in Mississippi and eventually all of America, with the awesome physical force of the United States military machine” (16). He considered “white supremacy . . . to be America’s worst enemy” (16). Having lived in that era, and that part of America, I could not agree more. White supremacy was a scourge on the nation and a sin implicitly, and often explicitly, embraced by the white church. Meredith says “I had no desire to destroy the customs and systems of the South” (17). The proof of this is his stance on numerous issues since 1963. He thinks the civil rights movement ended in a huge schism and that it has never had a strong voice since 1966. He attributes this to the Vietnam War and to the jealousy and rivalry within the movement itself. I think he is right about this, as right as he is about so much more. Another example is his defense of the traditions of Ole Miss, such as their mascot battle over Johnny Rebel. He felt the movement to “remove” these traditions had cultural roots that should have remained. Meredith is, as he says, a loner. He is also an interesting figure with a legacy that will live on. Martin Luther King, Jr., who did not always get along with Meredith or other black leaders, in his famous book, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, wrote, “One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Meredith’s, courageously and with a majestic sense of purpose facing jeering and hostile mobs and the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer” (18).
That says it all. James Meredith is a pioneer. He is a lonely man but he is a man who is marked by the characteristics of a true hero. I could hardly put this book down. I openly embraced my past and my people and felt both shame and pride. I remembered and I was renewed to speak for justice and mercy in every way possible. When I finished the book I was in Alabama visiting my family. I could not help but feel the strange allure of the South that I love so deeply. At the same time I remember a different era when a man like James Meredith had the courage and the sense of divine mission to do what was right because it was right. I pray that I will live with the same sense of mission.
In reflecting on this memoir over the past few days I have found that sense of having my own “mission from God” is stronger than ever. I have had many oppose me, seek to harm me and speak evil of me. God has given me the grace to love and to keep walking as a servant of peace and justice. I have failed, far more than anyone knows. But I have this deep awareness that I am sent and I cannot be stopped until God is done with me on this earth. If you lack that purpose then you should ask God to give it to you as well. There is likely something that you can do that only you can do in the way you will do it. Seek him and know his grace to fulfill your calling. To have a clear purpose is to have peace in the midst of all fear and opposition.