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