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James Meredith’s Mission

5 Oct

James Meredith by Marion S. Trikosko, U.S. News & World Report [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This week marked the fiftieth anniversary of James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi. Meredith was an U.S. Army veteran who became the first African American to be admitted to the University of Mississippi. His enrollment was met with massive resistance from the state and local officials at the University, resulting in a riot and violence where two people were killed and over 300 injured.

One of the people who was instrumental in the successful enrollment of Meredith was Constance Baker Motley. Motley was interviewed for the series, Eyes on the Prize, which devoted a segment to Meredith. In her extensive interview, available online through the Film & Media Archive’s site Eyes on the Prize Interviews – The Complete Series, she talks about many of the legal cases she argued and won, including Meredith’s case. Motley described Meredith’s admission and eventual graduation from the University of Mississippi as the, “last chapter of the Civil War.” Motley gives great insight into Meredith’s background and determination to attend the University of Mississippi.

Constance Baker Motley in “Eyes on the Prize”

I think James Meredith had planned to be the Mississippian who would knock first on the door of the University of Mississippi. He spent nine years in the armed forces in the Air Force particularly before he actually made that application. He knew that he was not qualified initially so that while he was in the armed services he took every course available to servicemen, starting at the high school level because he didn’t qualify for college level courses. And after he convinced himself, that he had the academic ability, he took difficult courses like Chinese history and Russian grammar as I recall when he was stationed in Japan, at the University of Maryland’s Far East extension program. And once he convinced himself, as I’ve said, that he had the academic qualifications then he left the service and moved back to Mississippi from which he had been absent for nine years and made his application, of course with the aid of Medgar Evers who was the NAACP field secretary at that time. A lot of the Mississippians believed that we sought out James Meredith and paid him to do this, but that’s not true at all, it was his idea and his own preparation of himself which gave him the strength, the individual strength and endurance to see the thing through.

She also gives the reader a picture of the great mental and physical strain that Meredith was under at that time,

Yes, when I first met James Meredith, he was carrying a cane and he didn’t seem to me to need it. And so one day I finally said to him, “Why are you carrying that cane?” And he said “Well, I think that if I an attacked, I’ll need it.” He was a slightly built young man and he wasn’t very tall and so he thought that the cane would of course serve as a weapon…and so he walked with this cane because he was honestly fearful that he was going to be killed.

Motley began her legal career as a law clerk at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and by 1962 had extensive experience, including writing the original complaint in the Brown v. Board of Education case. She was the first African American woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court in Meredith’s case, Meredity v. Fair. In her interview, she describes the political and social climate in Mississippi at that time and the resistance there which she had encountered in previous cases,

You have to understand that everyone expected that Mississippi would resist. Mississippi had long been the state which offered the most resistance since the Civil War to the idea of equality for blacks. You may recall that after the civil war, blacks were in control of the government of the state of Mississippi and the whites of the state resented that very such and when they were finally able to displace the Reconstruction government, which was predominantly black, they vowed that blacks would never again be in control of that government, and since blacks were I think the majority of the state’s population at that time, the whites offered a great deal of resistance to the idea of ending segregation. So it wasn’t a surprise at all that Mississippi would offer resistance. The government knew it, we knew it and so the government was hoping like everybody else, I guess they’d never have to face this. But ultimately they did and ultimately, as you know, President Kennedy had to send in federal troops to secure James Meredith’s admission.

The Film & Media Archive also has other material and interviews relating to James Meredith. For more information on this interview, or any other from Eyes on the Prize, please contact the Film & Media Archive at Washington University.