On September 26, 2008, Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama arrived on the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, Mississippi for his first debate with the Republican candidate Senator John McCain. Many of the university students and guests from around the state of Mississippi who comprised the audience were mindful of the occasion’s historic significance. Obama, the first African-American presidential nominee in American history, was welcomed on a campus that on a September evening 46 years earlier had erupted into violence over the mere presence of an African-American who sought admission to the all-white university.
James Meredith was met with a starkly different reception from the cordial welcome extended Obama. Thousands of rioters hurled bricks and stones and fired bullets in a storm of protest against Meredith’s assault on white supremacy and racial segregation, which white Mississippians defended in the name of states’ rights. Meredith prevailed in his courageous battle for civil rights, and it is impossible to conceive of presidential candidate Barack Obama at an integrated Ole Miss without first considering James Meredith’s path-breaking effort to open the university to all qualified students regardless of race.
In his campaign, Obama asked Americans to consider his candidacy on the basis of his character and ideas, not on that of his race. Similarly, in his application to the University of Mississippi, Meredith asked Ole Miss to consider him as a qualified transfer student, not as an African-American. Fully aware of the state’s history, Meredith knew that the university would in fact make his race an insurmountable hurdle. So, when he received the expected rejection letter he filed suit and began the long campaign for his civil rights against the equally determined governor, Ross Barnett, who pledged to uphold Mississippi’s states’ rights.
Since he was 14 years old, Meredith had dreamed of attending Ole Miss and then becoming a lawyer in the state, but when he graduated from high school in 1950, four years before Brown v. Board of Education, he joined the Air Force because he had no chance of enrolling at segregated Ole Miss. He was stationed at the Strategic Air Command base near Topeka, Kansas, when the Brown decision was handed down, and that decision rekindled his desire to attend Ole Miss. In 1957, when President Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock to protect nine African-American students seeking admission to Central High School, Meredith began to hatch a strategy for entering Ole Miss. As a military man, he conceived of the challenge as a battle and thus he devised a plan of attack similar to that of a military mission.
His was a two-part strategy. First, he needed to secure the support of the federal government to counter what he knew would be massive and determined state resistance. Second, he needed to ensure that his enrollment efforts would take place under the bright lights of national publicity, not under the cloak of night as preferred by those who fought to maintain racial segregation in Mississippi.
With unflinching courage and iron resolve, Meredith followed his battle plan and prevailed. He enrolled at Ole Miss with the reluctant, though resolute, backing of the Kennedy Administration, which provided federal troops to ensure his safety. While he had anticipated stiff resistance, Meredith was unprepared for the ferocity and persistence of the opposition. The campus turned into a battlefield on the evening of September 30 with perhaps two thousand rioters attacking the 500 federal marshals sent to protect Meredith. In the end, hundreds were wounded, two were killed, and millions of dollars of property was destroyed. Within a week more than 10,000 federal troops had arrived to restore order on the campus.
When CBS’s Schieffer went to Ole Miss to cover the presidential debate in 2008, he recalled his visit there in 1962 covering the Meredith case. He was struck by the contrast between the tranquility of the campus in 2008 and the violence of 1962. He called the riots “the most terrifying experience I ever had,” quite a statement from a correspondent who had covered the Vietnam War. Meredith has a different interpretation. He objects to the characterization of the violence surrounding his admission as “riots.” Legitimate governments do not riot, he points out, adding that “everything at Ole Miss was a consequence of state action.” Meredith prefers the term “battle.”
Meredith graduated in 1963 and thus inspired thousands of African-Americans to follow him as students at Ole Miss. In the first years after 1962, they came as lone individuals, and then by the end of the decade they began enrolling in significant numbers. When Obama visited the campus, about 13 percent of the student body was African-American, and a sizeable number were among those assembled on September 26, 2008 to witness the presidential debate.
Conspicuously absent was James Meredith. University and state officials had hoped he would attend to underscore the historic significance of the occasion and to demonstrate the great strides that the state had made in race relations. But the 75-year-old Meredith stayed at his home in Jackson, Mississippi, and the reasons that he gave say much about the man. First, he said that he was babysitting his granddaughters. When I heard that, I recalled my meeting with him in Jackson for an interview for my book, . He arrived at the restaurant with one of his granddaughters in tow, explaining that he had forgotten that it was his day to pick her up from daycare.
Clearly family is important to James Meredith, as it had been in 1962 when he insisted that his actions were inspired by his father’s dreams that his son take his rightful place in a state that afforded all its citizens equal opportunity and by Meredith’s own goal to secure a good education not only for himself but for his son and future generations. Second, Meredith stayed home because he did not assign as much significance to the Ole Miss debate as did white officials. To him, what he had done was to win a battle, not the war against white supremacy. In his mind 1962 represented an opening campaign not a decisive victory. While he applauded the strides that had been made, he was not ready to celebrate.
Six weeks after the debate at Ole Miss, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. Many factors explain his victory: an unpopular war, a financial and economic meltdown, a faltering Republican administration, etc. But, to those across the country who remembered watching the televised reports of the battle of Ole Miss in 1962, his election seemed to be nothing short of the winning of a war. It was the culmination of a long and painful struggle for equal opportunity fought by pathfinders like James Meredith whose courage made Obama’s election possible and gave Meredith a moment to celebrate.
Professor Lambert received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 1990. He has special interests in American Colonial and Revolutionary Era history. He is the author of The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World (Hill & Wang, 2005), James Habersham: Loyalty, Politics, and Commerce in Colonial Georgia (Georgia, 2005), The Founding Fathers and The Place of Religion in America (Princeton, 2003), Inventing the “Great Awakening” (Princeton, 1999) and ‘Pedlar in Divinity’: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770 (Princeton, 1994).
Republished with permission from History News Network.