On This Day

james meredith, james meredith ole miss, james meredith first day, james meredith mississippi
Marion S. Trikosko/Library of Congress U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection
James Meredith walks to class accompanied by U.S. Marshals on his first day at the University of Mississippi, Oct. 1, 1962.

On This Day: James Meredith Graduates From Ole Miss

August 18, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Aug. 18, 1963, James Meredith became the first black man to graduate from the University of Mississippi. His admission a year earlier sparked a deadly riot on campus.

Meredith Attempts to Enter Ole Miss

James Meredith, a Mississippian of black and Native American descent, joined the Air Force out of high school and served nine years before enrolling at Jackson State College, an all-black school, in 1960.

On Jan. 21, 1961, the day after John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration, Meredith began the process of applying to the University of Mississippi, also known as Ole Miss, the most high profile college in the only state that had yet to integrate higher education.

Meredith explained in a recent interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project, “John Kennedy as a ploy, and I knew it was a ploy, had a strong civil rights plan put it. ... I would want to force the Kennedys to either live up to it or be immediately criticized for not doing what they said they would do.”

Meredith’s application was rejected twice, so, with the assistance of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he filed a federal lawsuit contending that his race was the reason for his rejections. In September 1962, after a series of court decisions and appeals, Supreme Court Justice, at the request of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, ordered Ole Miss to accept Meredith.

Meredith attempted to register at the school on Sept. 20, but he was blocked by Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, a staunch segregationist. That same day, Meredith was tried and convicted in absentia for false voter registration (he allegedly registered in the wrong county) and the state passed a law prohibiting the admission of students convicted of certain crimes. The Ole Miss Board of Trustees dropped this tactic days later after a federal court held it in contempt.

The Kennedy administration began negotiating with Barnett to ensure Meredith’s admission. Telephone recordings between Barnett and Robert Kennedy reveal that Barnett, knowing that he could not win this battle, was willing to allow Meredith to register if U.S. Marshals or combat troops pulled their guns of him, thereby giving the appearance that he did all he could to stop integration.

“They must all draw their guns,” he told Kennedy. “Then they should point their guns at us and then we could step aside. This could be very embarrassing down here for us. It is necessary.”

The Kennedys refused to send large numbers of armed men to Ole Miss and Barnett continued to block Meredith even while facing contempt charges. On the night of Sept. 29, Barnett appeared at halftime of an Ole Miss football game and gave a short speech as 41,000 fans waved Confederate flags in approval. “I love Mississippi,” he declared. “I love her people. Our customs. I love and respect our heritage.”

The Ole Miss Riots

The Kennedy administration planned for several hundred lightly armed Marshals to escort Meredith to a campus dorm on Sunday, Sept. 30, so that he could register the following morning. Kennedy also federalized the Mississippi National Guard and sent Army troops to the area in case of emergency.

During the day, thousands of angry students and segregationists from outside the school gathered around the campus. Meredith was covertly brought on campus that evening. Soon after, the crowd began launching projectiles at the Marshals. As President Kennedy made a nationally televised address announcing that the process was moving peacefully, violence broke out at Ole Miss.

Marshals fired tear gas on the crowd as 200 state troopers, there on Barnett’s orders, did nothing to stop the rioting. Kennedy reluctantly ordered in the federal troops, who arrived in the middle of the night as the violence continued to rage. The riots were finally put down Monday morning, but not before two men—a French journalist and a local repairman—were killed.

The campus was a nightmarish shambles, strewn with wrecked vehicles, hunks of concrete, countless tear-gas canisters, and the green chips of thousands of smashed Coke bottles,” described Time. At 8 a.m., with 16,000 troops surrounding the campus, Meredith was allowed to register without resistance.

Meredith’s Graduation

Meredith began classes the following day. He would spend a year at the school, accompanied at all times by U.S. Marshals. Ole Miss students harassed Meredith and refused to associate with him; the few that did were themselves ostracized by the other students.

Meredith considered dropping out. In an April 1963 interview with Look magazine, he said, “Last term, I had reason to believe that the longer I continued at the university under such abnormal conditions, the more I would benefit the advocates of White Supremacy and violence. The conditions tended to make me a superhuman or inhuman individual. I was afraid that, if I had to continue that way, it would become a standard for the Negro.”

With his two years at Jackson State and classes completed during his time in the Air Force, Meredith needed only a year to graduate with a degree in political science. Meredith took part in the Aug. 18, 1963, commencement ceremony near the scene of the previous year’s riot. This time, there was no violence.

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