James Meredith: 'I am at war again, you bet I am. Things have gotten worse every year for the past 45 years'

It is the image that defines an era - a young black man screaming in the dirt after being blasted with birdshot on a civil rights march. Today that man is back on the road, fighting to rescue a movement that he says has failed. He talks to David Usborne

James Meredith is indefatigable. It is more than five decades since he became the first African-American to enrol at the University of Mississippi – made possible only after President John F Kennedy deployed 30,000 US troops, federal marshals and national guardsmen to protect him – and almost as long since his defiant march for voters’ rights through the South that saw him shot by a roadside gunman on the second day.

Those two events alone make Meredith a giant of the civil rights movement alongside Martin Luther King Jr, assassinated 45 years ago on Thursday. But call him a hero at your peril. “It is an insult for me to have been alive through the times you are calling the so-called civil rights movement. I don’t celebrate my humiliations and my insults,” he says gruffly. “Do you know how big of an insult that is to me – to say that I had to be brave to confront some ignorant white folks?” 

Due to turn 80 this June, Meredith, with his lavish white beard, continues to feel affronted by the country he lives in. It explains why he still does not rest when it comes to the plight of African Americans in this country. He has written no fewer than 26 books. The latest, A Mission from God: A Memoir and a Challenge for America is published by Simon and Schuster, and today he is midway through another road trip. Travelling this time by car – his 13-year-old Toyota – he means to visit all 82 counties of Mississippi before May, delivering a message that he hopes will finally bring relief to black people, especially young ones.

In truth, Meredith, whose home is in Jackson, Mississippi, does not get the attention he did all those decades ago.  That may be because of the gruffness. “He didn’t have any charisma at all. He could have been the next Martin Luther King,” notes Jack Thornell, the photographer who captured the moment he was shot on his 1966 voters’ rights march after leaving Memphis, Tennessee, en route to Jackson.

Never, however, was the spotlight greater than on that autumn day in 1962 when his efforts at enrolling at the University of Mississippi sparked a pitched battle between white protesters and federal and state forces in which two people were killed, including a French journalist writing for the London Daily Sketch, and more than 300 injured. In the run-up to the riot – called by some the last battle of the American Civil War – the state governor, Ross Barnett, publicly defied President Kennedy, once declaring, “I am a Mississippi segregationist and I’m proud of it” even though behind the scenes he sought a peaceful way out.

After a spell studying in Nigeria, Meredith returned to the US in 1965, enrolled at Columbia University in New York, and then in the summer of 1966 began his so-called “March against Fear” from Memphis to encourage African Americans to overcome their reluctance to exercise their right to vote. He meant, he says now, “to challenge and expose the fear that was keeping non-white Americans from refusing to heed the rules of white supremacy.”  He adds: “I wanted to kick their butts. I wanted to destroy it.”

It might have been a mostly solitary endeavour but for the drama of his being blasted with bird shot in the head, back and legs by Aubry James Burnell, a white, unemployed hardware store clerk from Memphis. Several civil rights leaders of the time, including Dr King, decided to continue the march in Meredith’s name. Meredith re-joined it for the last day, when as many as 1,500 people finally arrived brandishing their placards for racial equality in downtown Jackson.

The achievements of the civil rights movement are not obvious to Meredith today. Indeed, a backwards look at the years since the death of Dr King, yields nothing that he could call progress. “It has gotten 45 years worse,” he asserts.  “It has gotten worse every year for the past 45 years.” In his opinion, African-Americans realise it too. “I think most people now know how much the wool was pulled over their eyes and how insulting all of this has been and they are ready to move on and make America what it was always meant to be.”

So he is driving to every corner of his state. “I am again at war, you bet I am,” he says. On his list to visit is Bolivar County in the Mississippi Delta. The controversy, reported by The Independent earlier this week, on the reluctance of the school district of its biggest town, Cleveland, fully to integrate its high schools gets Meredith raging.

He is not, however, on the side of the government but rather on the side of the city that says forced integration would trigger white flight from its public schools. They say ending segregation would leave things even less integrated than they are now. “Do you know who the real hypocrite is?” he says. “It’s the federal government and the Justice Department. It’s a fraud, it’s a lie. They have no interest in the education of black children. They are only interested in the politics of it.”

“I think everyone would agree that it is worse in Mississippi today,” he says of the place of black people in American society. White supremacy has survived, he argues, and “black inferiority is more real than ever”.

Meredith denies he is angry but you can’t miss his frustration, not least with the silence that has met his latest book. “Not one American newspaper, not one American television network, not one cable network, would let me get on TV and hold my book up. Because it told the truth, you understand, and nobody in America wants the truth to come out.” 

With him in the car he carries his five-point manifesto for turning things around, which he is delivering to black church leaders. It is part civil rights orthodoxy, part religious doctrine. 

“Only the family of God can solve the problems of our time,” he offers. Point two of his manifesto, for example, says simply: “The Bible says you should train up a child in the ways of the Lord and when he is old, he won’t depart from it.” He argues that every black church in Mississippi should take direct responsibility for every black child in their parish and should keep a written record of everything they do and achieve until the age of 21.

He believes people here are listening. “By the end of this year, Mississippi is going to have the most productive public schools and the best training of young people of any place in America,” he says. It’s a statement of confidence that is hard to take seriously given the state’s place at the bottom of almost every education league table available.  But Meredith cannot have taken on the ordeal of being the first black student at Ole Miss – as the university is often called – or started his March against Fear without holding the conviction that he would be making a difference.  And surely in the 1960s he did. Today, he is working on the same premise of certitude. Just don’t call it brave.

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