James Meredith’s Biography: A living legend
Biography: James Howard Meredith, A living legend
Biography: James Howard Meredith
Lecturer, Entrepreneur, Author, Second Reconstruction Pioneer
Born: June 25, 1933
Birthplace: Kosciusko, Mississippi
Not so long ago, in 1962, during a time when racial strife was as thick as thieves or rather bandits, James Howard Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi, which had been chartered as Mississippi’s first public university in 1848. Mr. Meredith’s deed gave blacks hope and put a bitter taste in the mouth of white segregationists. Though victory was nowhere in sight, educational opportunities once closed tight to Colored citizens were opened.
The media described Mr. Meredith’s action as brave, daring, and nutty. Because he was bold enough to risk his life to force America to make a “lily white” university honor his right under the law to obtain an education at its institution, people were baffled by him and many misunderstood him.
After his father passed, James Meredith did things his way and by standards established by him and him alone. His father had taught him to think for himself, to do what he thought was right, and had believed he would make good choices.
Besides his father, James Meredith admired biblical characters: Moses, David, and Jesus. Historically, he was taken by General Napoleon Bonaparte, who had conquered the world before he was 30 years old. Meredith was himself 29 years old when he became a champion for his race.
At the age of 73, James Meredith had arrived and become monumental worthy, an honor normally reserved for the deceased. The very school that closed the door to him and his kind up until October 1, 1962 erected a Civil Rights Monument and a 6’2 life size statute in his honor, which was unveiled October 1, 2006, 44 years after he attended his first day of class.
As the Statute Unveiling program unfolded, James Meredith sat on the podium next to his pretty wife, Judy, in a tailored white suit with a black and white bowtie as cool as he had been when he walked across the campus, for the first time, in 1962 escorted by U.S. Marshals. In 2006, his thick, manicured, black and white beard gave him a distinguished look, and he is just that – one of a kind. James Meredith is his own man in his own right.
James Meredith started off in life the middle child of a black farmer. He grew up on an 84 acre farm, four and a half miles outside of Kosciusko, Mississippi in Attala County, which is located in central Mississippi, a southern American state. He was his father’s seventh child and his mother’s first born. His parents Moses Arthur “Cap” Meredith and Roxie Mariah Patterson married April 4, 1931.
Cap and Roxie named James Meredith the initials - J.H. when he was born. Like his older siblings, J.H. called his father Cap and his mother Ms. Roxie. J.H. was affectionately called J-Boy by his family and friends. Three years before J.H. was born, the parents in his rural community pooled their resources together and founded Cook Private School. Cap and the black investors used cows, horses, and other items as collateral to secure a loan with Merchants & Farmers Bank to finance the school. In those days, blacks had to create their own institutions, because the white power structure did not appropriate sufficient funds to create schools, hospitals, and other institutions to benefit Blacks.
When J-Boy was three years old, he starting walking to Cook Private School, which was near their farm with his sisters Thelma and Miriam. His oldest brother, Emmett, had become the first high school graduate in the family the previous year, and his older siblings Leroy and Delma were attending high school at Attala County Training School in Kosciusko.
Graduating from high school was rare for southern Blacks in 1935; in fact, at that time, over 170,000 out of one million Mississippi blacks were illiterate. When J-Boy was four years old, he learned to say his ABCs forward and backward. Early in life he was challenged to keep up with his older sisters and brothers, which caused him to develop a burning desire to learn and to achieve. J-Boy’s parents and older brothers and sisters encouraged his educational progress, and he excelled academically.
Although Cap had a fifth grade education, he understood that an education was connected to one’s income and quality of life. He had missed the opportunity to obtain a job that paid good wages because he did not have an eighth grade education. Roxie had obtained an eighth grade education in a one room school called The Patterson School which had been created by her father, William Patterson, and other members of the Center Community in the early 1900s. The school went to the eighth grade, but there was no high school in that section of the county.
J-Boy was mixed with African, Indian, and White blood. The Patterson lineage included an Irish immigrant, who arrived in South Carolina in the early 1800s. His Mullatto slave was moved to Center, Mississippi. Ned Meredith, J-Boy’s paternal grandfather, was a sharecropper for four decades. His entire family including his children worked in the fields. He obtained a railroad job later in life.
Cap’s mother Francis Brown Meredith was Ned’s second wife. Francis, the illegitimate daughter of a white lawyer, JAP Campbell, was a school teacher, but after their marriage, she was not allowed to keep her position. She secretly taught her nine children reading, writing, and math on rainy days and during the evenings. Ned’s oldest son, James Cleveland (J.C.), grew up in Ned and Francis’ home; unlike Francis, Ned and J.C. were both illiterate.
Cap was a natural leader and the name “Cap” was derivative of the word captain. He was an expert farmer, who had learned many farming techniques on The Hamilton Farm in Holmes County, Mississippi. While serving as a sharecropper on a white man’s farm in 1923, Cap offered some planting advice to the land owner, who rejected his suggestions. The land owner said, “Now, Cap if you want to boss, you need to go and buy your own land.”
The next day, Cap searched for some farm land and he purchased an 84 acre plot of land. The farm included a farm house and Cap, his first wife Barbara, and their four children immediately moved into the house in April of 1923. Ownership of land gave the family the freedom to allow their children to receive a better quality of education in comparison to the substandard education available to sharecroppers. A week shy of Christmas in 1929, Barbara passed away while undergoing a gallbladder surgery in Jackson. Her passing was a difficult experience for the family.
Roxie moved on the farm several years after Barbara’s passing. During J-Boy’s young life, Roxie was a housewife; she provided educational support to her children at home, and made it her personal business to attend all of their school programs. J-Boy learned a lot from his five older siblings who were seven to 17 years older than him.
By the time J-Boy was seven years old, four of his older siblings had left home. By 1943, Miriam was the oldest child at home and J-Boy became the oldest boy on the farm. He was providing leadership to his three younger siblings, and teaching them how to take care of the crops and animals. J-Boy’s youngest sister Willie Lou was born in 1947; when she turned three years old, he left home.
On a few occasions, J-Boy accompanied his parents to the doctor’s office in Kosciusko. On one visit, he noticed that his father’s doctor had obtained a degree from the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). J-Boy developed a desire to attend “Ole Miss” long before he realized Jim Crow laws would not allow him to attend an all-white college. His two older sisters Delma and Thelma obtained a teaching certificate from Rust College and Miriam enrolled in Jackson College, now called Jackson State University, after completing high school.
When J-Boy was a toddler, his oldest brother Emmett moved to St. Petersburg, Florida to stay with his uncle Cliff and his sister Miriam moved to Florida in 1949. Cliff was Cap’s youngest brother, who never married and did not have any children. He was a security guard, and he had a roomy house in one of the most beautiful cities in America. J-Boy had learned that living with uncle Cliff was quite an adventure. When J-Boy completed the 11th grade, his father sent him to live with his uncle Cliff to finish his 12th grade year.
During the summer, after completing the 11th grade, J-Boy moved to St. Petersburg and his uncle Cliff enrolled him in Gibbs High School as a senior. The school was much better than the schools J-Boy had attended in Mississippi, because the teachers had obtained bachelors and masters degrees, and the school curriculum was more advanced.
While in Florida, J.H. renamed himself James Howard Meredith in order to obtain a Florida Driver’s license, because the clerk would not accept the initials J.H. as an official name. His name choice was easily accomplished, because his cousin J.C., who previously enlisted in the military, had renamed himself James Cleveland Meredith, after his grandfather.
That school year, J-Boy submitted an essay entry to his teacher so that she could enter his paper into the American Legion Essay Contest. After reviewing his paper, his teacher reasoned that the paper was poorly written and she rewrote his paper and asked him to sign off on the new paper. The new paper was entitled, Why J.H. is Proud to be an American. However, J.H. refused to acknowledge the paper that his teacher had written. So, he rewrote his paper and sent his entry directly to the contest officials himself. The teacher was not happy that J.H. did not cooperate with her and she tried to get his entry disqualified, but the contest officials accepted his submission. In reality, his original essay was opposed, because his theme had discussed how America could become a better place, and his teacher was not comfortable with the idea of challenging white customs.
J.H. won 1st place in the contest, and two white girls won 2nd and 3rd place. Their pictures made front page in the St. Petersburg Times newspaper. However, J.H. was not supported by school officials. The principal of the school publicly criticized J.H. as the contest winner, claiming he did not speak correct English.
In spite of the controversy surrounding the contest, J.H. graduated from high school in 1951. Like his older brother, Leroy, he enlisted in the Air Force. J.H., whose official name was James in the Armed Serves, served in an integrated military unit and became a clerk typist. He used his military benefits to attend college. While stationed in Indiana, James met and fell in love with Mary June Wiggins and the couple got married in 1956 in Gary, Indiana.
The military gave James a steady income and at the age of 19, Cap encouraged James to make his first real estate investment. James took his father’s advice and sent $400 home and Cap purchased 40 acres of land from his sister Alberta Meredith Estes for $10 per acre. Shortly afterward, Cap purchased 15 acres for James, which included the original site of the Cook Private School, which had become the Marble Rock Public School. In 1959, James completed payments to purchase his father’s farm land so that his aging parents would have the money they needed to purchase a lot and build a house in Kosciusko on Allen Street. His parent’s house was completed in 1960. James took good advice, started many business enterprises, and became a self-made businessman.
James and Mary June’s first child, John was born at a U.S. Air Force base in Tachikawa Japan on January 19, 1960. That year, after nine years of service, James received an honorable discharge from the military and that spring he relocated his family to Jackson, Mississippi. They moved into Maple Street Apartments, which was near Lanier High School and enrolled in Jackson State College (now Jackson State University). Mississippi was a different world from Japan; in Japan, a black man was an American. In Mississippi, black men were being lynched, beaten, and terrorized for attempting to exercise their constitutional rights.
President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated into office on January 20, 1961, and James decided to try to accomplish one of his childhood dreams. That day, he wrote a letter draft and he mailed the letter the following day as an initial step to apply to attend Ole Miss. Shortly thereafter, James’ application was acknowledged by the school’s registrar. Robert Ellis thanked James for his application and informed him that the application process required a picture attachment, and three letters of reference to be furnished by school alumni. The photograph was required to reveal an applicant’s race. The discriminatory photograph practice had been banned in the military during President Harry Truman’s administration for over a decade, but the practice was alive and well in the south.
James Meredith did not know any white person who would write a letter on his behalf. In the 1960s, Whites followed the Jim Crow rules which separated the races and rendered blacks second class citizens. Mississippi white citizens and elected officials opposed the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in the Brown v. School Board case, which had called for the immediate integration of America’s segregated school systems.
James wrote the registrar’s office and informed the school that he was an American Negro citizen. The following letter from the school informed James that his application to attend the University of Mississippi was denied because the school could not accept the college credits he had acquired while he was in the military. However, Jackson State College, which was run by the same College Board, had accepted James’ college credits, and he had enrolled as a junior. In reality, school officials did not want him to attend “Ole Miss” because he was black.
James had befriended Medgar Wiley Evers, who was a community activist that worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Medgar had unsuccessfully attempted to seek admission to Ole Miss himself in 1954 and was very familiar with the enrollment process. Mr. Evers coached James and advised him to seek the assistance of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, which was led by Thurgood Marshall. The Legal Defense Fund agreed to utilize their paid council to assist James with his legal needs. Marshall had served as the lead attorney for the Brown v. School Board case, and he later became the first black Supreme Court justice.
Thurgood Marshall appointed Constance Motley, an attorney from New York to serve on James Meredith’s case. She was a well-known civil rights attorney, who had served on many school desegregation cases. R. Jesse Brown, a civil rights attorney joined James Meredith’s defense team as well; case documents were filed in the courts under Attorney Brown’s Mississippi license. At that time Brown was one of four black attorneys in the state of Mississippi. Brown filed the first civil rights lawsuit in Mississippi. Prior to serving on Meredith’s legal team, one of Brown’s black client’s Mack Charles Parker was abducted from jail by a mob in 1959, lynched, and thrown in the Pearl River before his trial began. With their lives and their client’s life at risk, for nearly two years, the attorneys worked diligently to assist James with his integration lawsuit.
After winning the right to attend the all-white college by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, James Meredith was blocked from enrolling in the school by Governor Ross Barnett at the Woolfolk Building in Jackson. On another occasion, the governor refused to allow James to complete his registration on campus. The Lieutenant Governor, Paul Johnson, and a group of white men formed a solid line and blocked James and the U.S. Marshal’s path to the administration office on James third registration attempt.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals imposed a $10.000 fine on Governor Barnett and a $5,000 fine on Lieutenant Governor Johnson per day until they ceased interfering with the registration of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. The fine impressed upon the governor and the lieutenant governor to cease their personal interference with James Meredith’s registration process. After the state leaders directly stepped aside, white citizens collaborated with the Klu Klux Klan and organized groups to oppose James Meredith’s registration.
Shortly thereafter, Ole Miss had a football game and Governor Ross Barnett incited the crowd. “Never, Never!” they screamed. The governor said, “Never shall our emblem go, from Colonel “Reb” to Old Black Joe!” The governor was implying to whites that they would never have to worry about giving up their customs of separating the races. The Never doctrine, popularized by the governor, turned into a protest movement, and students started wearing Never pins attached to their clothing.
However, President John F. Kennedy ordered the involvement of the U.S. Marshals Service and the tides quickly changed. On September 30, 1962, James Meredith, who was protected by several U.S. Marshals, spent the night in Baxter Hall on the school’s campus. James was finally scheduled to complete his registration the following morning with the support of the U.S. Marshals Service which had been sent on campus by President John. F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
News of James Meredith’s arrival, angered white racists and thousands started descending on the school’s campus from Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas earlier that Sunday morning. That night a riot broke out between private white citizens and U.S. Marshals and the National Guard. The riot escalated into an insurrection and resulted in the injuries of 168 marshals and 200 soldiers. Twenty-nine people received shotgun wounds, at least six people received acid burns, and two whites were killed on campus.
The following morning, James was driven to the administration building to complete his registration. The car used to drive him to the building reflected the aftermath of the insurrection. It was riddled with bullet holes and the glass was broken out. However, James Meredith registered for classes October 1, 1962; he attended his first class, Colonial American History.
The white students were not friendly to him. He became the most unpopular student on campus. Even though, James was escorted around campus by U.S. Marshals the entire school semester, some students threw fire crackers at him and cursed him. Some of them simply hated him because the color of his skin was too dark for their liking. A few students believed that blacks had the right to attend school with them, but most were afraid to break their silence.
James ignored the student’s derogatory remarks. He considered himself a soldier fighting a battle for him and his kind. He felt that he had won a battle when he completed his registration and had joined the student population of the best college in the state of Mississippi. Now other blacks could follow in his footsteps. James Meredith became an important part of history when he integrated Ole Miss. Prior to that point, black students had to move outside of the state of Mississippi to attend law school and medical school because there were no law schools or medical schools in Mississippi for black students to attend.
James obtained a Bachelor of Art degree in Political Science, History, and French. He walked across the stage and became the first black student to graduate from Ole Miss, August 18, 1963. To taunt his classmates, James wore a Never button upside down on his suit jacket as he walked to the line-up area when they were preparing to walk across the stage in the graduation ceremony. James Meredith risked his life to break down Mississippi’s segregation policies. Since 1962, many black Americans in the state of Mississippi have become lawyers, medical doctors, pharmacists, veterinarians, and entered other professions.
After graduation, James and his family moved to Nigeria and he enrolled in Ibadan University and obtained a Masters degree in Government and Economics in 1965. Immediately afterward they moved to New York City. While in New York, Mary June became a school teacher, and he enrolled in law school, and started writing Three Years in Mississippi which was published in 1966. The book discussed his college days at Jackson State College, and the legal battles that where pursued so that he could integrate Ole Miss.
James Meredith returned to his home state from New York and started The Walk Against Fear in June of 1966. However, the walk was aborted on the second day (June 6, 1966) when he was shot in Hernando, Mississippi by a sniper. Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and other civil rights leaders continued the walk. The walk was renamed the Meredith March Against Fear in honor of James Meredith. Under the direction of various civil rights leaders, thousands of people joined the march and walked from the site of the shooting in Hernando, Mississippi on Highway 51 to Jackson, Mississippi.
James had organized the walk in hopes of influencing blacks to set aside their fear of the white power structure, and to encourage black voter registration. In general blacks continued to fear the white power structure, but over 5,000 blacks registered to vote during the walk that became a march. Although, the walk gave the participants a sense of accomplishment, there were not enough black registered voters in Mississippi for them to elect many candidates of their choice. James returned to New York afterward and he completed law school at Columbia University in 1968. Later that year, James Meredith walked 1,000 miles from Chicago to New York to underscore the DeFactor segregation and discrimination in the North.
Afterward, he attended Merrill Lynch Securities and Investment School and entered an internship as a stock broker for a short time. He returned to Mississippi in the 1970s, and created several business enterprises to supplement his tree farming operations. He operated a magazine called, Outlook Magazine, and one of the popular entertainment businesses he owned was called Chimneyville. The magazine regularly published the monthly arrests records of private citizens residing in Jackson, Mississippi. The DUI, burglary, prostitution, and other records embarrassed the accused and their family, but the articles were informative.
James Meredith used his voice to discuss political and social issues. A 1976 headline blasted the Jackson Police Department for filing trumped up rape charges against a black 16 year old teenage male. The October 1983 Issue, printed an interview with Charles Evers, brother of slain Civil Rights leader Medgar W. Evers. Charles Evers had become the first black Mayor of Fayette, Mississippi in 1968, and ran as an Independent for Governor of Mississippi. James Meredith and Charles Evers had one thing in common, they both opposed the views of most liberals and eventually become among a few from their era to join the Republican Party. Today, Mr. Meredith does not publicly discuss his political or religious views.
Mary June unexpectedly passed from heart failure in 1979. James and his three sons, John, Joseph, and James, were devastated by her passing. As hard as it was, they picked up the pieces and continued to live their lives. Shortly afterward, James founded the African Development and Reunification Association. The purpose of the organization was to reunify all black people in the world. The organization’s vision was never accomplished. The following year he married his second wife, Judy Alsobrooks, a school teacher in Gary, Indiana.
During the late 1980s, James relocated his family to Cincinnati, Ohio. Judy started working at a local television station as a news reporter and James starting teaching African American Studies at the University of Cincinnati. James Meredith conducted the research to write his volume of 11 books at the Library of Congress, while employed by Senator Jesse Helms from 1989-1991.
In 1995 James Meredith published a volume of 11 books. James wanted to obtain a position in Washington so that he could have access to the Library of Congress, which is the largest library in the U.S. He had applied for a position with all 435 members of congress. Jesse Helms was one of two congressmen to respond to James job request letter. In 1997, he founded The Meredith Institute, started promoting the 3 Rs (reading, writing, arithmetic), advocating that blacks should learn proper English, and that males can become intellectual giants by mastering the English language.
James Meredith completed a book entitled A Mission From God: A Memoir and Challenge for America with historian and author William Doyle through Simon & Schuster in August of 2012 on the eve of the 50th Anniversary of Meredith’s integration of Ole Miss. The book discussed Meredith’s encounters with Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert J. Kennedy, Mary McCloud, Governor Ross Barnett, Thurgood Marshall, David Duke, and Medgar Evers. The memoir provides a manifesto for a better world.
A biography entitled James Meredith: Warrior and the America that created him written by his niece Meredith Coleman McGee was published by Praeger Publishing in March of 2013. It is selling in the textbook market. McGee’s mother and Meredith’s sister, Hazel Janell Meredith (Hazel Hall) published My Brother J-Boy, an illustrated children’s book which describes their upbringing in rural Attala County, Mississippi in 2011.
hend access to the American Dreamclusive rights to his first book and he has seublisher. aching African American stiu___________Over the years, James Meredith has visited numerous countries to study the condition of people of color including Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Brazil, and France. Today, James and Judy Meredith live in Jackson, Mississippi. They are the proud parents of four surviving children and the grandparents of eleven grandchildren. Their son, Dr. Joseph Meredith passed from complications with Lupus in February of 2008. James continues to lecture to small groups upon request. He gives audiences educational success tips and advocates that grandparents and parents should prepare their children for school at home.
James Meredith, Charles Evers, and Hollis Watkins, were key tour speakers for ACRES (American Civil Rights Education Services, Inc. which brought thousands of New York high school students to the South to learn Civil Rights history. Robert “Bob” Moses was a regular tour speaker until he moved from Jackson, Mississippi to Florida a few years ago. ACRES participants were required to read Civil Rights history and met various leaders who presently live in the Deep South during a 10 day tour. The tours ended when ACRES founded Sean Devlin passed away 2006.
On May 25, 2012, at age 78, James Meredith launched his Walk for Education and Truth at the Tennessee/ Mississippi state line, advocating that it takes a whole community to raise a child and challenging the church to take an active role in the lives of every child within a two mile radius of its doors by maintaining a record on each child. Parishioners of West Grove Church of Christ took a group photograph with James Meredith and Pastor Chuck Meador, Senturian DuReaux, and Fred Watson during the walk at the site where Meredith had been shot in Hernando, Mississippi 50 years previously.
The 40th Anniversary of the Meredith Walk Against Fear was organized by Jackson State University, and commemorated June 3, 2006 at the state Capitol in Jackson, Mississippi at the exact location where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and others ended the Meredith March Against Fear June 26, 1966 and spoke to a crowd of 30,000 onlookers.1
The Meredith March Against Fear was the last mass Civil Rights Demonstration during the Second Reconstruction. Historians refer to the march as the end of the Civil Rights era, proposing that Stokely Carmichael launched the Black Power Movement when he introduced black power ideology during the Meredith March Against Fear in Greenwood, Mississippi.
The unveiling of a Civil Rights Memorial and a 6’2 statute of the hero was held at the University of Mississippi, October 1, 2006. The statute depicts James Meredith walking, and he has walked many miles in hopes of him and his kind obtaining equal citizenship rights and access to The American Dream.
James Meredith is a living legend, who has received numerous honors for his contribution to higher education and to the obtainment of equal citizenship rights for Americans. On May 29, 2013, he was the recipient of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Medal for Education Impact, the highest honor given by the school during the school’s Convocation ceremony, where he was a guest speaker. The following evening he had the pleasure of meeting Oprah Winfrey, who was also a Convocation ceremony speaker at Harvard University, for the first time at a private dinner. Both Meredith and Winfrey are Kosciusko’s most famous citizens.
Today James Howard Meredith is fulfilling his speaking and book signing engagements. He exercises regularly, enjoys life, and continues to develop ways to use his voice for those who are lost in the shadows of a society plagued by classicism and discrimination.
Bennett, Jr. L. (1988) Before the Mayflower: A history of Black America. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Fleming, K. (2005). Son of the rough south: Uncivil memoir. Canada: Perseus Books Group. Meredith, J. (1966).
Meredith, J.H. Three years in Mississippi. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Reprinted (1995). Jackson, MS: Meredith Publishing.
Meredith, J. (2000). James Meredith “A living legend.” [Brochure]. Jackson, MS: The Meredith Institute.
Meredith, J. (1983, October). Who and what is Charles Evers? Outlook, 10(1), 1-13.
Meredith, M.C. (2013). James Meredith: Warrior and the America that created him. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Publishing.
The University of Mississippi.(2008). Ole Miss History. Retrieved March 26, 2008 from, http://www.olemiss.edu/info/history.html
By Meredith C. McGee 5/31/2016