The Dillard Doctrine

Urban Conservative Commentary on Politics & Life

Black History and the Republican Party : James Meredith

I did a series highlighting notable African American Republicans back in 2009. I think it’s important-especially during Black History Month-to look back and see the longstanding connection to conservatism in the black community, in a effort to try to rebuild those relationships that have, over time, been lost. -Coby

James H. Meredith (born June 25, 1933) is an American civil rights movement figure, a writer, and a political adviser. In 1962, he was the first African American student admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi, an event that was a flashpoint in the American civil rights movement. Motivated by President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, Meredith decided to exercise his constitutional rights and apply to the University of Mississippi. His goal was to put pressure on the Kennedy administration to enforce civil rights for African Americans.

Meredith was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi of Choctaw and Black American heritage. Thousands of Choctaw had stayed in Mississippi when most of the people left their traditional homeland for Indian Territory in the removal of the 1830s.

After attending local segregated schools and graduating from high school, Meredith enlisted in the United States Air Force. He served honorably from 1951 to 1960.

He attended Jackson State University for two years, then applied to the University of Mississippi which, under the state’s legally imposed racial segregation, had traditionally accepted only white students.

Meredith wrote that he wanted admission for his country, race, family, and himself. Meredith said, “Nobody handpicked me…I believed, and believe now, that I have a Divine Responsibility… I am familiar with the probable difficulties involved in such a move as I am undertaking and I am fully prepared to pursue it all the way to a degree from the University of Mississippi.” He was denied twice. During this time, he was advised by Medgar Evers, a civil rights leader.

On May 31, 1961, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed suit in the U.S. District Court, alleging that the university had rejected Meredith only because of the color of his skin, as he had a highly successful record. The case went through many hearings and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Meredith had the right to be admitted to the state school. Though Meredith was legally entitled to register, the Governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, tried to block him by having the Legislature pass a law that “prohibited any person who was convicted of a state crime from admission to a state school.” The law was directed at Meredith, who had been convicted of “false voter registration.” Since passage of its 1890 constitution, the state had voter registration rules that effectively disfranchised black voters.

The US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy consulted with Governor Barnett, who agreed to have Meredith enroll in the university. After being barred from entering on September 20, on October 1, 1962, he became the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi. White students and anti-desegregation supporters protested his enrollment by rioting on the Oxford campus.

Robert Kennedy called in 500 U.S. Marshals to take control, who were supported by the 70th Army Engineer Combat Battalion from Ft Campbell, Kentucky. They created a tent camp and kitchen for the US Marshals. To bolster law enforcement, President John F. Kennedy sent in U.S. Army military police from the 503rd Military Police Battalion, and called in troops from the Mississippi Army National Guard and the U.S. Border Patrol as well. In the violent clash, two people died, including the French journalist Paul Guihard, on assignment for the London Daily Sketch. He was found dead behind the Lyceum building with a gunshot wound to the back. One hundred-sixty US Marshals, one-third of the group, were injured in the melee, and 40 soldiers and National Guardsmen were wounded. The US government fined Barnett $10,000 and sentenced him to jail for contempt, but the charges were later dismissed by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Meredith’s entry is regarded as a pivotal moment in the history of civil rights in the United States. He graduated on August 18, 1963 with a degree in political science.

In 1967 while living and studying in New York, Meredith decided to run as a Republican against the incumbent Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in a special election for the Congressional seat in Harlem, but withdrew. Powell was re-elected. Meredith said, “The Republican Party [of New York] made me an offer: full support in every way, everything.” He had full access to top New York Republicans.

After returning to Mississippi to live, in 1972 Meredith ran for the US Senate against the Democratic senator James Eastland, who had been the incumbent for 29 years. Meredith conceded that he had little chance of winning unless Governor George Wallace of Alabama entered the presidential race and split the white vote.

An active Republican, Meredith served from 1989-1991 as a domestic adviser on the staff of United States Senator Jesse Helms. Faced with criticism from the civil rights community for working for the former avowed segregationist, Meredith said that he had applied to every member of the Senate and House offering his services, and only Helms’ office responded. He also wanted a chance to do research at the Library of Congress.

Meredith has identified as an individual American citizen who demanded and received the constitutional rights held by any American, not as a participant in the U.S. civil rights movement. There have been tensions between him and representatives of the Movement. When interviewed in 2002, the 40th anniversary of his enrollment at University of Mississippi, Meredith said, “Nothing could be more insulting to me than the concept of civil rights. It means perpetual second-class citizenship for me and my kind.”

In a 2002 interview with CNN, Meredith said, “I was engaged in a war. I considered myself engaged in a war from Day One. And my objective was to force the federal government—the Kennedy administration at that time—into a position where they would have to use the United States military force to enforce my rights as a citizen.”

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