James Meredith (b. 1933) served in the U.S. Air Force from 1951 to 1960, then attended Jackson State College in Mississippi. Inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, Meredith applied to the all-white University of Mississippi believing, as he later wrote, that he had “Divine Responsibility to break White Supremacy in Mississippi.” After his application was denied, he sued the university with legal help from the NAACP. In June 1962, a Federal court ruled that the school must admit Meredith. Although accompanied by Federal officials, Meredith encountered repeated resistance in his efforts to register from Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett. In a move modeled on President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s response to the similar situation in Little Rock, Arkansas, six years earlier, Kennedy sent Army troops to quell mob violence that had resulted in two deaths. In the following Look magazine article, Meredith assessed the situation at “Ole Miss” following his first semester and expressed the view that all African Americans had a responsibility "to do their part to bring about the changes necessary to equalize opportunity."
People are always saying to me, “You are in the University of Mississippi, and that’s the important fact.” But so many unusual unique things have been a part of my stay here that I seriously doubt that I am in a true sense a student of the university. I’m inclined to go along with the diehard segregationists on this point. Just having a Negro in residence does not mean that the university has been integrated. Most of the time, I am perhaps the most segregated Negro in the world.
I came back for a second semester because I saw signs that gave me hope that I will be able to go to school in the future under adequate, if not ideal, conditions. No student should have to be subjected to the sort of fanfare I underwent during the first semester. Though no price is too high to pay for liberation, I am convinced that you can pay a price for one piece of freedom that is greater than the benefits you get. We all have to decide how best to utilize our time, our energy. In buying clothes, I pay $50 for a suit, but I have not yet reached the point where I would pay $50 for a pair of shoes.
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. If he couldn’t endure the hardships that I did and make it, then he might not seem deserving. Negroes who would otherwise have been ready to seek training in the best educational institutions were discouraged from the effort. Many tended to place unrealistic hopes in the prospect of my successful attendance, thereby escaping their own responsibility to do all that they individually could do, wherever they were, to bring freedom to us all. At the same time, the sensible whites in Mississippi let the emotional minority browbeat them into neglecting their responsibility, which was to work seriously to correct the situation.
Certainly, I must acknowledge, I did not expect the tenseness to remain more than ten days or two weeks. As one who had grown up in Mississippi, I knew of course that it represented the image of segregation and discrimination. But I really expected that Mississippi, being almost surrounded by token integration in Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana, would act with reason, particularly after the example of the University of Georgia. Here was just a step, really a small step, toward getting into a position to solve our problem—what we in Mississippi call the Negro problem. Since our crisis, South Carolina, the leader of the Old South, has acted in a reasonable manner and at least maintained its dignity and pride.
The political leadership of our state was, in my opinion, most responsible for what has gone on in Mississippi. They had the strongest hand. Where they have led, the people nearly always followed. That these leaders chose to make a showdown fight over integration at the college level seemed to me to be completely illogical.
With the state government taking the position that it did, the students had no choice but to act as they did. I’ve talked with many, and they have almost convinced me that most of them really believe that their position was right. Just as a matter of maintaining their pride, and backing up their families who are the leaders of the state, they had to take a position similar to the one taken by the State of Mississippi.
Through it all, the most intolerable thing has been the campaign of ostracizing me. It does not harm me directly. If anyone doesn’t want to associate with me, I’m sure that the feeling is at least mutual. I don’t think anyone should be forced to enter association with anyone else unless they so desire. However, the ostracizers not only don’t associate with me, but assume the right to see that no one else associates with me.
If a white student sits down and drinks a cup of coffee with me, or walks with me across the campus, he is subjected to unhampered intimidation and harassment. I have been denied my privileges all along, but these whites have not been. Now they have lost a simple freedom. This sets back the Negro, because anytime you move backward, the person already down suffers more. This campaign, which apparently has been permitted to go on, really results in a reduction of everybody’s rights.
On the surface, of course, the most unusual thing on campus is the presence of the soldiers and the marshals. They draw a good deal of attention. Most people here seem to overlook the thing that caused the presence of the soldiers and the marshals. This thing was the breakdown of law and order. Their continued presence is to me the complete manifestation that enforcement of law and order is still broken down.
There has been extensive speculation about my grades. The opposition has attempted to take the focus off the basic issue and put it on my grades. I feel a great responsibility not to let my cause be sold out on such a trivial matter. It is established fact that I’m more than able to compete and do—under any ordinary circumstance. Therefore, whatever grade I make would prove nothing relative to the question of my ability, or to the question of the ability of the Negro to do or not to do. This is a question that was answered long ago. I wouldn’t waste my time proving it.
The real question we are facing is whether Negroes, including Negroes in Mississippi, are able to obtain the education that their states offer. This is the basic issue—the right of access. The right to fail is just as important as the right to succeed.
The great purpose I have is to make way for the average Negro. Negro progress up to now has been on the basis of selection. Great efforts have always been made to get the superior, the above average Negro the right to certain things. This is a position I’ve always been cautious about. It’s very dangerous. To make way for the above average can, of course, be only token progress. But if we can make way for the average, the above average will always find his place. If getting a degree from the University of Mississippi were all I ever did with my life, I would have done very little.
Throughout the first semester I received about 200 letters a day. Most of the people who wrote, particularly the Negroes, said that they had great admiration for me. They were praying and hoping that I would make it. Their basic attitude alarmed me. The letter that alarmed me most came from students at Alabama State College, a Negro school. The major message conveyed in this letter was that they had committed themselves to God and to me, to prove to the world that Negroes are somebody. The letter was alarming, because they had relieved themselves of all responsibility. They thought there was nothing more that they had to do. I feel that every young Negro must make his personal contribution toward the accomplishment of his freedom. No one man can fight alone. You can’t confine the struggle for human freedom and dignity to one place or to one man. To free the right arm and cut the left arm off—this is not progress.
I tell my friends that they can pat me on the back and tell me how great I am—they can put all the adjectives they want on my name—that still makes me no less human. I have the problem of resolving whether my staying at the university is worth the intimidation and harassment that my family has to endure. My father is 71 years old, worked hard all his life, lived a good life, paid all his debts, never was in trouble, was a good citizen—but he can’t sleep in peace without the danger of someone attacking him violently. He had not gone to the University of Mississippi, or done any of the other things that the opposition might have been fighting about. Yet, one night, they fired into his house with shotguns. Our system of laws allowed such a thing to happen, and it is tragic that the opposition has degenerated to this level.
The most realistic understanding of what my family and I were going through came in letters from people in foreign countries. But the letters from this country, especially from Negroes, often did not even acknowledge that I have any right to be concerned about the welfare of my family. For a long time, not one in a hundred seemed to have understood at all. This pointed out to me the unrealistic hopes that the Negroes hold about the future. In their failure to conceive of all the costs, both physical and mental, they showed that they were failing to realize the real price that they would themselves someday have to pay if they were to do their part. They more or less seemed to expect a solution to their problem out of some lofty development. They were still looking for some miracle to save them.
Then, on a Sunday just after New Year’s, I had an experience that convinced me that, unless something could be done, we would get less in advantages than we would lose in disadvantages. An old gentleman who had been the first Negro to visit me at the university called to ask if I would go with him to a funeral in Oxford. A lot of people there wanted to meet me. After the funeral was over, all the people came and shook hands with me from the relatives of the deceased down to the Boy Scout who had been directing traffic. Several insisted that I stop by the house. I did, and then I decided to go visit one of my ex-classmates from Jackson State College, who is a high-school teacher in Oxford. The old gentleman and I went up to my former classmate’s door. His wife answered, but she wouldn’t let us in. So we left and went back to the house of the sister of the lady who had been buried that day. You know how Negroes are at a funeral. They had every kind of food and every kind of pie laid out. The only thing expected is that you get a plate. So I did. And in came this fellow who had been my classmate.
He said he wanted to see me a minute privately, and I told him to wait a minute and I’d get through eating. He acted a little apprehensive, and I said, are you in a hurry? He said no, no, not particularly. We went back to an empty room. For the first time in my life, someone invited me not to visit him. He requested that I not come to town to see him anymore. The thing that was so revealing to me was the reason that he didn’t want me to visit him: He said he’d been informed by his principal, in the local Negro school, that any teacher who had anything to do with me would lose his job. He was a very pitiful sight. He begged me for understanding and mercy. He even gave me another reason for not wanting to associate with me. He was afraid his father-in-law would lose his job. His father-in-law was a street cleaner in Oxford, probably not making more than $25 a week. Here was a man who would not only give up his rights and privileges and liberty, but give up his soul. And for what?
The real tragedy is that this individual is a social science-teacher in a high school. It kept running through my mind—what could he teach? I don’t think children in any nation should be instructed by people who have to sell their own souls. You’ve really given up more than you have to give. There’s a certain minimum of self-respect and self-direction that a human must maintain in order to be an individual. Once he loses that, he’s lost for all useful purposes.
This incident played a decisive part in making my mind focus on the situation. I realized that I had to think out what steps I should take. In my bedroom, I wrote out a statement for the press. I pointed out that no major issues had been decided, legally or officially, illegally or unofficially, and that the enemy still observes no rules of war. Some standard must be established, I said, so that those who are fighting for equality of opportunity and those who are fighting for the right to oppress can clash without disaster falling upon either side. I knew that there was no use registering for a second semester unless some changes could be made in both the local situation and the broad one.
After that statement of January 7, some conditions did begin to change. Before, I had never noticed the campus police around where I was. Only the U. S. marshals and the soldiers. But when I came from my first class after the statement, the campus police were there as I came out. And they have been there ever since. Of course, it’s very important that the welfare and protection of the student be in the hands of the local police. We have no national police force, and the Federal Government is limited in its actual effect on the daily lives of the people. It can act only in the event of an extreme crisis, such as the riot at the University of Mississippi, and even then its action is of a very doubtful and uncertain nature. That is the structure of our governmental system.
It was still clear to me that everybody was seeking to lighten or lessen the tension, not to change or correct things in a basic sense. That’s just like putting salve on a wound when the blood has been poisoned. It’s treating the symptom, rather than the cause.
The reports that I might not stay produced a most heartening change in the mail that came to me. The president of the student body in a Negro school out in Texas wrote a letter signed by a number of the students. Of course, they hoped that I would find my way clear to remain at the University of Mississippi. But this was a minor point. The main point was that they realized their obligation to move forward and were prepared to work hard for their aims, regardless of what happened in Mississippi. This was a manifestation that I had long looked for, and the same general trend soon began to appear in a strong majority of the letters from Negroes, especially those under 35.
YOU CAN’T SUPPRESS THOUGHT
I’ve now had many Negroes tell me that they’ve been so involved in this thing that they can’t sleep at night. One of my good friends put it this way: Every Negro in America is in college.
This is the most satisfying thing to me. Many times in the past, when Negroes encountered something they disliked, they could suppress it in their minds. It was worse than forgetting; what they disliked was not really a reality to them. But now the Negro is almost unable to suppress his awareness of the situation. An old man, a gentleman 85 or 90 years old, told me once that anything you keep thinking about, you are bound to do something about. Humanly and physically, the individual is not able to think about this matter, to keep on thinking about it and not do anything about it.
Certainly, Negroes aren’t yet 100 percent together. I’d say only about three fifths of those who have communicated with me since my statement are thinking in what I consider to be sensible terms. Maybe the other two fifths are still looking for God, government or the world to give them whatever they think they want. But a definite majority have indicated very clearly that they not only recognize their situation, but feel a real need for utilizing their energy to do something about it. They no longer merely look across the street and see how another Negro is doing in order to judge how well they are doing. They now look at all of America in all of its aspects and see what America has to offer. And they are convinced that America has more to offer than what they are receiving. They see that it is up to them, not God or some “selected” individual, to do their part to bring about the changes necessary to equalize opportunity. Every Negro is active at least in his mind and very conscious of his desires. If we’re going to have social change, we’ve got to have it everywhere. . . .
It is essential that America solve her racial problem because, in the first place, human society, civilization itself, must advance. Elimination of oppression and prejudice, of restriction on human rights and development—these are essential to the advance of civilization. If America is to hold her rightful place as leader of the world, the democratic world, we must come nearer to our ideal of human equality and justice. . . .
Personally, I have not been able to conclude that people are just concretely mean and naturally evil. I don’t think that the worst segregationist, even the White Supremacist, wants to see other people suffer. He does not want to see the Negro living in a run-down shack with rain coming through the roof. The basic problem is that none of us knows how to make the transition from one way of life and one status to another. People are afraid of change.
I have spent the biggest portion of my life trying to settle on some method—some simple, effective method—of bringing about the uplift of the Negro in general and Mississippi Negroes in particular. As I see it, we have to start making long-range plans and work together for predetermined goals. The first thing we’ve got to do in Mississippi, if the Negro is to improve his lot, is to get Negro doctors, lawyers, businessmen and professional men into our community. Not just teachers. Today, there are only four Negro lawyers in the whole state, and they all have offices in Jackson. Through a cooperative effort, we could in five years have a doctor and a lawyer in every major town in the state. In ten years, we could have a lawyer in every county and a doctor in every town, small as well as large. Within fifteen years, by this community system, the Negro can obtain his rights—including the right to vote—and help decide his own destiny and the destiny of his people. In twenty years, the Negro in Mississippi, working diligently, cooperatively, quietly, can lift himself up to a complete position of respect and decency.
I think that the Negro has been widely misled about the realities of the political structure of the South. It is not hopeless. We all speak of our constitutional rights. But when a Negro speaks of constitutional rights, he speaks only of the Constitution of the United States. If we took a poll of Negroes, we would be surprised to discover how few know that states have constitutions. However, the things that affect the daily lives and welfare of the people most are the provisions written into the state constitutions and statutes. This is a fact of life. I have been accused of being a states' righter because I have consistently refused to condemn or otherwise talk too unfavorably about the white Southern leadership and the leadership in Mississippi. As I see it, to solve our problem is going to call for full effort on the part of everyone affected by it. This includes the Negro, the segregationist, the government at both state and local levels, the churches and all other institutions. We must have more communication and coordination within the community. And of course it is of utmost importance that the Negro, the one who is actually suffering, do far more in the future than he has done in the past. I feel that, whereas the Negro certainly needs organization and planning on the national level, the real solution to our problem must come on the other levels—regional, state and local. I have great hope.
The best way to start is to find some common ground for communication, and being together in an institution of learning puts you on common ground. If I just wanted to learn that two and two is four and that Columbus discovered America, I could have stayed at Jackson State and got that. Books are just one of the purposes for which an individual goes to a university. Harvard might teach you better that two and two is four, but Harvard cannot teach you better how to use two and two is four in Mississippi. If a Negro goes to New York and gets a master’s degree in school administration, he’ll have a far greater handicap in working with his school superintendent here, who is going to be white, than will a Negro who attends the University of Mississippi and sits in the same class with the future superintendent, even if they never speak to each other. The mere fact that they are there together gives common ground for working out the mutual problem that confronts us everywhere in our community. . . .
I must honestly admit that it has become more and more difficult for me to place too much hope in the idea of mutual understanding and the changing of hearts. Hearts have now shown that they don’t intend to change. So the law has to come in. If the law of the land gives certain rights and privileges to its citizens, then it must be enforced.
In this situation, each Negro has no choice but to give his best attention and deepest effort to the solution of our problem. He must feel proud of himself. Whether he’s illegitimate, or comes from a broken home, no matter where he lodges, be he illiterate, poor, a butler or a maid, no matter what his past, he looks to the future and the changes he will help bring about. He feels that, whatever I was tomorrow, I can be what I want to be. The great principles upon which America establishes herself will be made a reality for all. No matter what is the outcome of my endeavors at the University of Mississippi, the objective for all of us is clear: complete freedom, complete rights and privileges for each citizen in this democracy.
Source: James H. Meredith, “I Can’t Fight Alone,” Look, 19 April 1963, 70–78.