By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – James Meredith has always confounded people.
In 1962, as a 29-year-old Air Force veteran, he confounded the white power structure and the watching world by breaking the color barrier at the University of Mississippi, his entry supported by U.S. Marshals and federalized troops.
“I deliberately put the United States government in a position where they had to fight the Mississippi government when I came here,” said the Attala County native. “I had already won.”
Thursday, at a signing of his new book, “A Mission from God” (written with William Doyle), he confounded the roomful of admirers at Off Square Books by claiming Choctaw ancestry and a papal role model and by calling for the destruction of his statue – “an idol” – at Ole Miss.
Prompted by journalism professor Joe Atkins and members of the audience, Meredith reflected on his lonely role as Ole Miss’ first black student and suggested keys to a glorious future in Mississippi.
While not excusing those who oversee public education, he said he’d seen the educational potential that black churches could unleash on nearby children.
“We know what God means when he said, ‘Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it,’” he said. “We know what the African proverb means, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’”
Meredith also urged older residents to assume their traditional roles of dispensing wisdom and correction instead of being afraid to offer help.
“We see a child out of order, and the question is, ‘What’s the mama going to do to me if I straighten the child out?” Meredith said. “The question should be, ‘What’s going to happen to this child if I don’t do my old-folks duty?’”
Nikkina Hankins of Olive Branch, a senior at Ole Miss, said it was important to her as an African-American to meet this pioneer.
“Hearing the history teaches you how not to repeat it and how to make the future not just for yourself but the people who are to come,” she said. “Education is the strongest key to changing our future, our economy, everything. We have to learn to be better.”