By Bill Minor
JACKSON – I became the first reporter to interview James Meredith in 1961 about his application seeking admission to become the first black Mississippian to enroll at Ole Miss. He told me then his highest ambition was to become governor of Mississippi.
Now he’s lifted his sights to a much higher level – heavenward, you might say. “Mission From God” is the title of his new memoir, with writer William Doyle as his co-author. You’ll remember Doyle from his 2001 “American Insurrection,” his thriller-style version of the tragic, bloody riot the night of Sept. 30, 1962 on Ole Miss’s tree-lined campus when Meredith entered the historically all-white university.
My take on Doyle’s “Insurrection” book is that it is packed with made-up detailed dialogue of leading figures in the series of closed-door events which led up to the campus showdown, most of which I personally covered.
No question that Doyle is an excellent writer, a fact that makes Meredith’s “memoir” more readable. But I suspect when he had to spend much time with the enigmatic Meredith, he went away pulling out his own hair. When Meredith recently did a book-signing here at Lemuria Books, Doyle was not to be seen.
In the 40 years that I’ve gotten to know Meredith pretty well, I must say that I still don’t know what makes him tick. There’s no telling what tangent he’ll take off on next.
He insists in “Mission” that “I am not a civil rights hero, I am a warrior and I am on a mission from God.” I’ve told him to his face that he’s crazy…that he had to be to enter the sacred all-white precincts of Mississippi’s most prized educational institution.
When I first sat down with him to talk about his application to enroll at the university, he unrealistically rejected my cautionary view that he would encounter not only massive resistance from the state’s political leadership, but also on the university campus. How wrong the “battle of Oxford” a year later would prove him to be. In fact, the mini-civil war it would trigger, necessitating some 25,000 troops to quell the rioting would be far worse than even I imagined.
It’s always amazed me how emotionless he has remained when all around him havoc caused by his presence has erupted. As he says in his memoir, he slept soundly after going to bed in Ole Miss’ Baxter Hall, closely guarded by federal marshals. All the while, out on the campus other marshals were being wounded by stones and bullets and vehicles were set on fire by rioters.
In June 1966, he had started alone on a walk down U.S. Highway 51 from Memphis to Jackson for what he called a march for freedom to get more blacks to register as votes. Only a few miles out of Memphis, he was shot in ambush by a sniper, who luckily used a shotgun that fired birdshot. He was peppered with pellets but the blast was not lethal. Yet, what had begun as a solo march soon turned into a mass march of 5,000 that brought together an array of civil rights figures – among them Martin Luther King Jr. – before reaching the state Capitol in Jackson. Along the way, marchers encountered violence, especially when they attempted to camp overnight on school grounds in Canton. He writes that “a mass march was never what I wanted,” but he clearly enjoyed the national attention he had gotten.
Before it decided to support Meredith’s lawsuit seeking enrollment at Ole Miss, the NAACP had been quite dubious that the 26-year-old former Air Force corporal from Kosciusko was the desegregation point man they wanted.
Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s Mississippi field secretary – later martyred – reluctantly put Meredith on the phone to speak with Thurgood Marshall, the organization’s chief counsel. Meredith admits “we didn’t hit it off.” Though Meredith ended the call by slamming down the phone, the organization eventually backed Meredith in what would become a classic months-long federal lawsuit.
You could say Meredith’s journey in Mississippi’s history mirrors Frank Sinatra’s song: “I did it My Way.”
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.