By Lloyd Gray
It’s been nearly 50 years since James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi and became a principal figure in the civil rights movement, and he feels good about Ole Miss these days.
“They’re providing the best education for black students of any school in America, including Harvard and Yale,” he declares.
But Mississippi’s public schools are another matter.
“There’s been a total breakdown in our public education system for poor people, white or black,” Meredith says. “We are completely failing at the bottom, and that has to be dealt with.”
But it’s not all the schools’ fault, he said in an interview last week. The wider community has failed to give children an early foundation for success.
“The problem is not in the schools and the solution is not in the schools,” he said.
Instead, there’s a need for cultural change to re-emphasize moral character and discipline. Only Mississippi’s churches can effectively lead such a resurgence of moral values, according to Meredith, but too often they’re afraid to step up.
That’s the thrust of what he calls his “mission from God.” The Jackson resident, who’ll turn 79 on Monday, is traveling the state with the message he believes God is compelling him to deliver: that churches and individual Christians must take a more active role in ensuring that children grow up in circumstances conducive to success.
“We need to get the people of Mississippi to do for themselves as opposed to government or money,” said Meredith, whose generally conservative critique of social issues over the years has confounded liberals who admired him for resisting Mississippi’s racial injustice.
He’s critical of government social programs he says “destroyed the only stability” poor people have – the family. And the man who entered Ole Miss in 1962 under the force of the federal government has little confidence in the effectiveness of federal anti-poverty programs.
“We’ve got to do something different from what we’ve been doing,” he said.
Meredith recently completed his “50th Anniversary Walk for Education and Truth,” which traced the route his 1966 freedom march was to take on Highway 51 from the Tennessee line through Mississippi to the Louisiana border. He was wounded by a sniper early in that march at Hernando, and other civil rights activists came in and took up the cause.
This time Meredith said he walked the full distance from the Tennessee line to Coldwater, but that was all he could muster on foot. He’s now visiting all 82 counties – by car – to spread his message, and Lee County was No. 17.
A statue of Meredith stands behind the Lyceum building on the Ole Miss campus, and he was on hand when it was dedicated and in 2002 when the university commemorated the 40th anniversary of his breaking Mississippi’s educational color barrier. Asked if he would participate in any 50th anniversary events, Meredith said he wasn’t sure.
“But I’ll probably still be busy with my mission from God.”
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.