1962, James Meredith became the first known African-American student admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi-only after federal government intervention. Four years later Meredith planned a solo 220-mile March Against Fear through the south. He wanted to highlight racism in the South and encourage voter registration. Now, his renewed and stated final mission is to encourage the African-American church to lead humanity in living the Ten Commandments, thus restoring morality to modern times.
James Meredith says he has one last mission from God.
“It’s what I’ve believed for a long time but have been too scared to say,” said the 85-year-old civil rights pioneer.
He wants to see a “Race to Heal Church,” he said. “There is nobody who has clarified it better than the queen of England in the last few weeks by her reaction to her grandson marrying a black woman.”
Queen Elizabeth supported Prince Harry’s choice of Meghan Markle, whose mother is African American. The couple married in Buckingham Palace.
Meredith’s mission is to heal racial divisions through honest dialogue and to foster good moral character in today’s youth.
Meredith’s first mission took place when he became the first known black student at the all-white University of Mississippi in fall 1962.
That mission, he said, was “about breaking the system of white supremacy.”
The second mission came June 5, 1966, when he began what became known as the “March Against Fear.”
On the second day of that one-man walk from Memphis to Jackson, a white man shot him.
Meredith survived. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists came to Mississippi to finish the march.
Meredith said this second mission challenged the fear connected to the Southern “way of life” — a fear that affected both black and white Mississippians.
Ironically, it is fear that has kept him from starting his last mission, he said. “Here I am, considered the bravest man in the world, scared to do God’s will.”
Meredith recalls MLK’s ‘Mountaintop’ speech
The night before his April 4, 1968, assassination, King delivered what would be his final speech.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” he told the crowd. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
Meredith cited this speech, saying he, too, wants to do God’s will.
“There’s nothing wrong with taking care of man’s business,” he said, “but when you neglect God’s business, everything falls apart.”
The civil rights pioneer who once said he never made a mistake now admits he has.
In the 1960s, Meredith became so well-known and so respected that NBC named him one of the top six black leaders in the nation.
But he has often defied description since, alternately intelligent and eccentric, brainy and bizarre, a man who graduated from Columbia Law School but never bothered to take the bar exam.
What he thought of himself came through in his book, “Three Years in Mississippi,” in which he opined about his mission to integrate Ole Miss: “I have never made a mistake.”
But as the civil rights legend enters his twilight years, he is showing signs of self-deprecation.
“James Meredith was the son of a poor dirt farmer. That may be who I was, but that’s not who I thought I was,” he said. “James Meredith thought he was the smartest man in the world.”
He said he has recently concluded that he is no better than others.
Meredith says black families are being split every day by the criminal justice system.
Four decades ago, Meredith purchased property in west Jackson to establish a Bible Society Church, he said. “But for 40 years, I told God, ‘You’re wrong. You’re going to get me lynched.’”
He spoke of the outcry regarding children being snatched away from their immigrant parents.
He said that is unfortunately happening every day in the black community — families split not by immigration authorities, but by the criminal justice system.
At one point in sharing his thoughts, he grew silent, finally saying, “boy, that fear is powerful.”
Some preachers are afraid of sharing the truth because “they ain’t about to lose good parishioners,” he said.
“We have been perpetuating a lie and not dealing at all with the truth,” he said. “All Christ has ever required was the truth, but man has always found a way around dealing with it, including old James Meredith.”
Meredith likened to Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon’
Author William Doyle, who co-wrote Meredith’s memoir, likens him to Gary Cooper in “High Noon,” “the quintessential American loner-hero, the guy on a horse who rides into town, puts his life on the line and changes history not once but twice, then rides off into the sunset.”
Now, more than a half-century later, Doyle sees him as perhaps “the most complex and illuminating hero in civil rights history, someone who has glimpsed insights like a biblical prophet. …
“He sees the beginning of a solution to racial issues in America to be a simple one — he wants black and white Americans to be honest about themselves and about each other. These are radical ideas, but they show us a possible path to a better future.”
Beyond his personal heroism, Doyle said, Meredith’s “biggest contribution is to show us the power and potential of American citizenship — to tell the truth about yourself and your country, to admit your mistakes and to change your mind.”
Meredith says God has let him live to carry out this last mission.
On Martin Luther King Day, Meredith toured the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, filled with pictures of the civil rights pioneer.
When two people saw the white-bearded man, they whispered as they pointed at him.
“That’s James Meredith,” one said.
“No,” the other replied, “he’s dead.”
Meredith laughed in recalling the encounter.
Meredith, who underwent surgery for prostate cancer in 1996, said God has let him live long enough to carry out this last mission, pushing to raise society’s moral character.
For the past 40 years, “we’ve been afraid to use the word ‘moral character,’” he said. “We need to be about instilling good and right values in people.”
If the black church takes on this task, he said, “the world will follow.”
Racial reconciliation needed because ‘we’re not hearing each other.’
The Rev. John Perkins of Jackson, who has spoken from middle America to the Middle East, welcomes Meredith’s idea of healing. “That has been my mission in life,” he said.
Racial reconciliation is needed more than ever because society’s messages have devolved into babble — the nation’s political parties, constituencies and cultures all speaking different languages, he said. “We’re not hearing each other.”
His new book, “One Blood,” discusses why more work must take place across racial lines. “We all bleed the same,” and yet some still put race ahead of friendship, he said.
Rather than people seeking to “demonize others,” he said, seek to solve the problems.
He said he differs with Meredith on some of his views but welcomes his call for instilling good values. “There has been a family breakdown,” he said, “and children suffer the most.”
‘God is blaming me for their lives’
Meredith clutched a picture of 6-year-old Kingston Frazier of Jackson, who had been sleeping in the back seat of car before he was killed last year in a carjacking.
Meredith pointed at photographs of several teens charged in connection with the slaying. “My God is blaming me for their lives …”
He moved his finger toward Frazier’s picture. “… the same way he is for this one’s life.”
He said he believes God is telling him, “You didn’t do your job. If you had done your job, if you had taught moral character, right and wrong, good and bad, them boys would have known better, and this boy would still be alive.”
More: James Meredith comes to embrace statue honoring him on Ole Miss campus