Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries
In Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he called James Meredith, the first African American to integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962, a hero of the civil rights movement. He honored Meredith and others for their strong sense of purpose that allowed them to stand up to the hostility directed at them by opponents of civil rights. In 1966, King praised Meredith once again, after he was wounded on a 220-mile personal journey to encourage African American voter registration.
In June 1933, Meredith was born the 7th of 13 children in rural Kosciusko, Mississippi. Growing up in rural Mississippi was difficult for Meredith who moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, to live with his aunt and attend public schools superior to those available in Kosciusko. After graduating from high school in 1951, Meredith joined the Air Force, serving nine years before returning to Mississippi and enrolled in Jackson State University.
In January 1961, the night following John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration, Meredith decided to submit his first application to the University of Mississippi (also known as Ole Miss), which was closed to African American students. His application was rejected twice, but with the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Meredith legally challenged the university’s segregation policy. After enduring extended court battles, the defiance of Mississippi’s Governor Ross Barnett, and violent campus riots, Meredith was finally admitted on 1 October 1962.
In a March 1963 letter published in the New York Amsterdam News, King asked for the public’s support of Meredith, describing him as “a symbol of self-respect and dignity.” King asked the public to pray for Meredith and to express to him “how much you appreciate his heroism” (King, “A Letter to Meredith”). Meredith graduated from Ole Miss in August 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
In 1966 Meredith began a “March Against Fear,” a solitary march from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to encourage African American voter registration. When a sniper wounded him on the second day of the march, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee rallied behind his cause. King, Stokely Carmichael, and Floyd McKissick were joined by hundreds of others as they completed the march.
By the late 1960s Meredith had moved to New York and received a law degree from Columbia University. Over the next several years Meredith became more politically involved, making several unsuccessful bids for public office, including a run for the Republican nomination for senator from Mississippi. A local community leader in Mississippi, Meredith organized the Black Man’s March to the Library in Memphis to promote reading and writing of standard English, and the Black Man’s March for Education to the University of Mississippi.
King, “A Letter to Meredith,” New York Amsterdam News, 30 March 1963.
King, “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” in Why We Can’t Wait, 1964.