JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — The black man who enrolled at the University of Mississippi 50 years ago amid violent protests says he doesn’t plan to participate in the school’s commemoration of his history-making step against racial segregation. James Meredith, now 79, says he doesn’t see the point.
“I ain’t never heard of the French celebrating Waterloo,” he told The Associated Press. “I ain’t never heard of the Germans celebrating the invasion of Normandy, or … the bombing and destruction of Berlin. I ain’t never heard of the Spanish celebrating the destruction of the Armada.”
Asked to clarify, Meredith said: “Did you find anything 50 years ago that I should be celebrating?”
Meredith inflamed the anger of white Mississippi, and many across the U.S. South, by quietly demanding admission to the state’s segregated flagship university.
The governor at the time, Ross Barnett, declared that no school would be integrated on his watch, and he denounced the federal government as “evil and illegal forces of tyranny” for ordering Ole Miss to enroll Meredith.
Federal authorities deployed more than 3,000 soldiers and more than 500 law enforcement officers to the Ole Miss campus. An angry mob of students and others yelled and threw bricks. Tear gas canisters exploded. Two white men were killed. More than 200 people were injured, including 160 U.S. marshals.
Ole Miss administrators today don’t shy away from that history. For the past year, the university has sponsored lectures and other events to commemorate Meredith’s Oct. 1, 1962, enrollment and the ensuing changes that have made the university more diverse.
In a state with a 37 percent black population, Ole Miss now has a black enrollment of about 16.6 percent, and the current student body president, Kim Dandridge, is black — the fourth black person elected to the post.
University officials are careful to say the events are for commemoration, not celebration.
In his new book, “A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America,” Meredith and co-author William Doyle recall the court battle and mob violence.
“I chose as my target the University of Mississippi, which in 1960 was the holiest temple of white supremacy in America, next to the U.S. Capitol and the White House, both of which were under the control of segregationists and their collaborators,” Meredith writes.
“I reasoned that if I could enter the University of Mississippi as its first known black student, I would fracture the system of state-enforced white supremacy in Mississippi. It would drive a stake into the heart of the beast.”
Meredith writes that although people consider him a “civil rights hero,” that’s not how he sees himself: “I’ve always found the rhetoric of mainstream civil rights leaders and organizations to be far too timid, accommodationist and gradualist. It always seemed to me that they behaved like meek and gentle supplicants begging the oppressor for a few crumbs of justice, for a few molecules of citizenship rights.”
During an hour-long AP interview at a Jackson restaurant, two white men, strangers to him, interrupted to shake Meredith’s hand.
“Thank you for all you’ve done over the years,” one man said. “Thank you for your message.”
Meredith is now memorialized by a bronze statue near the University of Mississippi’s main administrative building. Yet he calls it “hideous,” and wants it destroyed. He says the monument glosses over the magnitude of Mississippi’s resistance to his exercise of what should have been recognized as his obvious, inherent rights as an American citizen.
It was, he said, a war.
“Mississippi has so humiliated me — they ain’t never acknowledged that there was a war,” Meredith said.
Chancellor Dan Jones said the university won’t destroy the statue, which was dedicated in 2006.
In a letter to Meredith in August, Jones wrote that the monument recognizes Meredith’s courage.
“Your determination to enroll under the most difficult conditions and to successfully complete your degree in the midst of constant hostility was a turning point in the life of our University, State and Nation,” Jones wrote. “It was instrumental in changing lives not just for black Americans, but for all of us.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.