The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss

The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss

The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss

The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss

Synopsis

When James Meredith enrolled as the first African American student at the University of Mississippi in 1962, the resulting riots produced more casualties than any other clash of the civil rights era. Eagles shows that the violence resulted from the university's and the state's long defiance of the civil rights movement and federal law. Ultimately, the price of such behavior--the price of defiance--was not only the murderous riot that rocked the nation and almost closed the university but also the nation's enduring scorn for Ole Miss and Mississippi. Eagles paints a remarkable portrait of Meredith himself by describing his unusual family background, his personal values, and his service in the U.S. Air Force, all of which prepared him for his experience at Ole Miss.

Excerpt

After his first night in his dormitory room, James Meredith rode in a riotbattered border patrol car to the Lyceum building at the center of the University of Mississippi campus. Escorted by agents of the U.S. Justice Department, he observed the debris from the previous evening’s conflagration as he entered the Lyceum at 8:15 A.M. to register for classes. His enrollment on Monday, October 1, 1962, made him the first black student formally admitted to the school popularly known as Ole Miss, and indeed the first to breach racial segregation in the state’s system of higher education. The story of his struggle for admission to the all-white university also involves white Mississippi’s long defiance of racial change at Ole Miss.

Meredith’s venture at Ole Miss exhibited several characteristics atypical of other desegregation efforts. In his initial overture to the university, Meredith acted alone, not as part of any organized movement; only later did he receive assistance from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The evening before Meredith registered, his challenge precipitated a deadly riot on the university campus. The president of the United States deployed the army to restore order. The resistance to integration was so intense because Meredith waged his crusade in Mississippi, perhaps the most intransigently segregationist southern state, and because he targeted Ole Miss, an especially powerful symbol for white Mississippians. The most violent confrontation over school integration evolved from many complex historical factors, and it occurred at the University of Mississippi in 1962 for reasons peculiar to that time and place.

Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi completed a campaign that he initiated with his first letter to the university in January 1961. Though not at first sponsored by any civil rights group, Meredith’s quest became an important event in the wider black freedom struggle. During his service in the air force from 1951 to 1959, Meredith missed the emergence of the civil rights movement and its increasing momentum after the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision and the Montgomery bus boycott. The movement that revolutionized race relations occurred unevenly across the South, and though Mississippi had a majority-black population as . . .

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