JACKSON, Miss. – James Meredith is a civil rights legend who resists neatly defined narratives.
He integrated the University of Mississippi while braving mob violence in 1962 — yet he worked in the late 1980s for archconservative Sen. Jesse Helms, considered a foe by many in the civil rights movement.
Wounded by shotgun fire while marching for voting rights in 1966, Meredith also shuns the title of “civil rights icon,” as if civil rights are different from other rights.
Now, at 85, Meredith could rest assured of a place in history. But he says he’s on a new mission from God — to confront what he sees as society’s “breakdown of moral character” by encouraging people to live by the Ten Commandments.
He says black people must lead the way for Christians of all races to have spiritual healing.
“If the black Christians focus on teaching right, doing right, all other Christian religions would follow suit,” Meredith says. “Instead of religion healing the black-white race issue, the race issue is going to heal everything and correct all the rest of our problems.”
Meredith made the remarks during an interview with The Associated Press at a Jackson public library where he’s a frequent patron.
Wearing cool white slacks, a white shirt and a straw hat, Meredith was approached by an African-American woman with three young girls. She thanked him for making Mississippi a better place and introduced him to the children.
Meredith, a slender man with a white beard, asked her to speak up because he doesn’t hear as well as he used to. The children shyly shook his hand. They posed for a picture, and the youngest girl kissed him on the cheek as she left. Meredith smiled.
“I’ve been in the God business all my life,” Meredith says. “Ole Miss to me was nothing but a mission from God. The Meredith March Against Fear was my most important mission from God, until this one coming up right now: Raising the moral character up, and making people aware of their duty to follow God’s plan and the teachings of Jesus Christ.”
Meredith grew up in segregated Mississippi, served in the Air Force and sued to gain admission as the first black student at the state’s flagship university. Facing resistance from the governor and riots that led to two deaths, Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss in 1962, under federal court order and protected by U.S. marshals. He graduated with a political science degree.
In June 1966, Meredith set out to prove a black man could walk through Mississippi without fear, aiming to trek from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson. On the second day, a white man shot and wounded him. Other civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., arrived to continue the march.
Since the 1960s, Meredith has been in and out of the public eye. He’s been married and raised children and involved himself in Republican politics. He’s run a used car dealership and has spoken on college campuses.
Always independent, Meredith is an iconoclast who says things that can sound grating to people who otherwise see him favorably. For instance, he sharply criticizes a black mother who left her 6-year-old son in her car last year while she went into a Jackson grocery store at night; the car was stolen, the boy was killed and young black men were charged in the crime.
He also wades into the issue of police treatment of black people. He says people fail to discuss whether Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was stealing before he was shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Georgia Cohran, an African-American resident of Jackson, was a child in Oxford in 1962. She remembers the fear when Meredith enrolled, and the sense of wonder that a black student was finally studying on the campus where many African-Americans, including her mother, worked as cooks. She has known Meredith for years and he has spoken at the church she attends.
“To really understand Mr. Meredith, I think you would have to look at him through brown eyes instead of blue eyes,” Cohran said. “In my opinion, he’s not very complicated. He’s just focused — a very intelligent, focused black man.”
For about two decades, Meredith has handed out photocopies of the Ten Commandments. He says he wants to form a lay religious order called a Bible Society and envisions people studying in small groups and holding each other accountable.
“You only have a good society when everybody’s business is everybody’s business,” he says.
Explaining his new mission, Meredith radiates calm confidence. An African-American man, about college age, has been studying at the next table in the library. The man closes his books and turns to listen. He clearly knows who Meredith is, and the young man is absorbing the older man’s words.
Later, as a reporter waves goodbye, Meredith raises a black power fist and lowers himself into his Honda Civic. The young man from the library walks over and taps on the car window. Meredith rolls it down and the young man smiles and shakes his hand.
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .