Photos That Changed History: James Meredith

History Geek pointed out that this year is the fiftieth anniversary of a rather important event in American history. He forwarded me this photo and told me the story behind it. For those of you who weren’t born yet, consider today’s post a look into a past that is, thankfully, very different than the present we enjoy now.

The 1960s was a turbulent era in America. The case Brown vs Board of Education overturned the earlier precedent set in Plessy vs Ferguson and ruled that “separate but equal” segregation in schools was unconstitutional. This case paved the way for desegregation and integration in American schools. Many black families wanted their children to be able to go to the same schools as white children because those schools were better staffed, better equipped, and provided a better education and hope for the future than the failing schools the government had provided for blacks under “separate but equal.” However, discrimination and racism — the two forces that were behind many of these Jim Crow laws — were alive and well. Many fought to keep the schools segregated out of racism. Some fought out of fear that admitting blacks to traditionally white schools would lower the quality of education for everyone. Hand-in-hand with desegregation of schools came the greater Civil Rights Movement and the desegregation of American society.

In a bid to keep blacks out of their schools, traditionally white schools employed several different strategies. They were told time and time again to cease and desist with judging admission solely by skin color and, eventually, they were forced to admit James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. Meredith had been refused admission earlier even after passing the admissions test and having the requirements to attend the university. However, he was black and his admission, even when ordered by the US government, was not without controversy.

James Meredith
James Meredith applied for entry into the University of Mississippi after completing two years of study at Jackson State University. His grades and academic record, as well as his service in the US Air Force, gave him high marks for entry. However, his application was rejected. The NAACP filed suit on his behalf and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld that Meredith had the right to be admitted to the school and could not be rejected solely on the basis of his skin color. He was admitted to the semester beginning in September 1962 but was forced to delay his entry into the university while the Kennedy administration re-established order on campus and in Oxford, Mississippi following riots by the anti-desegregation movement. On October 1, 1962, James Meredith was escorted onto the campus and to class by Federal Marshals. He attended the University of Mississippi for two semesters, pursuing a degree in Political Science.

Meredith’s purpose in applying for and attending the University of Mississippi was to force the Kennedy administration to stand up for his rights as an American citizen. He went on to receive a degree in Political Science and worked in politics for many years before retiring to Mississippi. Today a statue of him as a young man stands on the University of Mississippi campus noting that he was the first black student to be admitted and to attend the university.

— da Bird