Testing a Historic Verdict
The landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education declared that racial segregation in educational and other facilities violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which granted equal protection of the law to any person within its jurisdiction. This verdict effectively overturned the “separate but equal” mandate set by an earlier court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which determined that equal protection was not violated as long as reasonably equal conditions were provided to both groups. Though it applied specifically to public schools, the Brown verdict implied that other segregated facilities were also unconstitutional, dealing a heavy blow to white supremacist policies in the Jim Crow South.
In the years leading up to the incident at the University of Mississippi, African Americans had begun to be admitted in small numbers to other white colleges and universities in the South without too much incident. James Meredith was studying at the all-black Jackson State College from 1960 to 1962; during this time he applied repeatedly to Ole Miss without success. Born in Kosciusko in 1933, Meredith was a native Mississippian; he attended elementary and secondary school in the state (except for a final year of high school in Florida) and served nine years in the U.S. Air Force (1951-60). In 1961, Meredith–with the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP)– filed a lawsuit against the university, alleging racial discrimination. The case was eventually settled on appeal by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Meredith’s favor in September 1962.
Crisis in Oxford
State officials, including Governor Ross Barnett, attempted to defy the Supreme Court decision, provoking a constitutional crisis between the state of Mississippi and the federal government. When Meredith arrived at the school’s Oxford, Mississippi campus under the protection of federal forces, including U.S. marshals, a mob of more than 2,000 students and others formed to block his way. Two people were killed and many others injured in the ensuing chaos, forcing Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to send federal marshals and later federalized National Guardsmen, in what essentially amounted to a military occupation of some 31,000 federal troops.
Despite the fierce resistance, Meredith registered as the first African-American student at Ole Miss on October 1, 1962. His brief tenure at the school lasted less time than the legal battle it took to get there: He graduated the following year, and later wrote a memoir about the entire experience entitled “Three Years in Mississippi” (1966).
A Continuing Struggle
The incident at Ole Miss was not the only battle fought in the Deep South over integration of higher education. In Alabama, the notoriously segregationist Governor George Wallace vowed to “stand in the schoolhouse door” in order to block the enrollment of a black student at the University of Alabama. Though Wallace was eventually forced by the federalized National Guard to integrate the university, he became prominent symbol of the ongoing resistance to desegregation. In addition to four terms as governor of Alabama, he was a two-time candidate for the U.S. presidency.
For his part, James Meredith continued his activism as a student at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria and later at Columbia University. In June 1966, he made a solitary protest march he called the “March Against Fear.” While marching his way from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Misssissippi, Meredith was shot by a sniper. Civil rights activists including Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael and Floyd McKissick continued the march in Meredith’s name until he recovered and was able to rejoin them.