Oxford Town, Oxford Town

  • Jon Kelly
  • 25 Sep 08, 05:20 PM GMT

Barack Obama may have fight on his hands if he gets to take part in tomorrow's presidential debate at the University of Mississippi. But it won't be as fierce a battle as that faced by another man of colour in the same place a generation previously.

When James Meredith enrolled at "Ole Miss" on 1 October 1962, he was greeted by a violent mob, furious that he was the first black student to break the campus's colour bar.

meredith203.jpgTwo people were killed and dozens injured in a confrontation that pitted the forces of President John F Kennedy's liberal administration in Washington against this segregationists' citadel of the Deep South.

Images of Meredith, flanked by US marshals as he faced the missiles and jeers of protesters, came to define the end of the Jim Crow era. As Obama prepares to walk the same route 46 years later, James was surely the man to reveal how far American race relations have come in such a short space of time.

Resplendent in his white suit, blessed with a rich, booming voice, James Meredith made it easy to understand where he found the chutzpah to make his stand against white supremacy all those years ago.

But as we stood outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi, it was clear that his defiance and bravery stemmed from the same idiosyncrasies that have kept him firmly apart from mainstream black politics.

You weren't to call him an African-American because he believed that to be "hyphenated" was to be a second-class citizen. You shouldn't refer to him a civil rights campaigner, because his battle extended further. The confrontation at Ole Miss wasn't a riot because governments don't riot. And so on.

Casting his mind back to the day he walked through the town of Oxford to attend Ole Miss for the first time, he said that he had succeeded thanks not to campaigners, but the US military.

Anticipating that Mississippi's police, under the authority of hardline governor Ross Barnett, would not enforce desegregation rulings, President Kennedy had ordered marshals and the National Guard to ensure that Meredith could show up safely.

"If I had not known that the president had already called up the military, and seen with my own eyes that they had been relocated, no way would I have ever went to the University of Mississippi," he said.

"There are a lot of political tricks that work sometimes. But the only thing that projects any people to the top spot is military conquest."

It was, he believed, a war between the federal government and that of Mississippi. As he made his way back then to the University's entrance, with violence erupting around him, had he not been afraid?

"Afraid that I might not accomplish my purpose," he asserted. "I'm still afraid of that."

james meredithWhen he eventually made it inside, the atmosphere was scarcely less poisonous. When he walked into a classroom, the other students walked out. He was taught amid a sea of empty chairs.

For a man of Meredith's character, however, this only heightened his self-belief.

"The teacher was there," he recalled. "They're not going to learn this superior information I'm going to learn. That put me ahead of them on the first day."

Perhaps he was right. Meredith graduated with a degree in political science and went on to qualify as a lawyer and work as a stockbroker.

After surviving an assassination attempt in 1966, however, he drifted further from the orthodoxy of the civil rights movement. He joined the Republican Party, made several attempts to enter congress and briefly worked for the ultra-conservative Senator Jesse Helms.

He wouldn't reveal who he was voting for in November. Still, he was keen to put Obama's nomination in context. It was "the same as the Dallas Cowboys having a black quarterback", he said.

"Obama has already done his job," he added. "He has placed the non-white in position forever to be a contender for power in America.

"My whole goal now is to shift the focus from race and colour to rich and poor.

"The real problem is that the rich are failing to carry out their obligations to the poor. That's what this crisis on Wall Street is about."

Just as in 1962, James Meredith was promising another one-man crusade.


  • Comment number 1.

    Jon, well done you have at last found an American..........

  • Comment number 2.

    That's an interesting story, because most of us know only Meredith as the icon from the 1960s. We see how real people are not easy to pigeonhole. Republican? Helms!?

  • Comment number 3.

    The other aspect I find interesting is the reminder of how much progress our society has made in half a century. Today, it is impossible to imagine college students refusing to attend class with someone on account of their race, anywhere in the United States. We still have our racists, of course, but they are mostly in the closet now.

  • Comment number 4.

    Thank you for the post.

    Americans need to appreciate those who've made us the people we are for the good.

    We are all created equal, and those who think otherwise are very little now. This election has broken the race and gender barriers as the man has said. Women and non-Caucasians are now not just being let in for "equal-opportunity", but of their merits.

    I feel that letting in a minority just because they are minority is a form of discrimination. Luckily, it not about that and hasn't about that in this election.

    So the man is right: Black rights (and women too) have already been championed. Now we need to fight the divide of wealth. I hope America has not lost it's love for "middle class". It's one thing that been fight for since the beginning of our country.

    But as the golden rule say: "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer." It a difficult battle to defeat that, but it is possible and good for society. One thing I think is a must is requiring relevant Economics education in our High School (British Secondary School). Teaching soon-to-be-adults the basics at least will help many who are struggling. You'd be amazed how many people don't know how to do a simple monthly budget. Accounting and other general responsibilities needs to be done if people don't want to live "paycheck to paycheck".

  • Comment number 5.

    Never knew much about James Meredith, but what a story, what a man.
    Jon, this is a good edition to the story of your trip.

  • Comment number 6.

    Wow, Jon Kelly! Great blog!

    This shows not only changes over time here in the US but also how individual people can change over a lifetime but still retain their own core of beliefs.

    Very well done!

  • Comment number 7.

    "My whole goal now is to shift the focus from race and colour to rich and poor. The real problem is that the rich are failing to carry out their obligations to the poor. That's what this crisis on Wall Street is about."

    DING! All too true.

    (Of course, you spelled color wrong, but we'll let that slide.)

    This is exactly how we need to re-focus our social justice agenda. While the there is still a dichotomy between "Black" and "White," concepts of Race, Ethnicity and Color have all changed in the past generation or so.

    For example, I needed to fill out as US Gov form for a guy once and the options were "Hispanic, African-American, Polynesian, Asian, White... " (?!?) and the guy was a Spanish speaking Korean-American who had been raised in Mexico. (He was the son of inter-racial missionaries to Mexico.) Those silly terms on the US Gov form don't mean anything any more.
    -- Screw skin color, we need to know current citizenship(s) and languages spoken.

    But nowadays, the dichotomy between POOR and RICH has significantly INCREASED in the past generation.

    Our current problem is much more chronic than Wall Street. It's systemic. This guy's got it RIGHT.

  • Comment number 8.

    I'm interested in no 4's comments about letting in minorities just because they're minorities - that's something we're struggling with across the board. In business, as far as I'm concerned the best person for the job should get it regardless of race / religion etc, but what often happens is that companies and organisations have quotas to fulfil, to show that they are equal opportunity employers. While I am VERY against any form of discrimination, this is where it all gets a bit crazy, I think. And for any West Wing fans among you, Ainsley springs to mind, and I apply this quote to anyone who might be considered part of a 'subset': "It's humiliating. A new amendment we vote on declaring that I am equal under the law to a man? I'm mortified to discover there's reason to believe I wasn't before. I'm a citizen of this country. I'm not a special subset in need of your protection. I do not have to have my rights handed down to me by a bunch of old white men."

    One thing I wonder, though, is whether Obama will be in greater danger than any other president because of his race? It's not something I'd considered before, as it's not really been discussed in the press this side of the pond, but in talking to some American customers during a recent trip over there, it does seem to be on people's minds, both Republicans and Democrats. It seems like the racists, though in the closet according to Gary, are still very threatening...

    PS Jon, I LOOVE this blog. And I want your job!! And, as a fellow from these fair isles, I want to fully support your spelling of 'colour'!


  • Comment number 9.

    Hi Jon

    I must say I enjoyed hearing Talking America on BBC World Service. It is so refreshing to hear honest and real folks speaking out their expectations, hopes and triumphs.

    I had my fill of the Wall Street types pointificating about the financial crisis, without any remorse or regret about their own or their colleagues' culpabilities. In particular, ol' Al, ex-Fed something or other, his "once in a century" reference to the crisis got to be the most farcical contribution to the debate.

    Love BBC World Service as it showcases Main Street folks from all over the world.

  • Comment number 10.

    Excellent post, good narrative of a complex person and story.

    Good work, Jon.

  • Comment number 11.


    My first comment in a few days..
    Well done young man!

  • Comment number 12.

    To Maid in Belfast.

    Any President is in danger of a crazed assassin. Senator Obama may not be in MORE danger, rather danger of a different kind.

    Obviously, I hope it does not happen, but in this case if it does, I really would fear for my country then.

  • Comment number 13.

    I've never understood why Meridith was such a 'celeb' but the little rock 9, 9 afro-american kids that Eisenhower had escorted to a state school by the 82nd airborne, in defiance of Governor Faubus.

    JFK gets all the credit for his civil rights actions but Ike started it all.

  • Comment number 14.

    #13 -

    Jon Kelly's blog is good but I'm not sure he can be given the credit for the civil rights movement.

    How'd you find out his middle name?

  • Comment number 15.

    I am proud to call this man a fellow American.

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 17.

    Excuse me, but his crusade will not be that of one man alone. It's not as though Meredith is the only one who has noticed that there is a somewhat abominable disparity here between the have and have nots.

    Further, you would be mistaken to assume that his desire for government intervention (if I may thus correctly read his somewhat truncated statements about Wall Street) to increase protections of the poor is that of one solitary man, although he may be alone among republicans.

    As someone who has always been a staunch advocate of government regulation and anti-poverty intitiatives, I find your concluding statement odd. A one-man crusade? Really?

    I know that America has somewhat of a bad reputation when it comes to our corporate controlled, neo-facist government and the abysmal state of many of our social programs (not a coincidence, btw) as well as our generally uninformed and easily manipulated citizenry.

    That said, there are quite a few of us in the states who see the disparity between what is rapidly becoming the two classes and don't decide that the poor are to blame for it, the way many others do. I, for one, am working on the Obama campaign sixty-to-seventy hours a week (that's a lot for a hippie like me) to secure a victory, not only for Barack, but also for Al Franken, a democrat running for US Senate in Minnesota on the platform of restoring the middle class. Hopefully he'll do something for the poor while he's there.

  • Comment number 18.

    I think it is important for the people who are unaware, and I think the poster #17 easily fits this defintion what the black conservative movement is about.

    A man like James Meridith cares very little for the overly welfare based policies of people like Barack Obama and Al "Bad Jokes" Franken. It is simply absurd to think that he, who worked for Jesse Helms would think that huge government intervention is the solution. He would similarly frown on "hippies" due to their rather counterproductive and amoral lifestyle.

    So while poster 17 seems to relish the idea of a government master controlling his and the economy of the United States every move, I can sleep well knowing that as a Republican I am not the only Black (I hate the hyphenated names too) man that cares about the poor but is against the welfare based, work incentive killing, independence killing policies of the democratic party, and the racial overtones they persistently entertain.


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