From a young age, James Meredith has felt the burden of a “divine responsibility” to make his country better and more free.
With “A Mission from God,” the 2012 autobiography written with William Doyle, an 80-year-old Meredith bequeaths part of that duty to his fellow countrymen:
“I challenge every American citizen to commit right now to help children in the public schools in their community, especially those with disadvantaged students.”
Meredith’s “memoir and challenge” is a tremendous read that keeps readers engaged from cover to cover. The story provides not only an inside account of two key moments in American history but also contemporary material such as recordings and transcripts, giving the narrative a three-dimensional, definitive feel.
Most of the book centers on Meredith’s successful attempt to overcome segregation and become the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi. The details will be alarming to young people who haven’t studied the period.
Another portion of the book deals with Meredith’s “march against fear,” a solo demonstration designed to encourage Mississippi blacks to register to vote. The walk would have taken him from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, if an assassin with a shotgun hadn’t interrupted.
Meredith survived the attack and eventually completed the last leg of the journey beside Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders.
Though counted among the heroes of the African American civil rights movement, Meredith never accepted the label for himself.
“I know that it may strike some people as a kind of historical blasphemy to say this, but the rhetoric and vocabulary of the American civil rights movement has always seemed upside-down and backward to me. In fact, I always found it grossly insulting to me, to you, and to every American citizen, because it always begins with the assumption or concession that some or any of our civil rights are up for negotiation. They are not now and never have been. We were anointed with and guaranteed all of these rights at birth as Americans… [T]hese rights are eternal, sacred, inviolate, and perfectly equal for every single American citizen.”
He rejects hyphenated categories such as African-American, arguing that blacks and their achievements should be considered fully American, and not “ghettoized” or forced into special subcategories.
Meredith gives credit for the outcome at Ole Miss not to the civil rights movement but to “the Founding Fathers of the United States, who created in the Constitution the principle that all citizens are equal and should be treated as equal.”
In these and several other ways, Meredith shows himself to be every bit the “conservative” he considers himself to be, to the consternation of anyone who would like to confine him to a stereotypical box.
Meredith’s conservative bona fides include his honorable Air Force service, his work as domestic policy advisor to senator Jesse Helms, a former segregationist, as well as his opposition to affirmative action programs, to welfare and government handouts, to political correctness (he was disappointed when Ole Miss stopped using “Colonel Reb” as school mascot), and to the “misguided liberal social policies of the 1960s, [which] created generations of dependency and failure for a huge portion of black America.”
Meredith speaks openly of his disagreement with King over the latter’s dedication to non-violence (rather than embracing their Second Amendment rights), offers a balanced assessment of the Kennedys, and completely dismisses other heroes of the Left who cross his path, including John Lewis and Morgan Freeman.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Meredith is his insight into what it takes to be free. “Meaningful freedom,” he writes, “is rarely gained through the magnanimous benevolence of the predominant powers, but must be won on the field.”
The freedom Meredith sought in the ’60s could not have be won by him alone. That required not only the protection of 30,000 U.S. servicemen in particular, but also the general engagement of every American who wished to live free.
“Throughout the first semester I received about two hundred letters a day. Most of the people who wrote, particularly the Negroes, said they had great admiration for me. They were praying and hoping that I would make it. Their basic attitude alarmed me… [T]hey had relieved themselves of all responsibility. They thought there was nothing more that they had to do. I felt that every young Negro must make his personal contribution toward the accomplishment of his freedom. No one man can fight alone. You can’t confine the struggle for human freedom and dignity to one place or to one man. To free the right arm and cut the left arm off — this is not progress.”
Meredith expands that view with his “challenge” for all Americans to play a role in improving conditions for public school students. It is a war, and it requires us all to take up arms.