Q&A With Civil Rights Movement Leader James Meredith

James Meredith is known for making waves during the civil rights movement when he became the first black student at the University of Mississippi in 1962 which was racially segregated at the time. Meredith is also an Air Force veteran, political advisor and an author of multiple books. He currently resides in Jackson, Mississippi.

In this interview Meredith and I touch on his relationship with Martin Luther King, his life missions, goals and more.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

KHAN: Who are some of your role models or heroes?

MEREDITH: That’s something I was working on before you called. There was two of them. My mother and my father. Although, it was in reverse order. My father and my mother and if you want me to tell you why, you will be the first. I’m going to take my journal out and read it to you. When you called before I was still working on writing about my daddy. I’m getting old and slow so it isn’t much. My vision for the James Meredith Bible Society begins with my mother and my father. My father was named after Moses of the bible and King Arthur of Camelot. He was an intentionally proud, dignified and regal man with the courage of a king and the wisdom of a profit. He was also always very funny. With my father everything in life was a pleasure and a joy. I called him Cap, short for Captain. He was the captain of my life. My father and his black neighbors built the first schoolhouse for blacks in Attala County, Mississippi, three years before I was born. I started attending this one room school in 1936 at the age of three. Most of the students were between six and fifteen years old. One teacher taught first through eighth grade in the same room. My mother, Roxie Patterson Meredith, was a fearless woman who really inspired my passion for education. These are her own words — “I am the mother of seven children. Among my great desires, education ranks at the top.” That is something she wrote before she died.

KHAN: What made you want to attend Ole Miss? What goals were you trying to achieve there?

MEREDITH: Number one, it was to try to break the system of white supremacy and number two, it was the best school in the state. Actually, most people think Harvard is the best school in the nation but I know Ole Miss is the best school in the world.

KHAN: If you could go back in time and change anything, what would you change?

MEREDITH: The speed. It should have never began but when I was born my first step should have been to destroy the system of white supremacy.

KHAN: Do you have any regrets?

MEREDITH: None, except the slowness of movement.

KHAN: What did you want to accomplish with your solo 220-mile march from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi?

MEREDITH: The ultimate goal was to remove the fear factor which was thee factor that kept the separation of the race policy in operation, period.

KHAN: I saw you were quoted several years ago saying that there were armed federal registrars that came into the state of Mississippi after the March Against Fear. What impact did that make?

MEREDITH: Those armed federal registrars registered people to vote. It is the reason of where we are today.

KHAN: Do you think white supremacy exists today?

MEREDITH: [laughing] If you have to ask me that and don’t know the answer already then you don’t deserve to be talking to me.

KHAN: Did you ever have a relationship with Martin Luther King?

MEREDITH: He was the only black leader that I ever had any kind of relationship with besides Medgar Evers and his brother Charles Evers. I just read a letter of his when he was in jail in Birmingham about me and him. When I got shot during the March Against Fear it was Martin Luther King who came to visit me at my bedside and then led the March Against Fear while I was in the hospital. All we ever did was discuss non-violence. I was violently opposed to non-violence and he was not. I thought that the non-violence that Dr. King was preaching was one of the worst ideas in America. It was an un-American idea.  

KHAN: Do you think you helped change any of Ross Barnett’s views on race relations?

MEREDITH: No, he was a segregationist like he said and he was like that until he died.

KHAN: What would you say your life missions were?

MEREDITH: The first mission of James Meredith was to break the system of white supremacy in Mississippi but it turned into not just Mississippi but everywhere. The second mission was to expose and challenge the fear. That was what the March Against Fear was about.

KHAN: What advice do you have for a young man?

MEREDITH: Read the bible from cover to cover and understand the message, what the message really is.

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