Meredith Registers at the University of Mississippi Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Following a fifteen-month legal battle, James Meredith, under the protection of federal troops, became the first African American to attend a white university in Mississippi.

Summary of Event

School desegregation became a national imperative after the 1954 United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In its decision, the Supreme Court declared that racial segregation was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s requirement of “equal protection of the law.” The court’s decision, however, had an immediate effect only on those districts that were parties to the cases decided in Brown. When other schools or universities did not voluntarily desegregate, individual court suits were required. Noncompliance was the norm throughout the South. Segregation;public education Education;segregation Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Military force, domestic deployment of University of Mississippi African Americans;segregation [kw]Meredith Registers at the University of Mississippi (Oct. 1, 1962) [kw]University of Mississippi, Meredith Registers at the (Oct. 1, 1962) [kw]Mississippi, Meredith Registers at the University of (Oct. 1, 1962) Segregation;public education Education;segregation Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Military force, domestic deployment of University of Mississippi African Americans;segregation [g]North America;Oct. 1, 1962: Meredith Registers at the University of Mississippi[07350] [g]United States;Oct. 1, 1962: Meredith Registers at the University of Mississippi[07350] [c]Education;Oct. 1, 1962: Meredith Registers at the University of Mississippi[07350] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Oct. 1, 1962: Meredith Registers at the University of Mississippi[07350] [c]Social issues and reform;Oct. 1, 1962: Meredith Registers at the University of Mississippi[07350] Meredith, James Barnett, Ross Robert Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;civil rights Kennedy, Robert F. [p]Kennedy, Robert F.;civil rights Black, Hugo L. Motley, Constance Baker

In January, 1961, James Meredith, an African American, applied for admission to the all-white University of Mississippi, challenging the state to comply with the seven-year-old court ruling. Mississippi had by law established separate schools for blacks and whites. Black institutions, which were poorly funded, generally could not give students the same educational opportunities as those provided at white institutions. Without changing the educational system, blacks had little hope of competing equally with whites. Saying he had long “felt a personal responsibility to change the status” of black Americans, Meredith had been waiting for the appropriate time to attempt a change.

Events surrounding desegregation in other states, such as the use of federal troops in 1957 to enforce court-ordered integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, led Meredith to believe that he would need the support of the federal government. In 1960, John F. Kennedy, an advocate of civil rights, was elected president of the United States. Meredith, hoping for assistance from the Kennedy administration, believed that the time was right for change. He was also ready personally. A nine-year veteran of the Air Force, he was a student at Jackson State College, a black institution.

Meredith knew his application for admission to the University of Mississippi would create numerous problems. The racist attitude prevalent among white supremacists and segregationists made it dangerous for blacks to attempt to challenge the white community. For example, Clyde Kennard Kennard, Clyde , a black man who had attempted to enroll at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1959, was sentenced to seven years in prison as an accessory in the supposed theft of twenty-five dollars’ worth of chicken feed. In order to protect himself and his family, Meredith wrote to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;litigation (NAACP) and the United States Justice Department, notifying them that he had made application to the University of Mississippi.

The first communication Meredith received from the university was positive. When Meredith informed the registrar that he was black, however, he received a telegram notifying him that registration for the semester was closed. Meredith, undaunted, applied for admission for the summer session, which was to begin on June 8, 1961. Word of Meredith’s challenge to the status quo made him and his family targets for harassment. Neighbors were questioned, and local police trailed Meredith, hoping for an excuse to arrest him. Warnings of the dire consequences of racial mixing fueled the indignation of those opposed to integration.

On May 25, 1961, Meredith received notification that he had been denied admission to the university. By this time, the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund had assigned Constance Baker Motley to the case. Meredith had accumulated ninety hours of college course work and was a fully qualified applicant. Motley swiftly filed a civil suit on behalf of Meredith, hoping for legal action which would allow Meredith to attend the term beginning in June. The court, however, upheld the decision of university officials.

The appeals process cost Meredith another year. On June 25, 1962, the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Meredith should be admitted to the University of Mississippi. The state of Mississippi, however, did not give up easily. Through a variety of legal maneuvers, the case ended up in the United States Supreme Court. Justice Hugo L. Black, after consultation with other members of the Supreme Court, upheld the ruling of the Court of Appeals. Upon hearing the decision of the high court, Ross Robert Barnett, governor of Mississippi, issued a proclamation.

Claiming state sovereignty in matters of public education, Barnett directed university officials to defy the orders of the Supreme Court. Eager to find another means of stopping Meredith, the state of Mississippi charged him with the crime of moral turpitude. Calling a special session of the legislature, the governor obtained passage of a bill on September 20, 1962, the very day Meredith was to register, denying admission to institutions of higher learning to anyone charged with such a crime. The governor was then declared registrar of the University of Mississippi, and Meredith was warned that he would be arrested when he appeared to register.

The actions of the governor did little to calm those opposed to integration. In Oxford, home of the university, several thousand angry people awaited the arrival of Meredith. Newspapers across the state had encouraged citizens to support the governor as Mississippians literally prepared to fight another Civil War.

In Washington, D.C., President Kennedy had been closely monitoring events. Although reluctant to use federal troops, Kennedy was nevertheless prepared to do so if the situation worsened. The attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, was no less determined than the president: Meredith would be admitted to the university. Hearing of the unrest and plans to arrest Meredith, Robert Kennedy telephoned Barnett. The governor agreed not to arrest Meredith but refused to allow him to register.

The scenario of Meredith appearing to register and being turned away was repeated three times. Before Meredith reached the university on September 27, his fourth attempt, a nervous Barnett asked the federal government to call it off. The crowds gathered at the university had become uncontrollable. Meredith and his federal escorts returned to Memphis, their temporary base.

A show of force by the federal government appeared to be the only solution. On September 30, President Kennedy issued an executive order authorizing the secretary of defense to call in the military in order to enforce justice in Mississippi. That same evening, hundreds of United States marshals, Mississippi National Guards, and members of the regular military lined the front of the administration building. As crowds began to gather, James Meredith was quietly installed, unseen, in a dormitory. As Meredith studied and slept, a riot that left two dead and hundreds injured raged on the university campus.

At 8:00 a.m. the following day, October 1, 1962, Meredith was registered as a student at the University of Mississippi. At 9:00 a.m., with tear gas still hanging in the air, he attended his first class.

Significance

James Meredith had been victorious, but the costs were great. More than twenty-five thousand federal troops had been needed to allow his enrollment. As a student at the University of Mississippi, Meredith was constantly accompanied by federal escorts. Five hundred troops were maintained at the university to ensure his safety. The university suffered as well. In the aftermath of the riot, forty professors resigned, and many students left to pursue degrees elsewhere.

In June, 1963, Cleve McDowell McDowell, Cleve became the first black to be admitted to the law school at the university. McDowell was intimidated by the fact that the troops on campus to protect Meredith would be leaving in August and asked permission to carry a gun. His request denied, McDowell nevertheless carried the weapon. Late for class one day, he dropped the gun and was summarily dismissed from the university.

When Meredith graduated in August, 1963, two lives had been lost, and the federal government had spent nearly $5 million. The fall of 1964, however, saw two black students enroll at the University of Mississippi with little fanfare.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 Civil Rights Act of 1964 further encouraged integration. Under Title VI of this act, federal aid would be denied to any public institution discriminating against students on the basis of race. By January, 1966, all but one of the public institutions of higher learning in Mississippi had signed an agreement to comply with the stipulations of Title VI. Desegregation formally had become accepted. Segregation;public education Education;segregation Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Military force, domestic deployment of University of Mississippi African Americans;segregation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doyle, William. An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962. New York: Doubleday, 2001. Account of the struggle over Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi, referring to it as the twentieth century’s greatest domestic military crisis. Provides major coverage of Meredith’s later career, when he disavowed his earlier actions. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lord, Walter. The Past That Would Not Die. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. This intriguing text reads more like a novel than a work of historical fact. The author does an excellent job of explaining the historical background that proved fertile ground for the Meredith incident. Complete with index and guide to source material relevant to the Meredith case.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meredith, James. Three Years in Mississippi. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966. A definitive account of events surrounding Meredith’s enrollment and his subsequent education at the University of Mississippi. An objective, insightful retelling of his experiences. Allows the reader to understand Meredith’s goals, courage, and intelligence. Includes documentation and letters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Norman, and Marilynn B. Brewer, eds. Groups in Contact: The Psychology of Desegregation. Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press, 1984. This compilation of empirically based studies of desegregation is useful for students in the social sciences concerned with the implications of race relations. Although quite statistical in orientation, the text provides insight into the psychological effects of desegregation. Includes charts, graphs, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Preer, Jean L. Lawyers v. Educators: Black Colleges and Desegregation in Public Higher Education. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982. Especially useful for students of law and policy, this text examines the legal background and contemporary legal issues surrounding desegregation. Contains list of cases and statutes, index, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Silver, James W. Mississippi: The Closed Society. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964. Written by a professor at the University of Mississippi during the Meredith incident, the book provides a detailed look into the racist environment of Mississippi in the 1960’s. Supplements Meredith’s work with a perspective from inside the university. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United States Commission on Civil Rights. Justice in Jackson, Mississippi. New York: Arno Press, 1971. A good introduction for the general reader not familiar with the intensity and immediacy of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. The direct testimony provides a dialogue that is educational and insightful as to the mood in the South during this era. Extensive appendix and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiggins, Samuel P. The Desegregation Era in Higher Education. Berkeley, Calif.: McCutchan, 1966. A product of studies conducted at Southern universities during the most active stages of desegregation from 1954 to 1966. Although the data are somewhat old, the information is useful for comparison with present-day situations and for explaining the impact of desegregation on university policy and students. Contains charts, graphs, and notes.

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