James Meredith engineered two of the most epic events of the American civil rights era: the desegregation of the University of Mississippi in 1962, which helped open the doors of education to all Americans and the “March Against Fear” in 1966, which helped open the floodgates of voter registration in the South.
Born on a small farm in Mississippi, Meredith returned home in 1960 after nine years in the U.S. Air Force, with a master plan to shatter the system of state terror and white supremacy in America.
He waged a fourteen-month legal campaign to force the state of Mississippi to honor his rights as an American citizen and admit him to the University of Mississippi. He fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court and won. Meredith endured months of death threats, daily verbal abuse, and round-the-clock protection from federal marshals and thousands of troops to became the first Black graduate of the University of Mississippi in 1963.
In 1966 he was shot by a sniper on the second day of his “Walk Against Fear” to inspire voter registration in Mississippi. Though Meredith, 79, never allied with traditional civil rights groups, leaders of civil rights organizations flocked to help him complete the march, one of the last great marches of the civil rights era. Decades later, Meredith says, “Now it is time for our next great mission from God. . . . You and I have a divine responsibility to transform America.”
In a just-released book, Meredith explains the reasoning behind many of his political positions and reveals why he has dedicated his life to human rights and education for all. Part biography, part manifesto, “A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America (with William Doyle. Atria, $25)” is Meredith’s look back at his courageous and action-packed life and his challenge to America to address the most critical issue of our day: how to educate and uplift the millions of Black and White Americans who remain locked in the chains of poverty by improving our public education system.
“At the root of many of our problems as a nation is the fact that our public education system is an unmitigated disaster for many of our poor white, Latino, Native American and Black youths,” Meredith notes. “By the time they reach 12th grade, Black students are four years behind their white peers in English math and science and score 200 points lower on the SAT than white students. These trends are a national disgrace but there are countless ways we can all help. You can walk into our public schools and offer to read to children. You can educate yourself by studying a cross-section of education reform initiatives, including promising ideas like improving parental education. I recently asked 100 of the greatest minds in America to give their best ideas for how we and our fellow American citizens can improve our public schools. There are ideas many of them agree on, such as the benefits of mentoring and getting involved in PTA efforts and others they disagree on, sometimes vociferously, such as the effectiveness of charter school and vouchers. But there is one thing I am sure of: When you decide to commit to help children, especially those schools with disadvantaged students, I believe you will be carrying out our great mission from God, and you will help make America a place that the good life promised by our Creator can be enjoyed by all.”