By Victoria Hosey
According to Civil Rights icon James Meredith, Mississippi is at the center of the universe.
That is, at least, with regard to racial justice and equality. Therefore, Meredith believes it is time for Mississippi and his alma mater, the University of Mississippi, to lead the conversation in this time of national change. Meredith expressed his views in an exclusive interview with hottytoddy.com.
As the country finds itself consumed by public outcry over issues surrounding the Black experience in America, particularly the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other African Americans at the hands of police, Meredith believes the dialogue being held in Mississippi today has never had more potential to make a difference. The way he sees it, the world is not only watching, but waiting.
“Nobody in the world is more ready,” Meredith said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “I have thought as much, and as long, and as hard about this issue, as Black and white (people) in Mississippi. And if anybody is ready to come up with a new solution to our problem, it’s us.”
Meredith, who is a Kosciusko, Mississippi, native and United States Air Force veteran, was the first-ever African American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962. A Supreme Court ruling that enforced Meredith’s right to attend “Ole Miss” culminated in rioting that saw two people killed, hundreds injured, and necessitated the deployment of military police agents and the Mississippi National Guard to subdue the violence.
Meredith believes that if Mississippi is “at the center of the universe”, then the University of Mississippi sits directly at its powerful core, ready to use the darkest moments of its history as examples for how to grow- and more importantly, to take a leadership position for change.
“That’s what put us in a position to lead the world,” said Meredith. “I consider this discussion today more important than Ole Miss in 1962, because in 1962 every state in the union had already had desegregation at the college and above level.”
Now, Meredith sees the current dialogue surrounding race as an opportunity. It is time for his home state, and especially the University, to set the standard rather than simply following others in the fight for equality.
“Mississippi is known to be the most religious place in the world. It is also believed by some people to be the most hypocritical place in the world. You know the power that, that does? All Mississippi has to do is put her house in order, and all the other houses will jump for joy and fall in line.”
While there still is work yet to be done, Meredith feels that Mississippians are finally reaching a place where they are more open to discussions on racism and inequality.
Meredith believes change has progressed slowly, but surely, since the first day he stepped foot onto the Ole Miss campus. Albeit not without pushback, the University has since parted ways with the Colonel Reb mascot, removed “Dixie” from the marching band repertoire, added contextualization plaques to buildings and monuments, and most recently, relocated a Confederate statue from its campus to a nearby cemetery.
In 2013, the state of Mississippi officially ratified the 13th amendment after 148 years. In June of 2020, it abandoned the Confederate symbol from the state flag.
“You know how many years I’ve come up to Ole Miss… Do you know how many times I saw the Confederate statue up there in that prominent place… It ain’t there anymore,” said Meredith.
“I don’t think the leaders in Jackson… I know the leaders up at Ole Miss… I don’t think that they just did something. They knew what they were doing when they took that flag down… And what they were doing when they moved that Confederate statue,” said Meredith. “And I believe Mississippi is going to do the right thing and lead the world from here on.”
Fifty-eight years after his graduation from the University in 1963, Meredith’s opinion hasn’t wavered in the slightest on the institution that has at different times attempted to bar him from its doors and erected a statue of his likeness.
“I feel exactly the same way. I felt Ole Miss should be taking the lead and solving these problems,” said Meredith. “And I think Ole Miss is in the position to solve these problems for the world today.”
Meredith said he still thinks Ole Miss students are “the sharpest anywhere in the world.”
“Guess who else went there? Old James Meredith,” he said with a chuckle, and a smile that could be felt through the phone, even if it could not be seen. “I not only went there, I got a diploma from there.”
Although he enjoys wearing a cap bearing the print “New Miss” on it, gifted to him by a pastor from Tunica, Mississippi, to symbolize the day he walked on campus and did away with the old version of the University, Meredith said he still wears his “Ole Miss” cap to campus.
Now in the golden years of his lifetime, Meredith stated that he hopes to see Mississippi address what he simply calls “the truth”.
“I believe that Mississippi, America and the world are never going to be the same again after this episode is over,” said Meredith. “It only started with the pandemic. Everybody is trying to forget about George Floyd, but that issue ain’t going nowhere. The Black/white race issue is the biggest issue in the world today.”
Whether or not Mississippi will be looked to for answers is not a question for Meredith, but rather a fact.
“No matter if Mississippi wants it, whether they like it. That’s the truth.”