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Documentary Offers Detailed Portrait of James Meredith

By Emily Howorth

University of Mississippi

A documentary about the life and sociocultural contributions of James Meredith will be screened next week at the University of Mississippi. “Mississippi Messiah” provides a comprehensive biography of Meredith, who integrated the university in 1962.

The screening, at 6 p.m. Tuesday (Sept. 20) in Fulton Chapel, is among a series of events commemorating the university’s 60th anniversary of integration. The event is free and open to the public.

Kathleen Wickham, professor of journalism, proposed the film’s screening after viewing it at the 2022 Oxford Film Festival.

“When we talk about James Meredith, so much of it is about politics and strategy,” Wickham said. “There is less known about him as a man and his impact on the Black community. That’s one of the threads that I saw in the documentary that made it stand out from other documentaries that I’ve seen about him.

“I was so impressed by the depth and breadth of the production. I walked out with the conclusion that Meredith sees the world we don’t see, and he had the courage to raise his voice and to change it. And he did it using the law, not his fist, so to speak.”

Producer and director Clay Haskell sought to create a nuanced examination of Meredith’s life as a public figure. He spent 10 years composing the documentary after following Meredith as he completed a 200-mile walk through the state. 

During that journey, Meredith stopped to greet individuals and discuss the importance of early childhood education and educational reform.

The film offers a comprehensive historical account of Meredith’s life and ongoing desire to be a catalyst for social change. It includes a linear narrative that recounts Meredith’s childhood in Kosciusko, the integration of Ole Miss, the 1966 Walk Against Fear and his activities in subsequent years.

Haskell first became interested in pursuing the documentary while working on “Soundtrack for a Revolution,” a project that told civil rights history through the era’s music. Observing how Meredith’s story stood apart, Haskell became passionate about meeting Meredith and examining his cultural and historical impact. The two met for lunch at the iconic Peaches restaurant in Jackson and decided to begin the project. 

More than a decade later, Haskell has a lasting admiration for Meredith.

“What Dr. King was able to do with words, James Meredith did with symbolism,” Haskell said. “He is a citizenship maximalist. He believes in his rights as a citizen, and he is one of the deepest thinkers in American history. He is so generous of spirit and so generous of heart.

“This is the James Meredith story that hasn’t been told yet. And it’s about time, because he’s almost 90. If we don’t tell it now, it will be too late to understand him in his lifetime.”

The documentary has been screened at the 2022 Oxford Film Festival, the 2022 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival and the 2022 Arizona International Film Festival, and it continues to be shown on the festival circuit.

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