The observing and determined look on James Meredith’s face is the same today as in that famous photo taken of him in 1962, when he was the first African-American to seek enrollment at the University of Mississippi.
Sitting in a comfortable armchair at the Human Rights Education Institute in Coeur d’Alene Friday afternoon, Meredith was exquisitely dressed in a cream suit nearly the same color as the straw hat he wore. He spoke about race relations and his experiences prior to addressing a forum at North Idaho College.
Meredith came to North Idaho to share his life story of fighting for civil rights while facing intense bigotry and oppression in the segregated South of the ’50s and ’60s.
“Fifty years ago I used Ole Miss to teach the world a lesson,” Meredith said. “Now I plan on using Mississippi to teach Idaho a lesson.”
Back when Meredith tried to register at Mississippi, he set off campus riots that left two dead and wounded hundreds as National Guardsmen were sent in to keep order.
Today, at 82, he takes a moment to reflect before talking about the pivotal impact his actions had on civil rights in the United States.
“It was my responsibility to change the world,” Meredith said. “I didn’t know what it was going to be like, but I knew it was going to be different from the world I grew up in.”
He chuckles while reminiscing about sitting alone in class because all the white students left.
“They thought that offended me, but it didn’t,” Meredith said. “I just figured I was first in class.”
In summer 1966, Meredith invited African-American men to join him on a Walk Against Fear, covering 220 miles from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. They walked in support of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, with police protection, while encouraging black people to register to vote.
On the second day of the march, Meredith was shot and wounded by Aubrey James Norvell, a white man.
Historic photos from that day show Meredith lying in the middle of the road, his face contorted in pain, and fellow marchers crouching for cover behind a Ford Mustang.
The shooting sent Meredith to a hospital while other civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., rallied behind his cause and the march, which culminated with more than 10,000 people arriving in Jackson.
“He is living history,” said Robert Lee Long, an award-winning journalist from Mississippi and Meredith’s travel companion on part of the trip to Idaho. “Many of our nation’s civil rights leaders are gone. Students who meet him will have a chance to meet an American hero.”
However, Meredith does not consider himself part of what he calls “the movement.”
His sole goal always has been equal rights for African-Americans. People always tried to stop him, he said, but they never succeeded.
He has supported different organizations at different times, and backed both Republicans and Democrats, leading some to call him unpredictable and a rebel.
“I’m not your mama’s civil rights hero,” he writes in his memoir. “When it comes to my rights as an American Citizen, and yours, I am a triumphalist and an absolutist. Anything less is an insult. It’s all or nothing.”
He is very concerned about what he calls a moral character breakdown.
“It’s not politically correct to say so, but I’ve never seen it worse than it is right now, especially among black people,” Meredith said, adding that parents must do better at teaching right from wrong. “The future of Western civilization will depend on how we teach good and right in the eyes of God.”
His solution to what he calls “the black-white and the rich-poor” problem is to reach out and educate youth, especially black children.
“Parents should train up their children the way the Bible said,” Meredith said. “We have to start with the black children. If the bottom moves up, then everyone else feels compelled to do the same.”
During his time in Idaho, he hopes he can encourage students to reach out to students in Mississippi.
Long, who’s white and a Mississippian, is also part of Meredith’s presentations.
He said people of his generation inherited the good and the bad parts of Mississippi’s history – all the murders and the lynchings of black people.
“As Mississippians, we have a deep love for our state, but our generation has work to do,” Long said. “There were always good white people. They just didn’t speak with a strong enough voice.”