A BOOK REVIEW
Posted Nov. 15, 2012
James Meredith’s Memoir a Controversial Must-Read
By Arelya J. Mitchell
Once you survive an assassination attempt with bullets flying all over you and in you, you can’t go anywhere but up or crazy.
James Meredith went up and some would say even crazy. Whichever the case, Meredith survived the bullets that came flying on ‘666’ or specifically on June 6, 1966 when he was on his one-man crusade to walk in Mississippi to show the world that he had no fear of white reprisal.
Four years earlier on October 1, 1962, Meredith had put his life on the line when he embarked on his first one-man crusade albeit with National Guardsmen dressed in riot gear to keep white mobs from attacking or possibly even lynching him to keep holy the holiest of ground in the state: the Ole Miss campus. In fact, Meredith refers to the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) as the “holiest temple of white supremacy in America, next to the U.S. Capitol and the White House, both of which were under the control of segregationists and their collaborators.” Meredith made his way through lily white mobs that resulted not only in the integration of the University of Mississippi but all institutions of Higher Learning in the country.
Fifty years later in conjunction with that historic date, Meredith has released “A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America.” However, with Meredith, it’s hard to tell if the publication was planned to commensurate with one of the most controversial events in history or was done just to finish pissing off some people. In this ‘wavering back and forth’ respect, Meredith is just as complex as the Civil Rights Movement itself, which wavered between absolving white guilt to escalating into blaming the victim; or between arguments to use violence or non-violence because no matter how peaceful a march could be planned that wouldn’t keep it from erupting into a full-blown riot. Times were volatile. And so was Meredith.
In the history of my life, Meredith has been and continues to be a civil rights figure of whom I thought as wavering somewhere between fickle and brilliance. And in Freudian fashion I’ve often wondered: What does James Meredith want?
In this memoir written with William Doyle (Atria Books), Meredith is the first to admit that he has flaws and an arrogance all revolving around the planet Ego. But in vintage Meredith, he doesn’t care how he is perceived or regarded as long as he gets full attention and credit for whatever goes down for his actions. Yes, I believe that Meredith is the type (and most of us know persons in this ilk) that if you say it’s ‘cold’, they will say it’s ‘hot’; and if you say it’s ‘hot’, they will say it’s ‘cold’. The goal is to get a reaction by any means necessary.
But it is this need to rebel for the sake of rebellion just to shake things up which makes James Meredith both fascinating and irritating and subsequently the keeper of his own flame. This disregard has made him un-embraceable to the Civil Rights Movement status quo. It is not that he disrespects those closely associated with the Movement, but dare I say that they have shown a disrespect towards Meredith because he doesn’t fit their mode on how they think a civil rights leader should behave or rather it seems that they don’t want the label ‘leader’ attached to Meredith period? Seemingly, they cannot accept a colleague who marches to his own tune and one who does not need their consultation or permission before he makes a move. But this is the thing I do respect about Meredith. He runs in and on the outskirts of the Civil Rights Movement status quo. Meredith has perpetually been Peck’s bad boy. He has been that Civil Rights figure who made you turn your head and ask “What the hell is he doing now?” or “Why the hell did he do that?”
It’s the type of questions you ask when you know that this is the same man who upset Ole Miss and who later got a bullet bouquet that damned nearly took his life on ‘666’ by an avowed white supremacist, yet this is the same man who went on to work for staunch segregationist, U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, a Democrat-turned-Republican senator from North Carolina—and oh—it gets better—a man who openly supported Klansman David Duke for governor of Louisiana.
Meredith explains his logic for cavorting with the enemy as part of his “mission”. For example, he said that both he and Helms believed the welfare system destroyed Black families, but what Meredith probably failed to realize was that both he and Helms might have agreed that welfare destroyed Black families; however, Meredith’s concern was genuine and noble; Helms just might have been looking at the millions of dollars it was costing when theoretically the American practice always has been that you can give Blacks money as long as it’s not too much; you can let Blacks make money as long as it’s not too much. But then again who said politics didn’t make strange bedfellows while keeping the white sheets warm in place? Then there was the David Duke thing which was totally unbelievable in that Meredith believed Duke was a born-again negrophile in the sincerity of the slave-trader who penned “Amazing Grace”; nevertheless, it was Meredith being Meredith. Both cases are worth the read in Meredith’s memoir. But in spite it all, Meredith has a charm that makes whatever civil rights sin he commits, he’s forgiven for it.
But be forewarned: Don’t think this propensity to upset the apple cart in any way stands in the way of Meredith’s brilliance and commitment once he embarks on a ‘mission’. It’s very much a part of it.
This is the same man who plotted back as far as 1960 to integrate Ole Miss when he was in the U.S. Air Force serving a country which regarded him less than a man. And it was this authentic patriotism and love Meredith had (and still has) for his America which was not reciprocated by treating him as a full citizen which made him plot with unerring precision to get his rights.
This is the same man who made his resolve formal when he put in an application to enter Ole Miss on January 21, 1961, precisely the day after John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president of the United States.
Meredith writes: “I knew that so far in his career JFK had done virtually nothing to help the cause of black Americans. Like the vast majority of Americans, he was a segregationist collaborator, and a millionaire power politician who I knew had to be forced to do the right thing.” And here Meredith is expressing no more than a state of white liberalism hypocrisy that Blacks have always known about and have had to deal with to push for integration and for the country to at least live up to its own Constitution.
Of course, in life hypocrisy is more apropos in dealing with both white liberals and white segregationists who at times can be on the same side of the coin. Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that, but it was James Meredith who could only afford to openly express it, outside of Malcolm X.
As I stated earlier, Meredith was not necessarily embraceable with the Movement’s status quo. When he first met Thurgood Marshall (who would later become America’s first Black Supreme Court Justice), the two did not hit it off well. And Meredith was angry when Marshall, then an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, asked to see his credentials that is, grades from the black Jackson State University (Jackson, Mississippi) where Meredith was attending. Marshall wanted to see if this young man was worth the trouble if the NAACP decided to back him when he set foot on holy ground. Meredith quotes Marshall saying: “I got your letter, but we need some documents to prove that you are legitimate.” This pissed off Meredith who felt insulted that his integrity should be questioned. Medgar Evers, who was becoming a prominent figure in Mississippi’s NAACP, tried to calm Meredith down and eventually (behind Meredith’s back) gave Marshall the documents he needed to warrant the fight. Followed were court hearings along with other myriad of legalese. You will find an excerpt from one of Meredith’s depositions to get into Ole Miss as hilarious as “My Cousin Vinny”. But it only hurts when you laugh.
If Allan Bakke (of Bakke vs. the Regents of the University of California fame) who charged reversed discrimination in ‘higher learning’ had to go through what Meredith did, he probably would not have survived an ordeal that was about seventeen years removed from Meredith’s turmoil of getting into Ole Miss.
Meredith’s ego (which he readily admits to having) does not prevent him from giving credit to the first Black, Clennon King, who attempted to integrate Ole Miss as far back as 1958. This King—not the other King—would cease to become even a footnote in history had it not been for Meredith being one of a handful to acknowledge him, but I will not go into King’s story because the horror of it should be read in Meredith’s memoir.
Another figure who deserves an ample footnote if not more is Meredith’s father, Cap Meredith, who had a most pronounced influence on Meredith and who mirrors the thinking of the progressive Blacks in Mississippi who did exist regardless of how history wants to portray Mississippi as a state of ignorant victimized Blacks who couldn’t and wouldn’t fight back.
Let this sink in from Cap Meredith: “Power respects power. When a man stands up, other men respect him. When I was a young man I always carried a gun, sometimes two. I’ve never gone to bed a night in my life when I didn’t have a loaded shotgun in the rack above my head and everybody in the county, white and black, knew that I would use it.”
When his son returns home for a visit, Cap Meredith continues giving advice to his son when the family is threatened by white racists: “You just go on and act like nothing unusual happened. That will throw them off. Whites don’t know how to deal with a black person that ain’t scared.”
Cap Meredith’s philosophy adds another layer to Meredith, and more than likely explains why Meredith was not too fond of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violence philosophy. Cap Meredith’s philosophy mirrors how Mississippi’s Black progressives deemed whites as being the inferior race or at best stupid—an image that does not fit the stereotype of Mississippi Blacks or southern Blacks being victims who wouldn’t fight back. Had Mississippi Blacks and southern Blacks been so full of fear, the battle for Civil Rights would not have happened, seeing that those who made the difference were in fact Black southerners in the ilk of Mrs. Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself. And this was long before white Northern ‘liberals’ decided to descend into the region to aid and abet in securing a 1964 civil rights bill.
And speaking of ‘footnotes’ this book which is both a memoir and American history should have had an index. Hopefully that will be done in a reprint, because Meredith mentions little known figures such as Clyde Kennard, Clennon King, Constance Baker Motley—among others-- who are apt to go or have already gone into oblivion along with their roles in integrating the bastion of ‘higher learning’. An index should also be supplied for young 21st Century Blacks who seemingly have a pride in not knowing any civil rights figures other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and/or Malcolm X.
They really do believe they live in a post-racial society.
Meredith himself would love to believe in a post-racial society, and he goes into this diatribe of how he does not like the term, African-American.
He writes almost with idealistic flair: “I have always considered white liberals just as capable of racism and racial hypocrisy as white conservatives. I object to being labeled primarily as an ‘African-American’ because all other Americans are not simultaneously described as Caucasian-American, Irish-American, German-American, and so on, nor should they be. I reject the idea of any American identified primarily as a hyphenated American. A hyphenated American usually implies second-class citizenship. There is no such thing in my America.”
What I would imagine that he means is in his ‘idyllic’ America, where he admits:
“I am the American Don Quixote. Over the years I’ve led countless one-man marches…sometimes I lecture to large audiences and sometimes I lecture to empty rooms. Still I keep moving…”
Or does he? Because he doesn’t fully keep moving when he brings up whites’ ‘Myth of Innocence’. “We will not live in a post racial society and we will not live in a truly United States of America until this myth is confronted and destroyed…The Myth of Innocence is the vast national denial of responsibility for the horrific conditions of poverty and ignorance that millions of Americans live in today as a direct result of systemic, institutionalized white supremacy and racial discrimination, the entrenched results and shock waves of which linger to this day.”
It is not so much that a post-racial America exists as it is that it is no longer in vogue to talk about race and racism because white America idealistically thinks that having its first Black president terminates racism and discrimination in America.
And this goes into that other side of Meredith who can, along with just about every other Black –un-hyphenated-American, laugh slyly about ‘bi-racial’ roots of its first Black president as being some type of repellant to racism; thus, the reason why Blacks aren’t impressed with President Barack Obama’s ‘bi-racial’ roots as white liberals seem to be. Everyone knows that practically every Black-un-hyphenated-American became ‘bi-racial’ when the white roosters went into the black hen house. When Black slaves were bred on breeding plantations (a subject neither whites nor Blacks want to fully acknowledge. Just as Jews were put into camps to be exterminated; Blacks were put on plantations to be bred and promulgated.). Meredith’s comments on America getting its first Black president should be read, because I won’t give it away here.
Meredith writes in essence what could be practically every Black American’s story when you go back to Black ‘roots’: “My great-grandfather was not only a white man, but the founding father of white supremacy in Mississippi. He was Mississippi Chief Justice J.A.P. Campbell…J.A.P. Campbell wrote the Mississippi Codes of Law and Constitution of 1890, which established legal and official white supremacy for the first time in the Western world.”
Bottom line: Had white-unhyphenated-America done what it was supposed to have when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and when the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were incorporated into the Constitution, there might indeed now be a post-racial America.
Just like the Civil Rights Movement itself, Meredith goes through this ‘thing’ (for my lack of a better description) of wanting to absolve whites then blame whites; where he wants to blame Blacks for their own dilemma then blame whites for it—very much like the Civil Rights struggle itself which it has morphed into a 21st Century America of Black liberals vs. Black conservatives.
Where I give the enormous credit to Meredith is that he is brutally honest with a brutality that bleeds. To reiterate, he cuts into white America’s idea and ideal that Blacks are impressed with the white mentality of white superiority. As stated earlier, progressive Blacks are not. White liberals or whites in general might find the memoir disturbing to their ego or to their perceived notion of what Blacks think about them. He cuts to a post Civil Rights Movement establishment that insists that it is still in charge of who is to be let into the post-movement echelon of leadership. Meredith doesn’t fit. He continues to be a square peg in a round hole. He doesn’t care and neither should we, because he changed America. Like him or not. Agree with him or not.
Getting Meredith into Ole Miss is only part of the journey in this book. Meredith’s life is stuff good movies and history are made of: Drama. All in all with Meredith’s warts, ego, arrogance, windmill fighting, and acts of bravery, “A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America” is well-written and a must-read because Meredith is a historic figure in American history and-- whether he likes it or not-- also in African hyphenated American history which is (which he would hopefully approve) American history.