Born in Attala County, Mississippi in 1933 to Moses (Cap) and Roxie Meredith, James Meredith was raised on a farm with nine siblings. He joined the military after high school and attended an all-black college before becoming the first black student at the University of Mississippi in 1962. After he graduated in 1963, he earned a Masters’ Degree in Nigeria and a law degree from Columbia Law School. He is a tree farmer in Attala County, MS an author and businessman in Jackson, MS and continues to speak around the country.
Born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, on June 25, 1933, James Howard Meredith was raised on a farm with nine brothers and sisters, largely insulated from the racism of the time. His first experience with institutionalized racism occurred while riding a train from Detroit with his younger brother. When the train arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, Meredith was ordered to give up his seat and move to the crowded black section of the train, where he had to stand for the rest of his trip home. He vowed then that he would dedicate his life to ensuring equal treatment for African Americans.
After high school, Meredith spent nine years in the Army Air Force before enrolling in Jackson State College—an all-black school—in Mississippi. In 1961, he applied to the all-white University of Mississippi. He was admitted, but his admission was withdrawn when the registrar discovered his race. Since all public
educational institutions had been ordered to desegregate by this time (following 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling), Meredith filed a suit alleging discrimination. Although the district court ruled against him, the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor.
When Meredith arrived at Ole Miss to register for classes on September 20, 1962, he found the entrance blocked. Rioting erupted, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent 500 U.S. Marshals to the scene. Additionally, President John F. Kennedy sent military police, the 82nd and 101st Airborne and officials from the U.S. Border Patrol. On October 1, 1962, James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi.
Meredith graduated with a degree in political science in 1963. He wrote an account of his experience, titled Three Years in Mississippi, which was published in 1966. He went on to receive a master’s degree in economics from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, and a law degree from Columbia University in 1968.
Three years after graduating from The University of Mississippi, Meredith began a one man Walk Against Fear on June 5th, 1966 from Memphis to Jackson, MS. This was to encourage black people in Mississippi the importance of registering to vote. He called it a “walk” rather than a “march” to illustrate that a citizen should have no fear in his or her right to walk the roads in Mississippi. On June 6, just one day into the walk in Hernando, Mississippi, he was shot by a Tennessee resident, Aubrey James Norvell. Other civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived to continue the march on Meredith’s behalf. James Meredith later recovered and rejoined the march he had originated, and on June 26 the marchers successfully reached Jackson, Mississippi. Along the way, thousands were registered to vote.
Meredith met Mary June Wiggins while serving in the Airforce. They married in 1956 and had three children. After graduating from the University of Mississippi, James earned a master’s degree from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria and later a law degree from Columbia University in New York. His wife Mary June died unexpectedly in 1979, and in 1981, Meredith met and married Judy Alsobrooks who had one son from a previous marriage. James and Judy had one daughter. The couple have ten grandchildren.
Meredith has written 30 books and continues to speak. He is on what he calls his Third and final mission. His first was the integration of the university of Mississippi. His second, his Walk Against Fear and now he’s embarked on his third mission to raise the level of morals to stop the rampant crime in black communities. That mission has taken him on an 82-county tour where he has talked with community leaders, mayors, ministers, educators and county law enforcement. He has received many awards nationally and internationally including induction into the University of Mississippi’s Alumni Hall of Fame and Harvard University’s Medal of Education Achievement. James Meredith and his wife, Dr. Judy Meredith now live in Jackson, Mississippi.
Mississippi Top 50 is an annual list of the people who are judged to be the most influential leaders in the state. This bipartisan selection of leaders comes from the ranks of elected and appointed officials, economic development professionals, business, media and government affairs. The awards are presented by Magnolia Tribune and WJTV, and sponsored by C Spire, Atmos Energy, Mississippi Farm Bureau, Capitol Resources, and The Payne Group. Awardees were nominated through an open process. Follow MSTop50 on Twitter @MSTop50 or on Facebook to keep up with news and updates about MSTop50 winners and events.