On Tuesday, Oct. 2, I sat in on an interview between Robert Kennedy, Jr. and civil rights icon James Meredith, the first African-American to attend the University of Mississippi. Kennedy was taping the interview for his radio show “Ring of Fire” that he has hosted with local attorney Mike Papantonio for nearly 10 years.
The interview was supposed to focus on Meredith’s enrollment in then-segregated Ole Miss 50 years ago and the riots on the campus that ensued—which Kennedy called in his introduction of Meredith, “the last great battle of the Civil War.”
However, James Meredith does interviews the way he wants to do them. He’s 79 years old and has spent most of the past year doing interviews about the day the federal government enforced its integration laws and he became a student at, as Kennedy described it, “the Sacred Citadel of Ole Miss.”
Greenwood, Miss. attorney Hiram Eastland, a longtime Kennedy friend, had already warned Bobby that Meredith could be difficult, and he was right. James was ornery and pissed off much of the interview, not really wanting to talk about Ole Miss and instead focusing on poverty and the miserable state of public education in Mississippi.
Bobby handled James Meredith respectfully and masterfully. The interview became nearly as much about his father, U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Sr. who was the U.S. Attorney General when James enrolled at Ole Miss, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders of that era as it was about Meredith.
“The progress that we’ve made so far [in racial equality] could not have been achieved if it weren’t for the courageous efforts of heroic citizens who refused to be treated as second-class citizens,” said Kennedy. “James Meredith is one of the great figures of that age.”
REGARDLESS OF SKIN COLOR
Meredith grew up in Mississippi. While he served in the Air Force, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), that publicly supported schools had to be desegregated. When he got out of the military, Meredith attended Jackson State University for two years, then applied to the University of Mississippi.
He was denied enrollment twice. Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers and attorney Thurgood Marshall, who argued the Brown case and later would become the first African-American Supreme Court judge, helped him—although Meredith admitted in the interview that he had hung up on Marshall the first time they talked on the phone.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed suit in the U.S. District Court, and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Meredith had the right to be admitted to Ole Miss. Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett tried to block his admittance by having the state legislature pass a law making it illegal for “any person who was convicted of a state crime from admission to a state school.”
Mississippi’s voter registration laws made it nearly impossible for an African-American to vote and Meredith had been convicted of “false voter registration.” That only delayed Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss a few weeks as his attorneys got the law ruled unconstitutional.
It was Attorney General Robert Kennedy that made the decision to use federal troops and U.S. marshals to protect Meredith when he walked on the Ole Miss campus. And that was Meredith’s plan all along.
“I wanted to get the U.S. military to use its power and might to enforce the rights and privileges of all its citizens, including black citizens,” Meredith said in the interview. “I credit Attorney General Robert Kennedy with extending the rights of citizenship to all people, regardless of skin color. It’s just that simple to me.”
Bobby talked about how his father had sent two of his close friends to help protect Meredith—Burke Marshall, head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, and John Doar, a young Republican attorney working under Marshall.
“My father found those two sitting in an office on a Friday afternoon and said to them, ‘I want you to go down to Mississippi and make sure James Meredith gets into the university,’” Bobby said.
White students and racists protested against Meredith’s enrollment by rioting on the Oxford campus, which forced Attorney General Kennedy to deploy more than 3,000 soldiers and more than 500 law enforcement officers to Ole Miss. Two men were killed and over 200 people were injured, including 160 U.S. marshals.
(When I attended Ole Miss 13 years later, I could still see the bullet marks in the columns of the Lyceum, the university’s administration building.)
For the next three months, John Doar slept, ate meals and attended classes with Meredith to ensure his safety.
Bobby tried to get Meredith to talk about those days at Ole Miss, but he would have none of it. The old man had other things on his mind.
‘MY GOD AIN’T HAPPY’
“I promised God I was not gonna lie no more and I wasn’t gonna judge,” Meredith said in response to Kennedy’s questions about Ole Miss. “I’m going to let other people speak to that.”
What Meredith wanted to talk about were poverty and public education. “My commitment to God is to the future,” he said. “He told me that he doesn’t hold our sins against us. The only thing that matters is when we decide to obey we do that, so I’m gonna try to stick to that.”
He told Bobby that the state of the poor and public education in Mississippi is much worse in 2012 than it was in 1962.
“And my God ain’t happy about it.”
Kennedy asked Meredith to a talk about the Mississippi Delta. In 1967, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had traveled to that region to check on the progress of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, better known as the War on Poverty. The poverty that he found shocked the senator and became part of the impetus for his presidential campaign.
“Dr. King went through the Mississippi Delta and for the first time in his life he saw the real thing. He spent the rest of his life trying to show people this tragedy,” Meredith told Kennedy. “Then your father came to Mississippi. What he saw shocked his very being.”
Both Dr. Martin Luther King and Sen. Kennedy were killed in 1968. “When Dr. King and your daddy died, nobody had even discussed this issue,” said Meredith, “and it’s worse than when Dr. King saw it and when your daddy saw it.”
Meredith talked about Dr. King and how he came to visit the Delta. In 1966, Meredith led the “March Against Fear” from Memphis, Tenn. to Jackson, Miss. to encourage blacks to register and vote. He was shot by a sniper on the second day of the march. Dr. King took up the march and completed it. Meredith contended that as King walked through the Delta he became inspired to fight poverty and hunger in America.
Bobby talked about what his father saw a year later on his visit to Mississippi.
“When my father went to the Delta, it was a trip that changed his life,” he said. “He came back to our house that night and found us eating at the dinner table and said, ‘Today, I was in a house smaller than this room and there were three families living in it.’”
His father had gone into a shack with Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, that she later described would have made anyone sick because of the smell that came from the hut.
“This deeply concerned my father,” said Bobby. “He found a baby in one of those huts, flies crawling all over it. He talked about the lifelessness in the eyes of the people who lived there, who had just been beaten down by poverty.”
Kennedy talked about his father seeing malnourished children with distended stomachs, red-tinted hair and skin. “They were undersized,” he said.
Meredith wanted to talk about public education, too, which he felt was even worse than the poverty in his home state.
“Public education is more than a disaster,” he said. “Nobody will let it slip out what is really going on.”
Meredith’s voice got louder and more passionate. “When I graduated from high school 60 years ago, everybody who got a high school diploma could go to some good college in America,” he said. “Today less than one out of 10 who get a diploma—and over half don’t get one—can get into college because they don’t make high enough college entrance test scores… It’s a tragedy.”
He went on, “People don’t see the reality of poverty, particularly this school situation, and it ain’t just hurting poor blacks. It’s gonna destroy America if we don’t hurry up and take up what Dr. King died trying to do.”
When he ended the interview, Meredith told Bobby, “I hope that people will take another look, like your daddy did 44 years ago.”
After the interview, I had a few minutes with Bobby to talk about his thoughts about Mississippi. I knew that he had lived in Alabama for a while and that he had friends like Eastland in Mississippi. His environmental organization, Riverkeepers, has a chapter in south Mississippi.
“I love Mississippi, as my father did, but the poverty that he found in the Mississippi Delta shocked him to his core,” Bobby shared. “When he came home, he told us about it and we could see how much it affected him.”
When his father returned from the Delta, he aggressively fought poverty and hunger. “People in Washington didn’t believe such poverty existed,” Bobby said. “They couldn’t imagine children starving in America, that malnutrition was on the level of what was found in Africa or read about in National Geographic with children with bowed legs and red tint to their skin and hair.”
Bobby is a friend of Charles Evers, brother of Medgar Evers, who was slain in his driveway one year after he helped Meredith enroll at Ole Miss, and he has visited the Oxford campus.
“The University of Mississippi has made progress, but the state has not,” he said. “Not that much has changed in the Delta. Mississippi is last in its commitment to its children and ranked 50 in most economic indices. In many ways, it’s worse than it was 50 years ago.”
He admired Meredith’s courage and was proud of the role his father played in his admittance to the university. It was important to him to have this interview with Meredith on the 50th anniversary of the event.
And true to form, Meredith agreed to the interview, but he used the soapbox to meet his agenda, the agenda of a civil rights figure that still wants to fight.
“They’ve been trying to silence James Meredith for years, saying I’m crazy,” said Meredith. “I’m gonna do my best to bring people to the reality of what is going on, particularly in education in Mississippi.”
God bless, him.
James Meredith (born 1933): In 1962, the first African-American student admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi (Ole Miss); graduate of Columbia University Law School; author of several books, including his memoir “Three Years in Mississippi.”
Robert F. Kennedy, Sr. (1925–1968): U.S. Attorney General under his brother, President John Kennedy; sent federal troops to protect Meredith at Ole Miss; later elected U.S. Senator for N.Y.; killed in 1968 while running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968): Baptist minister who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; completed Meredith’s “March Against Fear” in 1966 after Meredith was wounded by a sniper; killed in 1968 in Memphis while there in support of striking sanitation workers.
Medgar Evers (1925-1963): African-American civil rights activist who was the NAACP’s first field secretary for Mississippi; helped Meredith enroll at Ole Miss; killed in 1963 in his driveway by Byron De La Beckwith, whose 1994 re-trial was the subject of the movie “Ghosts of Mississippi.”
Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993): Chief Counsel for the NAACP; winning lawyer in Brown vs. Board of Education that led to public school desegregation; helped Meredith win his legal battle to be admitted to Ole Miss; first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
Ross Barnett (1898-1987): States’ Rights Democrat who was the governor of Mississippi when Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss. In 1963, he unsuccessfully tried to block Mississippi State’s men basketball team from playing an NCAA Tournament game against the integrated Loyola of Chicago.
John Doar (born 1921): Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the U.S. Dept. of Justice under Kennedy; personally protected Meredith during his first three months at Ole Miss; later Chief Counsel for the United States House Committee on the Judiciary during the Watergate hearings.
Marian Wright Edelman (born 1939): accompanied Sen. Robert Kennedy on his tour of the Mississippi Delta in 1967; first black female admitted to the Mississippi Bar; founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund.