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James Meredith: What I've Learned

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James Meredith: What I've Learned

Maverick, 79, Jackson, Mississippi

By Cal Fussman

More from this author


Darrell Blakely

Published in the January 2013 issue

John F. Kennedy sent three thousand troops to the University of Mississippi so that Meredith could become the first black to enroll. This year Ole Miss celebrated fifty years of integration, which began with Meredith. He was invited but didn't return to the school.

Interviewed November 9, 2012

What any human being can do in life depends upon the foundation laid between birth and age five.

The biggest untold story in American history is what happened to the Native Americans east of the Mississippi River.

My great-grandfather was the last ruler of the Choctaw Nation, and from birth I was taught that my role was to restore the power and the glory to my bloodline.

My momma was slick as greased lightning. She knew how to get anybody and everybody to do whatever she wanted 'em to do. I've always bragged about getting my principles from my father, but it was my momma who showed me how.

When I was growing up, we saw ourselves as Native Americans. I was really shielded. I knew literally nothing about blacks. The first time I was called "n" to my face was the first day I went to Ole Miss.

Everybody else was dealing with the black-white war. Tell you the truth, I was still fighting the European-Indian war.

Most people don't know that the Europeans made allies with various Indian tribes. During the period between 1750 and 1800, most Choctaw took European names. My great-grandfather, Sam Cobb, became a United States one-star general. He fought in every major war of his time, including the War of 1812, alongside Andrew Jackson.

When my great-grandfather was finished beatin' the Creeks, he saw his own army turn against him. The government took his land and his power. He died an old landless Indian. There's a sentence in one of my books about my great-grandfather when he died that I have yet to be able to read without crying.

The biggest factor in my life is that nobody knew what I knew. I'm not saying they didn't know what I knew. I'm saying they didn't know I knew what I knew.

I was in one of the first groups that went to training together with whites, and I was assigned to a B-29 outfit in Kansas. Now, a B-29 outfit in 1952 — that was like NASA, understand? On the first day I reported for duty, I was assigned a room on the second floor of the barracks with a white roommate. When I got back from work that evening, every white, not only my roommate, on that second floor had moved off. Of course, military people can't move without the approval of higher authorities. Not only did it not bother me for the whites to leave, I thought I deserved the whole floor.

What I did at Ole Miss had nothing to do with going to classes. My objective was to destroy the system of white supremacy.

I thought I couldn't die. And I really believed it. I know better now. But I'm glad I didn't know better then.

I knew the only way to beat Mississippi was with the United States military. I had not just the United States Army fighting my war against Mississippi, but President Kennedy sent in the best of the United States Army.

You know how you drive down a street every day for twenty years and twenty years later someone asks you where that street is and you have no clue? That's what it was like at Ole Miss. I never saw one soul the whole time I was there.

My statue at Ole Miss is a false idol. And it wasn't put there for my benefit. It was put there for Ole Miss and Mississippi.

Ole Miss kicked my butt and they're still celebrating. Because every black that's gone there since me has been insulted, humiliated, and they can't even tell their story. Everybody has to tell James Meredith's story — which is a lie. The powers that be in Mississippi understand this very clearly. See, I've been telling them for fifty years how insulting it is to me to suggest that I had to be courageous to confront some ignorant white folks. And recently, they told me they really understand, but they're gonna keep doing it. I can't figure a way to make 'em stop. They're gonna keep on doin' it because it makes it impossible for the blacks there now to say anything about what's happened to them. Because the comparison is with the idol.

Western civilization has worked like this: They marched in armor and took over. Almost all of the wealth comes from developing land. England never paid a dime for a single acre. But now there's no more land to take. They've tried in space for fifty years and they haven't found no place out there. So we're gonna have to learn to do what the Native Americans knew how to do: live the good life on the land that's there.

To get people to see beyond themselves is the most difficult thing of all.

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