On this day in history, August 18, 1963, James Howard Meredith was awarded a bachelor’s degree by the University of Mississippi, becoming the first black man to graduate from the school.
Inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, Meredith decided to exercise his constitutional rights and apply to the University of Mississippi. His goal was to put pressure on the Kennedy administration to enforce civil rights for African Americans.
Meredith, a strong-minded man considered himself fighting in a “war” for his rights as a citizen. He first applied to the university in January 1961 after an 18-month legal battle, a court ordered the university to admit him, but segregationist led by the Mississippi governor, Ross Barnett, refused to let him register in September of the next year.
Many speculate that although the governor knew he would have to admit Meredith, he did not want to appear weak to his fellow segregationists.
On Sept. 30, 1962, hundreds of federal marshals secured the campus and sneaked Mr. Meredith into a dormitory. That evening students and area segregationists began attacking the marshals and rioting. President John F. Kennedy ordered federal troops to quell the rioting, leaving two dead.
Meredith was born June 25, 1933. He was a Civil Rights Movement figure, writer, political adviser and Air Force veteran. In 1966 Meredith planned a solo 220-mile March Against Fear from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi; he wanted to highlight continuing racism in the South and encourage voter registration after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The second day, he was shot by a white gunman and suffered numerous wounds. Leaders of major organizations vowed to complete the march in his name after he was taken to the hospital. While Meredith was recovering, more people from across the country became involved as marchers. He rejoined the march and when Meredith and other leaders entered Jackson on June 26, they were leading an estimated 15,000 marchers, in what was the largest civil rights march in Mississippi. During the course of it, more than 4,000 African Americans had registered to vote, and the march was a catalyst to continued community organizing and additional registration.
In 2002 and again in 2012, the University of Mississippi led year-long series of events to celebrate the 40th and 50th anniversaries of Meredith’s integration of the institution. He was among numerous speakers invited to the campus, where a statue of him commemorates his role. The Lyceum-The Circle Historic District at the center of the campus has been designated as a National Historic Landmark for these events.