During his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy promised that "we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." The following day, retired Air Force veteran James Meredith said to himself, "We'll see about that."
Meredith had graduated from high school in in 1951, before enlisting in the US Air Force, where he served until 1960, and then took classes at Jackson State University, one of the largest HBCU's in America.
Meredith was determined to see if JFK was true to his word about his willingness to "assure the success and survival of liberty," by helping him get into Mississippi State University, aka Ole Miss, where the student body was 100% Caucasian, the Confederate flag still flew, students walked down Rebel and Confederate Drives, the team mascot was Colonel Reb, and the marching band still played "Dixie."
"I was engaged in a war. I considered myself engaged in a war from Day One. And my objective was to force the federal government -- the Kennedy administration at that time -- into a position where they would have to use the United States military force to enforce my rights as a citizen."
Ole Miss twice rejected Meredith in 1961, leaving the man with no choice but to turn to the law, and so on May 31, he filed a complaint with the district court, which rejected his claim that he'd been denied admission due to the color of his skin. But the Fifth Judicial Circuit Court overturned that ruling by a vote of 2-to-1. Ole Miss gave Meredith the runaround for the next 16 months before a federal judge on September 13, 1962, ordered that he be admitted.
Democratic Governor Ross R. Barnett was not having it, telling a live television audience of Mississippians, “We must either submit to the unlawful dictates of the Federal Government or stand up like men and tell them, ‘Never!’”
Unfortunately for Barnett, JFK and his little brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, proved true to their word. on October 1, 1962, Meredith was able to enter the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, Mississippi and enroll in classes. This, after federal troops, National Guardsmen, and deputy US Marshals quelled a 15-hour riot that included chants of Two, four, six, eight, We don't wanna integrate! and Two, one, four, three, We hate Kennedy!" and saw more than 200 arrests and two deaths.
Meredith was provided with armed escorts and had his room outfitted with a switch to active a red light atop his dorm should there be trouble, and two white students with the temerity to break bread with Meredith subsequently had their rooms trashed, but Meredith persevered, graduating in August 1963, before going on to Columbia Law School two years later.
On June 5, 1966, after graduating from Columbia, he set out on a one-man march to draw attention to the lingering racism in the South, “to challenge that all-pervasive fear that dominates the day-to-day life of the Negro in the United States, especially in the South and particularly in Mississippi,” only to be shot on the second day. People from around the country came together to continue the march, and by the time Meredith was out of the hospital and ready to rejoin them, he found himself leading a band of 15,000 strong.
A Republican, Meredith ran against incumbent Adam Clayton Powell Jr. for a Harlem Congressional seat, and later worked for two years as an advisor to formerly vocal segregationist Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
Meredith married to Mary Wiggins on March 14, 1956, they had three sons, and were together until her death in December 1979. Three years later he married Judy Alsobrooks, with whom he had a daughter, and with whom he lives in Jackson, Mississippi.