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February 14, 2003
Davie -- Four decades after he desegregated the University of Mississippi by taking his seat in a class on colonial American history, James Meredith is worried about the future of the point he faced a riot to make.
Pointing to President Bush's stand against affirmative action in college admissions, Meredith told Broward Community College students and faculty Thursday that the nation faces "the biggest setback to full citizenship in a long time."
Wheeling a suitcase full of his own books -- for sale -- Meredith came to BCC's Black History Month observance as one of the civil rights movement's heroes -- and its heretics.
Meredith was the central figure in one of the movement's most dramatic moments. In 1962, despite riots that left two dead and hundreds wounded, he became the first black student to enroll in the University of Mississippi.
Three years later, he set out to walk from Memphis to Jackson, Miss., as a statement against the violence blacks encountered in trying to vote. On the way, he was shot. Meredith has taken some startling turns in the years since, infuriating many of those he had impressed.
He campaigned for former Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett -- the same governor who had tried to stop him from enrolling at the state's top university. Meredith notes that no blacks were hurt during the standoff and credits Barnett.
Later, Meredith worked for ultra-conservative former Sen. Jesse Helms and endorsed former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke's campaign for governor in Louisiana -- activities he now explains with a "know your enemy" argument. Meredith himself tried in 1967 to unseat New York Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, one of the country's most prominent black politicians at the time.
And to many civil rights activists, Meredith's words have spoken as loudly as his actions.
He decries the movement's treasured theory of nonviolent activism, calling it "the most un-American thing in the world ... and the worst thing that's ever been presented to my people."
He has said that government welfare efforts have done more harm to black families than slavery did. He has criticized blacks and other minorities for not using what he calls proper English.
He doesn't even like to be called a civil rights activist, considering the movement a concept of Northeastern white liberals aiming mostly to enhance their own status.
But Meredith made clear Thursday that he doesn't resent being labeled a renegade. In fact, he seems to relish it.
"I was always out of line. But I was deliberately out of line," Meredith explained after his speech.
Now 69 and the owner of a used-car business, Meredith speaks with a gentle Mississippi accent and a trenchant sense of humor. He paints his life in terms part politics and part preaching: his days with Duke and Helms an exercise in "conversion," his determination at Ole Miss "a war," himself unabashedly as "the leader of my people."
He also betrays some humility about his own experience.
"I get a lot of credit I don't deserve," he told the overflowing auditorium at BCC. "It just happens that I was born at a certain time and became aware of certain things."
Jennifer Peltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-243-6636.
Copyright © 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Copyright © 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel