James Meredith, the primary black pupil on the College of Mississippi, was educated surrounded by troopers

James Meredith is famous for being the first black student at the University of Mississippi. His entry into the establishment, hitherto reserved for whites, caused so much trouble that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had to send the army to accompany him to classes. However, this was not enough to prevent riots that left two people dead. After an obstacle course, James Meredith, however, managed to graduate. Like other African Americans, he played a role in the fight against segregation in the United States. Portrait.

A historic decision by the Supreme Court

James Meredith was born on June 25, 1933, in Kosciusko, Mississippi. He grew up on the family farm, surrounded by his 9 brothers and sisters. After graduating from Gibbs High in St. Petersburg (Florida), the young man joined the Air Force, where he served from 1951 to 1960. When he finally returned to his home state in 1960, James Meredith was determined to pursue higher education. He therefore enrolled at Jackson State University, a historically black university, before targeting the University of Mississippi, until then reserved for white students.

“In the early 1950s, most southern states in the United States practiced racial segregation, which affected, among other areas, schooling. There were then schools for whites and schools for blacks; skin color was a sufficient pretext to refuse enrollment of black students in the first “recalls the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (Licra).

©King_of_Hearts — Created by King of Hearts using information from Image:Educational separation in the US before Brown Map.PNG (PD) and File:Blank US Electoral Map.svg (GFDL) as a template

(In red, States that practice segregation in the field of Education).

But in 1954, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which supports black students, will have a major victory before the Supreme Court. The latter, through its Brown v. Board of Education, declares racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. If this decision does not prohibit segregation (it will be necessary to wait for the Civil Law Act of 1964), it makes it inapplicable in the field of public education.

However, this does not mean that black students will be able to join so-called white schools overnight. Immediately, states such as Georgia and South Carolina threatened “replace all public schools with private schools so that the segregation policy can be maintained“.

The segregationists’ response

In Mississippi, one of the most segregated states in the country, there is therefore no possibility of allowing African Americans to enter so-called white schools so easily. So when James Meredith asked to enter the University of Mississippi in January 1961, he was immediately turned down. As the refusal contradicts the Supreme Court’s decision, James Meredith, aided by the NAACP, pleads his case in court. In September 1962, the Supreme Court confirmed that he could attend the University of Mississippi. But when he goes to the university on September 20, entry is blocked. Then-Governor Ross Barnett would do anything to fight his admission. He is not the only one.

On September 29, riots broke out on the university campus. White segregationists come from across the country to block admission of the 28-year-old student. Things get so bad that President Kennedy calls for the military police to intervene. Hundreds of men are mobilized. On the first night, two people are killed: a French journalist and a 23-year-old boy. In all, the riots will last three days. It will take a phone call from President Kennedy himself for the governor to finally enforce the law. James Meredith will enter college on October 1, 1962.

James Meredith, the first black student at the University of Mississippi, was educated surrounded by soldiers
©afp

As he will later explain in his book “Three Years in Mississippi”, the student, however, found himself very isolated during his studies. Rejected by other students, James Meredith needed 24-hour police protection. “Federal troops remained on campus for over a year to ensure their safety,” confirms the University of Mississippi. In August 1963, James Meredith finally earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. He later earned a law degree from Columbia University.

A few years later, in 1966, James Meredith was the victim of an assassination attempt during an anti-segregationist march. He later joined the Republican Party and tried to get elected to Congress without success. However, he dedicated his life to defending the individual rights of all Americans. “I“The concept of civil rights is an insult because it relegates black people to second-class citizenship.” he declared. for him, the “Conflict between blacks and whites is not a racial problem, but a battle between the dominated and the dominant”. Sometimes controversial – he notably supported a former Ku Klux Klan member as governor of Louisiana – James Meredith is nevertheless a famous name in the fight against segregation.

Today, James Meredith still lives in Jackson, Mississippi with his wife. He has four children: a daughter Jessica and three sons James, John and Joseph. The latter died at age 39. Prior to that, he was able to attend the University of Mississippi in 1991 without incident.

a re-segregation

After a slow desegregation that increased the proportion of African American and Hispanic students at top universities, we are now witnessing a re-segregation. “A conservative Supreme Court has been undoing the work of liberal justices in the 1960s and 1970s since the early 1990s.“, says Esther Duflo, a French-American economist, in a column published by Liberation.

American justice has in fact relaxed control over previously segregated schools. “Three successive judgments, in 1991, 1992 and 1995, allow school districts to be declared ‘integrated’, after which they must be released from legal guardianship. Once released from that guardianship, the district can abandon busing (the fact of sending children to schools outside their neighborhood, editor’s note)school cards, etc.), even if it means an immediate return to full segregation.”

According to a study by the organization EdBuild, published by Le Point, “dIn the South, in 1988, 43.5% of black students attended schools with a majority of whites. In 2011, they were only 23.2%. A trend that is not limited to the South: in New York, 81.7% of blacks are enrolled in schools with less than 10% of whites.

To continue to integrate minority students, schools implemented positive discrimination measures. But this unfortunately will not be enough to erase the racism that still plagues the country.

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