Hearing an icon from the 1960s Civil Rights Movement was an eye-opening experience for me and hundreds of others who got the chance to hear James Meredith speak at Fort Hood last Thursday.
Meredith made national headlines in 1962 when, after a Supreme Court decision, he was the first black student to be admitted to the University of Mississippi.
The state of Mississippi did everything it could to not let that happen, including threats from the governor at the time — Ross Barnett — that he would never allow it.
“What happened at Ole Miss was an insurrection,” Meredith said during his visit to Fort Hood last week.
Meredith said his intent to enroll at the previously all-white public university was spurred by the treatment of blacks in American society, including the Air Force, where he served from 1951 to 1960.
Even though the service had been “desegregated” at that time, inequality was still rampant, with black airmen having to use separate gates or be denied certain jobs.
By the time he got out of the Air Force, Meredith, like other brave men and women at time, had decided to take on the challenge of fighting for equal rights.
That challenge nearly cost Meredith his life.
In 1966, during a march from Tennessee to Mississippi, he was shot three times.
With the fight at Ole Miss, it took the federal government, including troops from Fort Hood, to force the hand of Mississippi to allow blacks the opportunity to go to a quality school of higher education.
Meredith called it a “war,” and while current military commanders — as well as veterans who went there — didn’t use that term, they did describe it in a similar way current troops deploy to trouble anywhere in the world.
That struck a chord with Meredith.
“It was the first time in my life that I ever heard, or even read, anybody talk about it in a way that was real,” said the 82-year-old Jackson, Miss., resident.
“It did not bring closure, but it brought what I had been hoping for all my life: That somebody recognized what it really was that I was talking about.”
And in essence, Meredith continued, the fight in the 1960s was about “whether or not Americans are going to enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship.”
Meredith said his efforts in the 1960s were not so much about integration, per se, but rather moving blacks up from “second-class citizens” to simply “citizens.”