A REVIEW OF
James Meredith: Breaking the Barrier
Edited by Kathleen W. Wickham
Paperback, 154 pages
Collected essays celebrate 60th anniversary of James Meredith’s enrollment at University of Mississippi
By Lauren Rhoades
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
October 1 marks the 60th anniversary of James Meredith’s 1962 enrollment at the University of Mississippi as the school’s first African-American student. “James Meredith: Breaking Barriers”, a collection of essays edited by UM professor of journalism Kathleen Wickham, honors this historic milestone with accounts from eyewitnesses, historians, former UM students, journalists, and James Meredith himself.
These diverse perspectives offer a unique, well-rounded examination of segregated Mississippi’s fear-fueled political climate and the deadly riots in the days leading up to Meredith’s enrollment. Readers also gain insight into the tactical brilliance of one of the civil rights era’s most misunderstood leaders.
In his essay “The Warrior,” historian William Doyle writes that Medgar Evers, one of Meredith’s earliest and most important allies, called the twenty-six-year-old veteran “the hardest-headed son-of-a-gun I ever met.” A member of Meredith’s NAACP legal defense said that he “acted like he was an agent of God.” Meredith himself felt he carried a “Divine responsibility,” a conviction which sustained him through a year-and-a-half-long legal battle and ultimately won him the support of President Kennedy, the U.S. Justice Department, and the U.S. military.
In contrast to the tumultuous, fraught environment in which he operated, Meredith’s own 1966 account of his first night on the UM campus is surprisingly understated. “Some of the students in my dormitory banged on their doors or threw bottles in the hallways,” he reports, “but I slept pretty well.”
The most moving part of Meredith’s account is his encounter with a Black janitor on his way to register for classes. Almost imperceptibly, the janitor touched the new student with the handle of his broom as he walked past, catching his eye. Meredith writes: “I got the message. Every Negro on the campus was on my team and would be watching out for me at the University of Mississippi.”
One of the most memorable essays in the collection comes from Dorothy Gilliam, a veteran reporter and the first African-American woman to be hired by the Washington Post. At just twenty-four years old, she was assigned to cover the aftermath of the “Battle of Ole Miss” and the reactions of the Black community.
“I knew Mississippi was a land of Black death, but I went there anyway,” writes Gilliam. “Black journalists shared all the problems of white reporters…but in addition, we faced the actual circumstances of segregation.”
With no hotel that would house her, Gilliam stayed in the family quarters above Oxford’s Black mortuary. “Black funeral directors were the go-to people for information for Black reporters,” Gilliam writes. Her coverage of Meredith’s enrollment made the front page of the Washington Post with the line: “It was the crack in the thick wall of segregation that may someday get broken…”
Eye-witness accounts of the Ole Miss Riot by journalists Curtis Wilkie, then in his senior of college, and Sidna Brower Mitchell, the student editor of The Daily Mississippian, describe the violence and chaos that erupted on campus, resulting in destruction and the death of a French journalist. Wilkie recalls rocks and bottles hurtled at U.S. marshals by angry, white rioters and tear gas cannisters fired into the crowd.
“The first campus riot in 1960s America was underway,” Wilkie writes. “Unlike the dozens to come later in the decade, ours was a right-wing uprising.” Following the riots, Sidna Brower Mitchell’s anti-violence editorials earned her alienation and condemnation from her fellow white classmates, though nationally, she was praised and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
“James Meredith: Breaking the Barrier”is a cause for celebration, a reminder to reflect on the debt of gratitude we owe James Meredith and the individuals whose actions large and small advanced the fight for equality in America. We owe it to them to keep going.
On September 27 after a 4 p.m. panel discussion celebrating the 60th anniversary of James Meredith’s 1962 enrollment at the University of Mississippi, panelists Jesse Holland, Sidna Brower Mitchell, Curtis Wilkie, and Kathleen Wickham will sign “James Meredith: Breaking the Barrier” at UM’s Overby Center.
Lauren Rhoades is the director of grants at the Mississippi Arts Commission and a host of The Arts Hour on MPB Think Radio. Her writing has been published in literary journals including Southwest Review, Salvation South, and phoebe.