Kosciusko native James Meredith, the first Black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, recently visited his hometown on his statewide tour. During his visit, he shared his final mission from God, his rich hometown history, his thoughts on race today, and how all these elements intertwine to make him who he is.
“Kosciusko is the most important place in the world to me,” he told The Star-Herald.
Meredith, 88, is traveling to all 82 counties throughout Mississippi to encourage community leaders to uplift the moral character of all — but specifically the youth — by teaching the Ten Commandments, good from bad, right from wrong, and the Golden Rule: to do unto others as you would have them do to you. (Matthew 7:12).
He said he promised God he would travel to each county during the month of October to speak with as many elders, religious leaders, elected officials, government employees, and other leaders as possible.
The civil rights icon would also like to organize a Bible Society reading group, find assistance in raising a building fund for the James Meredith Bible Society Museum and Mission Headquarters, and conduct a book signing in each county. Meredith has written 28 books in the 59 years since his time at Ole Miss.
Meredith’s first point on his Bible Society Mission reads: “My name is James Meredith. I am an apostle — sent not from men, nor by man, but from Jesus Christ and God to deliver God’s message for our time.”
Meredith said God told him to visit every county in the state and ask two questions: “Is the Mississippi church fulfilling its mission?” and “Are Mississippi Christians following the teachings of Jesus Christ?”
As Meredith outlined his vision for how future generations can prosper, he shared his vast knowledge of religion, specifically that of his home state.
“All over the world, the majority of Black churches have M.B. in their name. 99% of the people who go to these churches have no idea where it comes from or what it means,” he said. Referring to Missionary Baptist churches, Meredith explained, “It was the Southern Baptist mission to the Blacks, and basically, the Black religion is an incomplete religion.”
The incompleteness Meredith refers to is tied to slavery and errors in evangelicals’ mission to Christianize the Black population. Meredith said there were two things allowed to be taught, salvation and otherworldliness. But there were three things slave owners were forbidden to teach, anything political, social, or economic. And he thinks robbing the Black community of this information has had adverse consequences.
“That was the owner’s job and that may have worked well for the purpose, but it leaves a significant part of the population untrained in good and evil,” said Meredith. “They don’t know the difference between the two.”
Meredith said he has never heard someone speak in front of the church as if they knew that information, and he insists that all “reverend doctors” do know it.
“Most people don’t know the conversion of Blacks started 30 years before the Civil War. Every reverend doctor that I know knows this, but I’ve never heard one repeat it,” said Meredith, “but it’s time for hypocrisy to end.”
He knows that while the subjects he discusses are sensitive, they are also important. And he said God has been asking him for some time why he has been scared to tell the truth.
“Well, people don’t like to deal with the truth,” said Meredith, “so they’ll punish you for telling the truth.”
Meredith said he is unsure about now, but just a few years ago, everyone knew that the Black church was used as a racial mechanism of control. He also said there is a lie that has been told for too long.
“Not just in the South. It was the same in the big cities in Ohio and Michigan and California,” said Meredith. “The biggest lie ever told is that Blacks were free in the North and mistreated in the South.”
Meredith also spoke to misconceptions of race relations in Mississippi and the South in modern times while shedding light on his past experiences elsewhere in the United States. He said the lie still exists today that Mississippi is racist while other states remain innocent.
“It fits everybody,” he said. “I don’t know too many people that benefit from the lie that don’t like it.”
But the biggest shock to him over the past 10 years has been condescending attitudes toward Mississippi from other southern states like Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee.
“I’ve spoken in those places and discovered that they had the same attitude about Mississippi that is in New York and California. It just shocked me that Tennessee and Alabama thought they were so much more advanced over Mississippi,” he said. “It’s easier to lie. Most of the people in Memphis are from Mississippi, but most of them pretend they haven’t ever heard of Mississippi.”
He said that since the 20th century, Minnesota has been the most segregated place in America by every account and study. In fact, Meredith went to Minnesota on the day of Derek Chauvin’s sentencing for the death of George Floyd because he wanted to make a point.
“I wanted to make the point that during the worst period of lynchings in Mississippi — which was between 1818 and 1968 — the average lynchings were seven a year. In Minnesota over the last 20 years, police alone have killed more than 10 Blacks a year.”
He reiterated that this fact is overlooked and ignored, though he believes this truth is known by many lawyers. Still, he said they were not about to let him make that point.
“You know, George Floyd was no fluke. There were scores of George Floyds, and all the rest of them say, ‘We killed him because he was out of his lane. He was in a space coming into a white zone’,” said Meredith. “That used to be Mississippi, but that’s Minnesota now.”
He also recalled his 1950s Air Force days stationed in Kansas, Nebraska, and Indiana, where he said Blacks were horribly mistreated.
“That’s when I really started to learn what America was really like,” he said.
He said he had been all over the South, but when he got to Kansas, there were signs at the city limits of every town in the state that read, “No n*****s allowed after 6 p.m.”
“I had never seen one of those signs in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, or Florida,” he said.
Meredith pointed out that this was in 1952 prior to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case, which deemed state-sanctioned segregation of public schools unconstitutional.
“Whites all over America were tightening their grip,” he said.
After he became a staff sergeant, he was assigned to a secret base in Nebraska, which he said was worse than Kansas. In 1955, he made his next stop in Indiana where he received more degrading treatment. He said that anyone who has read much knows that Indiana had the largest Ku Klux Klan organization in the history of America.
“Two months after Emmett Till, they not only hung a Black in Marion, Indiana, 25 miles from the base where I was stationed…. They left the clothes so everybody could go look. And I went over and took me a look,” he said.
Meredith remembers being able to buy a hamburger anywhere in Indiana, but said if a Black person bought one, the meat would be raw and there would be a pound of salt on it.
He next went to Japan, and he said the same practices continued. Blacks could not go out of the front gate at the Air Force base; they still had to exit a different route.
“Everything I experienced in Mississippi, I experienced double in the Air Force during desegregation,” said Meredith. “I mean, this thing is deep.”
When comparing race relations between white and Black folks from the 1950s to now, Meredith said there has been “total change.”
“Ain’t nobody trying to stop me or anybody from going to Ole Miss. Ain’t nobody shooting at me on a wall. So, believe-you-me, that is different,” he said. “I mean, we’ve still got a lot of work to do. I think most of the work should be done to make people good.”
He believes Mississippi must take the lead nationally in bringing people together.
“What I really think is that Mississippi has got to take the lead, and if Mississippi doesn’t lead the way, America and the world are going to continue down the road of no return,” said Meredith. “I think Mississippians have thought about these issues longer and harder than anybody, and only Mississippi can come up with a workable solution.”
He said he would not dare to recommend what that solution may be, but he believes the way to God is through Jesus Christ and his teachings.
“As much as I’ve studied religion, I have found no weakness in that,” he said.
Meredith said that driving through Ackerman on his way to Kosciusko, he saw something worthy of noticing: a white woman with a Black child.
“And there were Blacks and whites sitting on a bench, and they didn’t even act like they noticed,” said Meredith.
His hometown roots
Son of Moses and Roxie Meredith, James Meredith was born in Kosciusko on June 25, 1933. Unbeknownst to some, his great-grandfather was J.A.P. Campbell, president pro tempore of the Provisional Congress of the Confederacy from 1861 to 1863.
“They wrote him out of history, but J.A.P. Campbell was the youngest lawyer ever granted a license, at age 17, in Kosciusko. And he was the youngest person to ever be Speaker of the House at age 29,” said Meredith. “As a matter of fact, he was the speaker when the Civil War started, and he was the only President Pro Temp of the Confederacy in history. He was a hardline segregationist; he wasn’t no hardline white supremacist.”
Meredith remembers his childhood in Attala County well.
During World War II, his father was the person who received ration stamps and distributed them throughout the Black community, which was significant to Meredith because he drove his father around everywhere once the elder came down with diabetes.
“From the age of seven to 17, I had to drive, and we only had a horse and a wagon. We went everywhere, and it took a while to go 15 miles, do business, and then come back,” he said. “So, I spent a lot of time listening to my daddy telling me everything he had ever heard. But the other thing was I listened to my daddy deal with both white and Black.”
Meredith credited the time spent with his father as being key in his formative years.
He said everyone talked to his father differently than they did others, and that had a tremendous impact on him as a young man.
He remembers writing a book published in 1995 entitled Yockanookany: History of Attala County, Mississippi. According to Meredith, the book contains people’s histories that they wanted to preserve, but the newspaper would not print it at the time.
Remembering back to when the Sanders family owned The Star-Herald, Meredith said, “the Sanders protected our interests as much as their own.”
Meredith also remembers former Star-Herald Publisher W.C. “Dub” Shoemaker’s efforts to assist the black community when it was not popular to do so.
“I can’t say he did the most, but he did a lot for me in Mississippi. And if there was anybody who didn’t like the system, it was him,” said Meredith. “He was a good man, but there were a lot of good men in Attala County — including my great-grandfather.”
Kosciusko’s own James Meredith — a man who single-handedly broke down racial barriers at Ole Miss, who invoked his rights as a U.S. citizen, who was shot by a sniper walking from Memphis to Jackson, who has stood against white supremacy his entire life — believes the world would be a better place if all people simply followed the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, then passed down that knowledge to future generations.
As Meredith continues making stops across the state completing his final mission, he hopes his message encourages people to make a change for the better.
“Good is good. Bad is bad. Right is right. Wrong is wrong. And the only way that anybody can know the difference is to be taught,” said Meredith. “It doesn't matter if they are 100 years old. If they have not been taught the difference, they are in as much need as a three-year-old.”