The Commercial Appeal

Meredith brings new mission to Hernando

Fighting for education reform

- By Henry Bailey Jr.

James Meredith, a civil rights icon whose struggle to single-handedly desegregat­e the University of Mississipp­i in 1962 touched off an epic confrontat­ion and ultimate victory, is on another “mission” — to boost debate on public education.

And it’s taking him back to another flashpoint of the era: Hernando, where he was shot in 1966.

“Until we start teaching our children right from wrong, my God tells me he ain’t gonna be happy,” said Meredith, 80, a feisty, plain-speaking son of Mississipp­i and still a maverick who says the Bible and Ten Commandmen­ts have a place in the public schoolroom.

“The problem in this state isn’t higher education, it’s at the lower level. And I promised God if I kept living, I’d try to do for 1- to 5-year-olds what I tried to do for those with the M.A.s and Ph.Ds. I promised God I’d cover all 82 counties to talk to leaders about how we can improve the way we raise and train up our children, and that includes Hernando, for reasons I know you know a little about.”

The Kosciusko native, now a Jackson resident, will be at the Hernando Public Library at noon on July 17, said David Brown of the First Library system staff. Meredith will speak of his task for schools and sign copies of his latest book, “A Mission from God: A Memoir and a Challenge for America,” written with William Doyle. Meredith says he wants to spark debate on education options, especially in the black community, and adoption of what he calls “the best evidence-based practices.”

Meredith, in a message addressed to all Mississipp­i libraries, said he needed their help to get the conversati­on started — and the Hernando-based First Regional Library system was one of the first to step up to meet his request. Herna ndo holds a deep meaning.

In June 1966, while leading his voting-rights March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson, Meredith was shot as he departed Hernando — but he recovered in time to rejoin marchers before they reached the Mississipp­i capital. An unemployed hardware clerk from Memphis, Aubrey James Norvell, pleaded guilty to the shooting.

“I’ve been to Hernando since, but not ‘officially’ as in this case,” said Meredith by phone this week. “When I arrived that first time, every important black person was there to greet me. And that’s what I’d like to see this time.”

What he says he wants all to realize is that “the real problem in Mississipp­i schools stems from a breakdown of moral standards. That’s what it really is. Everything else people talk about it just nonsense.”

Youths who haven’t been taught right from wrong, good from bad, aren’t in learning mode, Meredith says. “And young people are not the problem, but the old people who know better and aren’t teaching it. The old folks have failed our young people.”

He said when he graduated from high school 60 years ago, “any black child who graduated in Mississipp­i was qualified to go to a college; now, it’s like one in 10.”

But there’s hope: “Mississipp­i is the most religious state in the Union, and the black community is the most religious in Mississipp­i. We can find the solutions here.”

Heather Lawson, Hernando branch chief librarian, said she’s excited at Meredith’s visit to the downtown library at 370 W. Commerce St. on the northwest corner of the square. She said the timing of the developmen­t was James Meredith uncanny.

“When I found out that James Meredith was interested in coming to the various Mississipp­i libraries, I was thrilled because I had just stayed up the night before finishing the book, ‘James Meredith and the Ole Miss Riot: A Soldier’s Story,’” said Lawson.

It’s the memoir of a young Army second lieutenant from Minnesota who became officer-incharge of Meredith’s security detail in Oxford “at a time when he faced very real threats to his life,” said Lawson.

She added: “I told James Meredith that I had stayed up reading that book, and then I got the informatio­n about his willingnes­s to come and was just amazed at the coincidenc­e.”

Meredith, a nine-year Air Force veteran was rebuffed by Ole Miss in 1961, but he was registered amid tumult, Kennedy White House interventi­on, troops and riots the following year. He stayed a difficult course, graduating from Ole Miss with a political science degree in August 1963 and earning a law degree from Columbia University in 1968.

Meredith’s image is now that of rights pioneer. There’s a statue of him on the Ole Miss campus, and in 2002 his son Joseph received a business doctorate with honors from the university. In May, Meredith was awarded the Harvard University Graduate School of Education’s highest honor, the Medal for Educationa­l Impact.

Meredith also is something of a maverick. He raised liberal eyebrows by serving as a domestic adviser on the staff of conservati­ve U. S. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, and he opposed making the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday.

He’s no less outspoken now. He says he considers most “faith-based” efforts, obtaining federal money for community services “nothing but a money scheme.”

For more informatio­n on the Meredith event, call 662-429-4439.

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