James Meredith shakes up Shepherd students

October 02, 1997


Staff Writer, Charles Town

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Thirty-five years after he became the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi, James Meredith spoke to about 300 Shepherd College students about the problems of the Republican Party, black men and black mothers.

Meredith, a Republican, said there was a time in the South when nearly all blacks were Republicans because Democrats had "whites only" primaries and Republicans would put blacks into patronage positions as postmasters.

Meredith, 64, said he has campaigned hard for GOP candidates over the past 30 years, but he's worried about the party.


"Now that Republicans are in control of the Congress and may get the presidency back in 2000, I am greatly concerned about the future of America," said Meredith, an aide to U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.

"When the founding fathers established this nation in the beginning, the biggest problem facing them was how to deal with the black race issue. This question is still the biggest problem facing America today," Meredith said.

In 1961, Meredith sent an application to the University of Mississippi.

He earlier had written a letter and had been instructed to include a photo with his application. After the university received the photo, he received word that applications had been cut off the day before his was received, he said.

He took Ole Miss to court and 18 months later the Supreme Court ruled he had to be admitted.

When he tried to register at the school in 1962, he was accompanied by federal marshals, but police and state officials barred his entrance. Rioting erupted and two people were killed.

President John F. Kennedy sent in federal troops, who were stationed on the campus to protect Meredith.

"I didn't go to Ole Miss to be a student. I was a soldier. It was strictly a political act. So I wasn't involved emotionally in it in any way," Meredith said after his speech.

In 1966, Meredith led the Meredith March Against Fear from Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., to encourage blacks in the South to register to vote. On the second day of the march, he was shot by a sniper.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael and Floyd McKissick continued his march.

While students said they appreciated what Meredith had done for the civil rights movement, they said they strongly disagreed with parts of his speech.

In the wide-ranging speech, Meredith said:

- Nine out of 10 black males read at a third-grade level.

Meredith said later in response to a student's question that he got the number from a study he conducted at one high school in Cincinnati.

Meredith said he thought he was being generous in saying nine out of 10 black males read at the third-grade level. He said he believes the actual number is even lower.

"I think his statistics about the 90 percent of black males reading at a third-grade level are just wrong," said Alanna Watkins, 21, a senior at Shepherd.

- Black mothers love their sons, but they educate their daughters, leading to the mothers losing control of their sons after the age of 3.

- Affirmative action programs insult the intelligence of blacks.

"I think affirmative action is a dead issue, frankly. I've always thought affirmative action was always a direct insult to anyone with any intelligence," Meredith said.

He termed affirmative action "nothing more than a political machine for the liberal elite."

Watkins said she believes it is "naive" of Meredith to think affirmative action programs never helped him, pointing out that some would consider the government sending in troops so he could attend the University of Mississippi an affirmative action program.

- The liberal elite of the universities had prevented him from speaking on college campuses since 1989 when he joined Helms' staff.

"I think he's made a lot of achievements in his lifetime, a lot of which we should revere," said sophomore Emily Houck, 19. "Toward the end of his speech, he made some statements that offended some of the audience. I think it's because he's an old man. I don't think he intended to offend."

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