Talking to Mr. James Meredith is a right-brain experience. The conversation isn't linear, organized, disciplined. It jumps around to topics that the thin, intense grandfather is interested in at the very instant. As the 70-year-old Kosciusko native talks first about the legacy of slavery in Brazil (where he just visited); the need for people to "blend" in society; Ole Miss back in 1962 when he integrated the stubborn old institution; the oddity of growing older; and finally young people's need to work harder, you can easily see why his name ended up in lights. It's hard to imagine someone more unique, more creative, more daring, more willing to offend one or another status quo.
The man shot by a sniper during his "Walk Against Fear" from Memphis to Jackson in 1966 has used this city as his base, as he calls it, for his work and family life. "I came here to break the system of white supremacy," he says, sitting in his auto-rental business on Griffin Street, his name proudly displayed in front. Mr. Meredith, who is part Choctaw, says he was driven to this fight as far back as he can remember. "I had a divine responsibility to restore power and glory to my bloodline."
Mr. Meredith bugs some folks because he hasn't allowed a particular script to enslave him. Some think it's a bit crazy that the man who faced down the Klan and the White Citizens Council later worked on the staff of archconservative Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina. But Mr. Meredith believes that people can change, even if they don't always. He appeared in 2001 at Lemuria Books with Bill Simmons, now the proprietor of the Fairview Inn; who was a national leader of the Citizens Councils of America; he was the man standing defiantly next to Gov. Ross Barnett when Meredith integrated Ole Miss. That was then, this is now, Mr. Meredith is quick to remind.
Mr. Meredith—who served nine years in the Air Force, attended Jackson State for two and got a law degree from Columbia University after his Ole Miss stint—doesn't seem to give a flip what anyone thinks of him. In fact, he believes studying civil rights history can in fact victimize young African-Americans. "I don't spend my time teaching about the past," he says. "I want young people to take advantage of opportunities that exist here and now."
As he talks, I nod at Mr. Meredith's hard-work message, and I think to myself that he's a bit wrong, and maybe a little disingenuous, about the history part, but I don't tell him. I happen to believe every young, and older, person should know the complicated, and enigmatic hero sitting before me in a rag-tag desk chair. They need to know it's OK to think outside every box, to challenge political dogma of all sorts, and then to walk their talk … past shotguns and baseball bats, if necessary, right into the pages of history. Talk about creativity.