James Meredith was the first Black student at the University of Mississippi. His entrance into the school caused so much trouble that President John F. Kennedy had to send the U.S. Army to escort Meredith to class.
However, after a long struggle, James Meredith managed to earn his degree and, like many other brave African-Americans, went on to play a role in the fight against segregation in the United States.
James Meredith was born on June 25, 1933, in Kosciusko, Mississippi. He grew up on the family farm with his nine brothers and sisters.
After graduating from Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, Florida, the young man enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where he served from 1951 to 1960. When he finally returned to his home state in 1960, Meredith was determined to pursue higher education.
He enrolled at Jackson State University, a historically black college, before setting his sights on the University of Mississippi, which, until then, had been reserved for white students.
In Mississippi, one of the most segregated states in the country at the time, there was no way a Black person would be allowed into a “white school” so easily. So, when Meredith applied to the University of Mississippi in January 1961, he was immediately rejected.
Because the rejection violated the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that public schools in the U.S. could not be segregated, Meredith, with the help of the NAACP, took his case to court. In September 1962, the Supreme Court upheld his eligibility to attend the University of Mississippi.
But when he went to the university on September 20, 1962, he was denied admission. It seemed that Mississippi’s governor at the time, Ross Barnett, would do anything to fight Meredith’s admission.
On September 29, riots broke out on the college campus. White segregationists came from all over the country to block the 28-year-old’s admission.
President Kennedy asked the military police to intervene. Hundreds of men were deployed. On the first night, two people were killed: a French journalist and a 23-year-old.
In all, the riots lasted three days. It took a phone call from President Kennedy himself for Governor Barnett to finally enforce the law.
On August 18, 1963, James Howard Meredith earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Mississippi.
Black History Month
Black History Month was created in the United States to highlight the contributions of people of African descent to history and society.
In September 1915, half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, Harvard-educated historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH).
They decided to sponsor a National Negro History Week in 1926 and chose the second week of February, to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln—the U.S. president who ratified the Thirteenth Amendment—and Frederick Douglass, a former slave.
This event prompted universities and communities across the country to organize local celebrations, create history clubs, and host conferences.
Personalities often highlighted during Black History Month include:
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who fought for Black equality and civil rights until his assassination in 1968.
- Thurgood Marshall, who, in 1967, became the first African-American justice appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
- Rosa Parks, who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man.
- Angela Davis, famous activist and advocate.
- Barack Obama, the first Black president in the United States, elected in 2008.
By Andreina Ibarra.
Read also: Resources for your Spanish Classroom: The History Behind Black History Month