The Head, Nicola Huggett

A few thoughts on... Civil Rights Anniversaries

Last weekend you will have heard the very sad news of the death of boxer and civil rights activist Mohammed Ali. There has been a great deal said of him over the last few days, but in civil rights terms (as well as his boxing career) he was certainly worthy of that. He had his own personal taste of the segregation and discrimination in the southern states of America, when, just after beating Poland's challenger to become the Olympic light-heavyweight champion in 1960, the young Cassius Clay as he was known then, was refused a table in a "white people's" burger restaurant in his home town of Louisville, Kentucky. He was so angry he later claimed to have thrown his Olympic medal into the Ohio river.

As well as remembering Ali, today, the 6th June, marks an important date in the history of democracy and civil rights in the United States, as it is the date on which a civil rights campaigner, James Meredith, was shot in 1966 as he carried out a solo 220-mile ‘March Against Fear’ from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi.

Meredith wanted to highlight continuing racism in the South and encourage voter registration after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Whilst the USA was, in theory, overcoming its discriminatory processes in encouraging African Americans to vote and attend desegregated schools and universities, it had not been very quick about it and there were still many areas of serious and violent discrimination in the Southern states even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in Washington.

During the march, Meredith was shot by a white gunman and suffered numerous wounds. Leaders of major civil rights groups, including Martin Luther King, vowed to complete the march in his name after he was taken to the hospital.

While Meredith was recovering, more people from across the country became involved as marchers. He re-joined the march and when Meredith and other leaders entered Jackson on June 26 1966, they were leading an estimated 15,000 marchers, in what was the largest civil rights march in Mississippi. During the course of it, more than 4,000 African Americans had registered to vote, and the march was a catalyst to continued community organising and additional registration. James Meredith is quite unusual in having survived his time as a leading civil rights campaigner, is still alive, now in his mid-80s. He is still fully involved in political issues, particularly in encouraging education for African America children, as he still lives in Jackson, Mississippi, one of the original heartland’s of segregation. He is most famous for making an application to study at the all-white University of Mississippi in 1961 which did not admit African American students. Despite the landmark federal court case of Brown vs Board of Education Topeka, Kansas in 1954, ordering all schools and colleges to desegregate, many individual states had disobeyed that central government ruling and still had not done so. He was twice denied admission as a mature student following an 8-year career in the Air Force. On May 31, 1961, Meredith, took the university to court and the case finally went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which supported the ruling of the Appeals court allowing him to attend.

Despite a full scale riot on his arrival, and the fact that the Kennedy administration had to send federal troops to protect him as he entered the university for the first time, Meredith's admission was regarded as a pivotal moment in the history of civil rights in the United States. However, it cannot have been a pleasurable or easy experience at all. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to be accompanied by army troops for the whole of his university course, every day, and he persisted despite being harassed and isolated by the other students. He finally graduated on August 18, 1963, with a degree in Political Science. However, his campaign to push the boundaries of civil rights continued and his march and consequent shooting on 6th June were testament to his determination and will power to do everything he could to further his cause.

He said he had achieved his main goal at the time by getting the federal government to enforce his rights as a citizen. In 2003, he publically said that he was far more proud that his son Joseph Meredith graduated as the top doctoral student at the university's graduate business school. It is good to think that there are anniversaries we can remember where pioneering campaigners for political change are still alive to see them, and there is no doubt that people like James Meredith laid down the foundations for the democratic and educational rights we can so easily take for granted today.

I shall finish with a quote from Muhammed Ali as we remember him and so many others who fought for a better life in so many different ways. “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”