What kind of fortitude would it take to breach the walls of Ole Miss, a bastion of white supremacy in the heart of the South? Who would dare confront the threats of lynching, threats to family members, and the visceral hatred of thousands of people? James Meredith was the man who did this back in 1962, and in his memoir, A Mission from God, he tells us the story.
The book is a gripping read. We learn about the character of this man, and the upbringing that prepared him for what he took on as a mission from God. We hear of his father, Cap Meredith, a proud independent farmer, whose land James Meredith bought and still relies on for his living. Cap Meredith founded and built the first school for blacks before James was born, mortgaging land to raise the funds. Meredith writes:
My father was the greatest man I have ever known, and ever since I was a little boy he had told me it was my divine responsibility to save the black race; to unify the black, white, and Native American peoples, and to lead our nation to the position of power and glory that is rightfully ours, under the Constitution of the United States and the principles of the Holy Bible. I took this responsibility very seriously.
But Meredith never saw himself as some sort of messiah leading the masses.
He describes himself as a bit of a loner, idiosyncratic - not always easy to get along with or predict. He says he is a poor public speaker, and he often tells the audience things they do not want to hear.
When Martin Luther King, Jr, came to Meredith's town in 1960, nobody had the nerve to pick him up at the airport. Meredith got word of the stranded leader and went to fetch him in his VW bug. That evening, when King opens the floor to questions after his speech, Meredith challenged him on his non-violent stance, saying "Are you really serious about that?" The crowd in attendance tossed him out of the chapel.
Meredith makes it clear that he brooks no compromises when it comes to his rights. He says:
Meaningful freedom is rarely gained through the magnanimous benevolence of the predominant powers, but must be won on the field.
Having spent nine years in the US Air Force, he believes that nothing less than the full might of the US military will be required to force Southern institutions to obey the new desegregation laws of the land, and he places himself at the point of the spear in this assault.
My mission was not to "integrate" the university, which I saw as a minor and relatively timid objective. My mission was to physically and psychologically shatter the system of white supremacy in Mississippi and eventually all of America, with the awesome physical force of the United States military machine.
It is a vivid tale, told by a unique and powerful man.
For his conclusion, Meredith brings us to the concerns he has now, as a man in his eighth decade of life. He highlights the ravages of poverty, the breakdown of the family, dependence on welfare, too much television, and the unacceptable quality of our education system.
He decries what he calls "the Myth of Innocence." He explains that this is "the national delusion that white supremacy is no longer a powerful and destructive force in the American soul."
He goes on to say,
The Myth of Innocence is the vast national denial of responsibility for the horrific conditions of poverty and ignorance that millions of Americans live in today as a direct result of the legacy of centuries of slavery, segregation, and persistent, systemic, institutionalized white supremacy and racial discrimination, the entrenched results and shock waves of which linger to this day.
In closing, Meredith offers this "Challenge For America":
I challenge every American citizen to commit right now to help children in the public schools in their community, especially those schools with disadvantaged students.
I am convinced in my heart and soul that those twenty-five words, if acted upon by you and me and our fellow citizens, will create a revolution of love in our country that will transform our nation, uplift our children, and help America lead the world.
Meredith closes by initiating a dialogue featuring ideas about education of many people from across the nation and across the ideological spectrum. He has launched a Facebook page to foster discussion, and I encourage readers to join and share your thoughts there.
Since the book was written, Meredith has become even more outspoken. The press release announcing the book contains these fiery words:
"There is no real difference between the two candidates and parties when it comes to the most critical domestic issue of our age, public education," Meredith says. "Both Obama and Romney are in favor of multi-billion-dollar boondoggles and money-grabs that have little or no evidence of widespread benefit to K-through-8 children or the community at large, like over-reliance on high-stakes standardised testing; over-reliance on charter schools and cyber-charters; and the funding and installation of staggering amounts of unproven computer products in schools."
According to Meredith, "Education is much too important to be left to politicians. They have failed. They came up with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, both of which are largely failures. It is time for parents, families and teachers to take back control, and to step up to their responsibilities to take charge of education."
His solution? "Storm the schools," says Meredith, echoing the challenge he issues in his book A MISSION FROM GOD, which has been compared by one reviewer to a work by Dostoyevsky and hailed by Publishers Weekly as "lively and compelling." He says, "I call on every American citizen to commit right now to help children in the public schools in their community, especially those schools with disadvantaged students." He also suggests that citizens flood the schools with offers to volunteer to read to young children, and flood every school board and political meeting to demand that politicians and bureaucrats justify, with concrete evidence, every proposal made and every dollar being spent on public education, line by line.
While Meredith does not endorse either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, and does not endorse most individual education policy proposals, he is announcing a 4-point Manifesto to Rescue American Education, that calls for America to:
• Suspend billions of dollars of public spending on unproven high-stakes standardized testing and unproven computer products in schools, and redirect those and other necessary funds to;
• Support sharply boosting teacher quality, qualifications and pay, especially in the poorest neighborhoods,
• Expand early childhood education and community schools, especially in the poorest neighborhoods, and,
• Strengthen the back-to-basics fundamentals of K-8 education, including play-based learning for youngest students; add or restore history, civics, the arts, music and physical education to the core subjects of math, science and English; and provide proper nutrition, medical and social support services for poor children through the schools.
The outrageous, unjust public shaming and scapegoating of teachers by politicians and self-appointed pundits must end, our problems are mostly not their fault," says Meredith. "Teachers should be respected, revered, compensated, empowered, loved and supported to give our children the education they desperately need. And that will only happen when we, as a people, take back control of our schools.
What do you think of James Meredith's story, and call to action?
Dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody