Ole Miss trailblazer, James Meredith to receive Harvard award

April 12, 2013 in Top Stories

From The Mississippi Link Newswire

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Dean Kathleen McCartney has announced that Civil Rights activist, author, and political adviser James Meredith will receive the Harvard Graduate School of Education Medal for Education Impact, the highest honor given by the school, and speak at the 2013 Convocation ceremony on May 29.

“Just over 50 years ago, Mr. Meredith walked through the doors of the University of Mississippi, becoming the first African American to enroll in the previously segregated school. In doing so, he forced America to look in the mirror and become a better nation. Fifty years later, he is still working to address inequality in America’s schools,” McCartney said. “At HGSE we know that education is a civil right. James Meredith endured beatings and bullets to fight for that right. His courage and determination cannot be overstated. Today, we all walk in his footsteps and through the doors he opened.”

James Meredith (Photo courtesy of Harvard University)

According to Meredith, the award will be the first he has accepted in 50 years.

“I’ve been all over the world, to every state except Alaska, and made many speeches, and I consider this the most important of my life,” Meredith said about his Convocation speech. “In my mind [Harvard] is the most important

institution dealing with education in the world and we have a lot of things in America, particularly Mississippi especially, that need to be done differently.”

Meredith was one of the key figures in the Civil Rights Movement and continues to work for equality today. In 1961, spurred to action by President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, Meredith sought to become the first African American to enroll at the University of Mississippi only to have his application rejected twice based upon his race. After a long legal battle which culminated in a U.S. Supreme Court decision in his favor, the University of Mississippi was forced to accept Meredith’s application for admission. His battle for equality would move from courtrooms to the University of Mississippi campus where he was twice physically denied in his attempts to register for classes by Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett.

Meredith’s efforts quickly became a flashpoint in the Civil Rights movement with the eyes of the world focused on Oxford, Mississippi.

As hundreds of segregationists headed to Oxford to join efforts to block Meredith’s registration, President Kennedy sent in the U.S. Marshall to secure the campus and announced that he would give a national address on the situation. While Kennedy spoke to the country, a riot broke out in Oxford. By the time the U.S. Army had restored order, 35 Marshalls had been shot and two people had been killed. Meredith successfully registered for classes the next day. In August, 1963 Meredith graduated the University of Mississippi with a degree in political science.

“Only a remarkable person with deep courage could accomplish what he did in forcing the racial integration of the University of Mississippi. He has been recognized by our university and many other organizations for his role in hastening social justice and opening doors in higher education, and his positive role in our university’s history cannot be overstated,” said Daniel W. Jones, chancellor of the University of Mississippi. “I am so pleased that the Harvard Graduate School of Education will honor my good friend, James Meredith, with the HGSE Medal for Education Impact. Mr. Meredith is so deserving of this significant recognition.” [Watch a video produced by the University of Mississippi on the legacy of James Meredith.]

Meredith continued to be a central figure in the Civil Rights movement. In 1966, he orchestrated the March Against Fear – a 220 mile walk from Memphis, Tenn. to Jackson, Miss., intended to encourage blacks to register and vote. During the march Meredith was wounded by a sniper’s bullet.  Fellow Civil Rights activists Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael continued the walk while he was hospitalized. After Meredith recovered, he rejoined the march and led it to its successful completion.

Meredith has continued to speak out on the central role education plays in helping to lift people out of poverty. His most recent book, A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America, reflects on Meredith’s personal life but also dares Americans to overhaul the public education system so that all people can overcome poverty.

“My interest and my focus is at the lower training of our children from birth through high school,” Meredith told The Mississippi Link. “That’s the problem. That’s the biggest problem in Mississippi, and I promised God I was going to spend all the rest of my time working on the training of our children from birth to the age of five, to prepare them for success through high school.”

Meredith resides in Jackson, Miss.