James Meredith's integration of the University of Mississippi's Law School in 1962 produced some one of American history's most memorable images. The dapper, clean- cut Meredith being turned around several times at the registrar's office, the then-governor Ross Barnett rallying local white supremacists and challenging President John Kennedy's call for integration, Meredith's class and study sessions, and eventually, Meredith being shot during a peace walk, all played out in the pages of Life, Look, Ebony, and Time.
In his new book, "A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America," writes that chose Ole Miss as a target for integration because in 1960, it "was the holiest temple of white supremacy in America, next to the U.S. Capitol and the White House, both of which were under the control of segregationists and their collaborators. I reasoned that if I could enter the University of Mississippi as its first known Black student, I would fracture the system of state-enforced white supremacy in Mississippi. It would drive a stake into the heart of the beast."
Most counted James Meredith's successful matriculation and challenge to social and scientific racism, a success. But what becomes a civil rights icon – still living in the South – after the initial battle transitions? For Judy Alsobrooks-Meredith, his wife, life with the 79-year-old Meredith, continues to incorporate battles against injustice, along with a definitive sense of urgency.
She recalls living in Gary, Indiana during the time he was attempting to enroll as a student at The University of Mississippi, having watched with her parents the Ole Miss saga unfold on television starting with the long court battle prior to his admission into the university.
"I remember my church praying for him and his family's safety. So, I was very much aware of his efforts, those of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X."
The couple met years later through mutual friends and after an intense 3-month courtship, married. In addition to sharing similar convictions, both hoped to help those suffering a "level of despair that resulted from racism especially in the Deep South.'
There has been some progress made in the 50 years since he integrated Ole Miss. Enrollment at the institution nearly 17 percent, and its student body has elected both a handful of African American student body presidents, and its first-ever Black Homecoming Queen, Courtney Pearson in 2012.
Today, in true James Meredith fashion, he declines participation in Ole Miss celebrations and commemorations of his integrating the campus, asking reporters "Did you find anything 50 years ago that I should be celebrating?" His focus instead, said Alsobrooks-Meredith, is clearly on Black youth.
"James feels institutions such as Ole Miss, along with racist whites, are no longer the pressing problem, and that we, as Christian people, must now take responsibility for ourselves. His mission now is to convince Mississippi and America that we have failed our children in their upbringing; that if the educational system is not fixed, we as a people and a nation will see far worse times than ever," Alsobrooks-Meredith said. "My greatest concern for him is his extreme worry about the state of affairs for Blacks today – it is much more important than his integration of Ole Miss in 1962 or his March against Fear in 1966," Alsobrooks-Meredith said.
While he remains steadfast and conscious of the racial and social injustices that continue to plague America, Meredith believes those injustices have permeated other areas of life for Blacks in Mississippi and America since the Civil Rights Era.
Alsobrooks-Meredith points to the ongoing battle between Maryland's four historically Black colleges and universities and the state, reminiscent of the Ayers Desegregation Case in Mississippi, where students are demanding parity in funding between white and black state funded institutions.
"Certainly, this country's issue of race and how it is handled continues to evolve and will do so through time. As one case or issue is, in part, settled, there are others to rear their proverbial ugly head. Social equity has not been accomplished and there will be no absolute and complete resolution in our time, if ever," Alsobrooks-Meredith said.
Understanding how unchecked violence often courts social movements, one wonders if the battles would not be better waged by younger, stronger men. The question is almost laughable to Alsobrooks-Meredith.
"I actually have not had any concerns about James' safety. I'm sure it's because he absolutely has no fear. I've learned so much from James, and come to realize that those few people who risk their lives in that manner were indeed chosen by God to do His will. He does not feel he is a hero; nor does he understand why others say that he is," she said.