Protecting James Meredith
In January 1961, James Meredith, a student at the all-black Jackson State College, applied for admission to the University of Mississippi. His admission was promptly denied. Meredith took his grievance to the NAACP legal defense team, which filed a lawsuit on his behalf. After making its way through the lower courts, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case. On September 10, 1962, the Court handed down its decision affirming Meredith's right to attend the university.
Two days after Kennedy was sworn in as president, James Meredith, inspired by Kennedy's inaugural speech, decided that as his contribution to democracy he would apply for admission to the University of Mississippi. On February 7, 1961, James Meredith wrote the Justice Department requesting that it exert its influence in protecting his rights. He did not receive a response.
Negotiating James Meredith's Admission
Despite the Supreme Court ruling, Mississippi governor Ross Barnett was determined to block Meredith's admission. State legislators chimed in with a bill that prohibited the admission of a student to a state school if the applicant had been convicted of a crime. Clearly, the bill was aimed at Meredith, who had been convicted of false voter registration.
Kennedy hoped that the situation would end quickly and quietly. Barnett, however, wanted to maintain his popularity. Bobby Kennedy began negotiations with the governor on September 15. Bobby told the governor that the president intended to enforce the Supreme Court ruling. Although Barnett did not want the incident to devolve into violence, he was hardly cooperative. Not even threats of the loss of federal aid influenced him.
Meredith, accompanied by federal marshals, attempted to register at the university but was repeatedly prevented from doing so. The situation escalated. Segregationists from around the state flocked to the campus, and Barnett feared violence. On September 29, President Kennedy spoke to the governor directly. They agreed on a plan to sneak Meredith onto the campus, but Barnett reneged. Kennedy acted. He federalized the Mississippi National Guard and ordered U.S. Army troops to Memphis.
“I am a graduate of the University of Mississippi. For this I am proud of my country — the United States of America. The question always arises — was it worth the cost? … I believe that I echo the feeling of most Americans when I say that ‘no price is too high to pay for freedom of person, equality of opportunity, and human dignity.’”
— James Meredith, in a letter to Robert Kennedy, September 1963
The next day, Bobby Kennedy informed Barnett that the president would address the nation and announce that his decision to mobilize the Mississippi National Guard rested partially on Barnett's failure to keep his word. Barnett protested and assured Bobby that he would cooperate as long as the president didn't mention their agreement. It seemed everyone would get their way: Meredith would be on campus and Barnett could save face with his constituents by protesting he had nothing to do with it. That night Kennedy told the nation that Meredith was safely on the campus.
“Americans are free, in short, to disagree with the law but not to disobey it…. If this country should ever reach the point where any man or group of men by force or threat of force could defy the commands of our court and our Constitution, then no law would stand free from doubt, no judge would be sure of his writ, and no citizen would be safe from his neighbors.”
Unbeknownst to Kennedy, Barnett had relieved the state highway patrol of their duty to protect Meredith. Only 500 marshals remained against a mob of 2,000 people surrounding the campus. The mob attacked the marshals with bricks, guns, and bottles. By the end of the night, 160 marshals had been injured. Two men — one a French journalist — were killed. To quiet the situation, Kennedy was forced to send in the federalized National Guard and order the army to move in from Memphis. The military presence finally brought the situation under control before dawn on October 1. That morning, Meredith finally registered.
Unfortunately for Kennedy, the situation had ended neither quickly nor quietly, and it was more bitter than sweet for civil rights activists. The Kennedy administration had acted to uphold James Meredith's rights, but Kennedy still had not spoken out against the immorality of segregation. Kennedy himself was soon consumed with a greater threat to national security — Soviet weapons in Cuba.