On Oct. 1, 1962, a 29-year-old Black student and activist named James Meredith, flanked by federal marshals, stepped onto the campus of the University of Mississippi. He walked a gauntlet of racial slurs and taunts hurled by angry crowds, and became the first Black person to register for classes at the school, striking a blow against racial segregation.
But Meredith’s path toward breaking that color barrier started more than a decade earlier — when he first put on Air Force blues.
Meredith was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, in 1933, one of 10 children. He joined the Air Force in 1951 right out of high school and attended basic training at the now-shuttered Sampson Air Force Base in New York.
In his 2012 memoir, “A Mission from God,” Meredith wrote that he joined the Air Force because it had a reputation for treating Black troops as full American citizens. But the Air Force was also where his resolve to fight for equality truly took form.
Meredith wrote that his nine years in the Air Force were valuable ones, during which he first attended college, met his wife and saw different parts of the country. He spent his last three years in uniform, from 1957 to 1960, at Tachikawa Air Base near Tokyo, Japan, which he said changed his life. The base was “where I became a man,” he said.
During his Air Force years, especially while in Japan, Meredith said he “began to first lay the plans for an assault on white supremacy in Mississippi.”
“It was in Japan that I got to fully realize that white supremacy and the inferior position of blacks in America was a man-made construct, not a natural construct,” Meredith wrote. “I never felt inferior as a human being in Japan. … It was an entirely different universe, a nonwhite, thousand-year-old civilization where I was treated with respect and equality.”
But Black GIs “dreaded” returning home, Meredith wrote, where they would face segregation and humiliation on a regular basis.
“I had been in the military for the purpose of defending the freedom and democracy of my nation, preserving something that I knew I didn’t enjoy and my kind didn’t enjoy,” Meredith wrote.
One day while on a walk in the Japanese countryside, he encountered a young boy who was amazed Meredith was from the South, he wrote. "He had heard [it] was a terrible place for black people.”
“I in turn was shocked by his awareness of the distorted racial equilibrium in the United States, and stunned that a little Japanese boy could be so familiar with the stories of the Little Rock Nine and Emmitt Till,” Meredith wrote. “I felt ashamed by it, by the stain and disgrace white supremacy cast on my country and on me personally, and almost in that moment I resolved to return to Mississippi to change things for the better.”
“I knew then that I had to leave the Air Force, come back to Mississippi, and go to war.”
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After leaving the Air Force in 1960, Meredith did go back to Mississippi. He began studying political science and history at an all-Black school, Jackson State College. But Meredith wanted to transfer to Ole Miss.
In his memoir, Meredith said he chose Ole Miss because he knew that if he successfully enrolled there, it would fracture the system of segregation in Mississippi and “drive a stake through the heart of the beast.”
If, that is, he “managed to not get killed or chased off.” But, he said, under the conditions Black people had to endure in Mississippi, he was already “a dead man.”
But they weren’t going to let him in.
In 1961, Meredith enlisted the help of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund and filed a lawsuit against Ole Miss, alleging racial discrimination. The case quickly made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Meredith’s favor in September 1962.
But his fight was not yet won. Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett vowed to defy the Supreme Court decision, provoking a constitutional crisis between the state and federal governments. When Meredith arrived at the school’s Oxford, Mississippi, campus under the protection U.S. marshals, a mob of more than 2,000 students and others blocked their path.
A riot ensued that killed two people and injured many more.
President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, ordered federal troops to stop the riots and ensure Meredith’s safety, and ordered the governor to allow Meredith to enroll.
The federal forces, 30,000 strong, included the National Guard and active-duty troops, including 150 Army military police from Fort Hood, Texas. They escorted Meredith to class, searched vehicles, and provided other security measures.
He graduated a year later, alongside his white classmates, and received a bachelor of arts in political science. He continued fighting for civil rights, at great personal risk. In June 1966, he began a solitary walk from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to highlight racism and voter suppression in the South. But soon after he began his walk, he was shot and wounded by a white gunman. Major civil rights organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference rallied and continued the march in Meredith’s place.
In 2016, Meredith traveled to Fort Hood for a Black History Month event at which his contributions to the civil rights movement were honored, according to an Army release. During that ceremony, Meredith for the first time met three soldiers who were deployed from Fort Hood as part of Operation Ole Miss and helped ensure his safety.
The three soldiers, then Cpl. Robert Taylor, Spc. George Lewis and Pfc. Gary Hackbarth, were part of Fort Hood’s 720th Military Police Battalion, 4th Army. At the ceremony, they reflected on the historic events of 1962 and expressed their gratitude for being able to finally meet Meredith. Taylor, for example, pulled security at the edge of campus and never saw Meredith at the time.
“I’m so happy I lived to see it,” Meredith said of meeting the soldiers who helped protect him.
In the release, Meredith said he knew that before he could attend the school he wanted, “the system would have to be broken.”
“What I did at Ole Miss had nothing to do with going to classes,” Meredith said at Fort Hood. “My objective was to destroy the system of white supremacy.”
But he had powerful allies on his side, he said.
“I knew the only way to beat Mississippi was with the United States military,” said Meredith. “I had not just the United States Army fighting my war against Mississippi, but President Kennedy sent in the best of the United States Army.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.