Meet The Press: James H. Meredith

Air Date: 06/19/1966
Meet the Press
Ray Scherer
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News Report
NBCUniversal Media, LLC.
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James H. Meredith, the first African American to enroll at the University of Mississippi, discusses the civil rights movement. He believes that blacks and whites should continue working together, but he believes that black people can only progress to the point that general society will accept and permit.

Meet The Press: James H. Meredith


Our guest today on MEET THE PRESS is James H. Meredith, who was recently shot in the back from ambush as he lead a march through Mississippi. His enrollment at the University of Mississippi in 1962 precipitated a national civil rights crisis; we will have the first questions now from Herbert Kaplow of NBC News.

MR. KAPLOW: Mr. Meredith, some civil rights leaders recently have expressed concern not only of the attitude of whites towards Negroes, but of Negroes towards whites. Are you concerned about that?

MR. MEREDITH: Yes. I don't know if I know exactly what you mean. I don’t know exactly what you mean.

MR. KAPLOW: It is a feeling that maybe Negroes are trying to weed whites out of the civil rights movement and that eventually if the Negro civil rights fight is won, there will be no common meeting ground because the two groups will have become so estranged.

MR. MEREDITH: No, I don't really think that is the issue. I think the question is that the old civil rights movement has now come into competition with what I would call the Negro movement. Now, my view is that on the civil rights movement, that is everybody's business, and everybody should always do their part and be a part of the planning and of all other aspects. But as far as the Negro movement is concerned, that is the Negro community itself, and the group itself doing things to make itself whole, as I say, this I think, should be left primarily to the Negroes, as it has been to all other ethnic groups, to the Jews, to the Italians, to the Irish, and so forth.

MR. KAPLOW: You have heard the term “Black Nationalism” come up in the last couple of weeks. Are you concerned about that being too exclusive?

MR. MEREDITH: Well, I don't know what this means, and personally I have been watching television, and I think you are talking about where they have this slant “Black Nationalism”-no, “Black Power” that is what it is. Well, now to me that is the same as the rally cry, saying, in Africa of '”Uhuru,'” in America of “freedom,” or singing “We shall overcome.” To me I just thought this was just another version of but the significance of Black Nationalism, I don't-if it has any significance, I don't see it yet.

MR. KAPLOW: May I ask you a related question. This business of non-violence--do you subscribe to the general concept of non-violence?

MR. MEREDITH: Well of course, you know I grew up in Mississippi, and I spent nine years of my life in the military, and this has been the great point of significance between myself and the mainstream of the movement. Now personally, I think that the non-violence is fine, but I don't think it can ever go far enough. I think this country has a particular character of its own, and I think that all other peoples, groups in this country have followed a certain pattern, and I think the Negro will have to follow this same pattern in obtaining his right to a place in the system:

MR. SPIVAK: Our guest today on MEET THE PRESS is James Meredith, who was shot and ambushed recently while marching through Mississippi. You’ve just met Herbert Kaplow of NBC News. The other reporters on our panel are Claude Sitton of the New York Times, Wallace Terry of Time Magazine, and Haynes Johnson of the Washington Evening Star. We’ll continue the questions now with Mr. Sitton.

MR. SITTON: Mr. Meredith, do you think whites are making a contribution by participating in the march in Mississippi?

MR. MEREDITH: Well, most definitely. If you will recall, the very first few blocks there were only four of us, and the other three were white. I think definitely that the whites have a place and that they are making a contribution.

MR. SITTON: Tell me, should whites who contribute their time and money to the civil rights movement also be given a voice in its leadership?

MR. MEREDITH: Very definitely in the civil rights movement. I think everyone has a place in the civil rights movement. The Negro movement is a different question, but you are talking about the Civil rights movement. Definitely so.

MR. SITTON: Would you say the march in Mississippi is a part of the Civil Rights movement?

MR. MEREDITH: Yes, broadly, I would say so. The main purpose of the march, of course, was to point up and to challenge this fear that is so much a part of the American system, so much a part of it until we all live it, and we all somehow are unconscious of it. This is the main purpose of course, and that certainly should be a matter of concern for this whole country.

MR. SITRON: Mr. Meredith, if whites and Negroes cannot work together in the Negro movement, the black movement and the Civil Rights movement, is it possible that we can have an integrated society finally? Do you think it can be achieved?

MR. MEREDITH: I thought I said they could work together and not only could, but should. I think there are two sides, as I point out in my book. There are two important sides to this racial question in this country. The one side is what the Negro has to do. The other side is what the general society has to do, which includes the whites and the government, and I think that the two are separate. I think that there was much that the Italians had to do--the Italian community, the Irish community, the Jewish-community. I think the Negro community has to do these things, and I think only the Negro community can do it. Such things as building pride in the community, in the family, and these types of things. I think only the Negro can do. This is the one side. On the other hand, because of our minority status here I think that the Negro can only ever go so far in this country try as the general society will accept and permit and that this is what the general society has to do—to determine that it will accept and that it must accept.

MR. SITTON: Many feel that one goal of integration is to get away from the idea of strong racial consciousness. You don't necessarily agree with that?

MR. MEREDITH: Well, unfortunately in western civilization, because of our history of slavery and so forth, we cannot get away from the racial issue. We would much like it, but I don't believe at this time that we absolutely…that we can forget about it. It is too much a part of us.

MR. TERRY: Mr. Meredith, you have been described as a "loner" so it came as no surprise that you began your march without the help of any organization. But what persuaded you to let Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael and others take it over during your convalescence?

MR. MEREDITH: Well, Mr. Terry, I think that the biggest misconception of what I hope for and stand for is the labeling of me as a "loner." I’m an individualist. What I believe, as far as the Negro in this country is concerned, is that in order for us to arrive at where we need to be, everyone, every important aspect of the society has to take part. No one can be left out. So, my idea is that there has to be something found that everyone can tie to, and this is what I look for.

MR. TERRY: Some of the civil rights leaders who are leading the march now have taken an interest in foreign policy today. I wonder if you agree with them when they say -that the United States should withdraw from Vietnam because the war effort is hurting programs for Negroes at home.

MR. MEREDITH: Of course, there is a division that has to be made. Now, if they are speaking as individuals, then I think they should say anything that their conscience tells them. Now, there have been efforts to tie the foreign policy with the civil rights and the Negro and racial question. I think that is a big mistake because I am a soldier. I spent most of my adult life in the military and there is just no connection between the fighting of a war under orders and of civil rights, in this case, a racial problem in the country.

MR. TERRY: I wonder if you agree with some of the other objectives of those who are leading the march now? Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young refused to sign Dr. Martin Luther King's manifesto, which criticized the Federal Administration, demanding that President Johnson send 600 voting examiners to the south, and also demanding that billions of dollars in aid to be spent to help the Negro in this country. Can you support this manifesto?

MR. MEREDITH: Well, I saw nothing wrong with this manifesto. It was brought to me, not for my approval, for signing, but just to let me know what was being done. I was told about the differing of opinion. It was acceptable to me as it was, and it would have been acceptable to me had it been acceptable to the one on the furthest to the right and the furthest to the left, because I saw it primarily as just sort of a philosophical jumping-off place. And what I am interested in is a solution to the problem.

MR. TERRY: Have you signed it.

MR. MEREDITH: I was not-it was not desired that I sign it.

MR. TERRY: Would you sign it today?

MR. MEREDITH: Personally, I don't even consider it significant enough even to be discussing. What is significant is the issue and that is that the government of the State of Mississippi and the other officials of Mississippi, as well as some of the federal officials, are not meeting their responsibility, they are not responsive to the Negro. They don't-they just ignore the Negro. That is the issue. Not whether Negroes are fighting with themselves. I could care less how much they fight with themselves. They have the privilege of differing, but I think the time now is to get back to what the real issue is.

MR. JOHNSON: Mr. Meredith, on this question of the Negro leadership and the differences between the Negro leaders in the civil rights movement, you have written and referred to several times what you call your “divine responsibility” and your “divine mission.” What do you mean by that?

MR. MEREDITH: Of course, I know you are referring to my book and, of course, I think every writer thinks it is unfortunate that everyone hasn't read it; I certainly think that. Now that is much misunderstood. Now what I mean-and my basic philosophy is laid down in the book-I-but what I mean by the "divine responsibility" is this: I think that everyone who becomes aware of a thing that is not right in the society-I think human civilization should always move forward, as ours is, especially in the technical and scientific fields. But even in the human relations areas and the social relations arena, it should always move forward, and those who see what is wrong with the society have a responsibility to correct it. I think I see many things that are wrong with our society.
Consequently, I have a responsibility that is beyond my control to carry it out, but I don't feel it just for me; I feel it for anyone who knows. I think they have a responsibility to see that the new and desired order is brought about.

MR. JOHNSON: Do you consider yourself any different from the other Negro leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Floyd McKissick, Roy Wilkins?

MR. MEREDITH: Certainly in how the thing should be done, there is a difference. As I mean as one of the-well, I have only met Dr. King in the hospital, We spent a number of hours together, and a good bit of this time was spent in discussing and trying to come at least to some temporary agreement on the differences.
There is no question. I think that in this country non-violence is a fine thing, so far as it goes, but I will never be able to buy a position that if a Klansman has got a party up and we know about it and he is going somewhere to kill a bunch of Negroes—I could never advise them to stand there and turn the other cheek. I mean this is not reality. It is certainly not reality in the south and in Mississippi.

MR. SPIVAK: Mr. Meredith, I would like to ask you a question: There are a good number of people who believe that your Mississippi march has been taken over by other leaders and used for their own purposes. How do you see your role in the march when you return to it?

MR. MEREDITH: I think that is very much a misconception. In the first place everybody has to satisfy his own conscience. Now, all of the men who came to see me were Negroes. As far as I am concerned, anything that affects one Negro affects another, and every one of these people had-an equal responsibility to remove fear and whatever other obstacle that was in our way. So consequently, no one could possibly have attempted to take anything from me because it was not mine; it was ours. I have really felt close to the people who have been down there. I know Mississippi is rough. It is rough for a small group, and it is certainly rough for a big group.

MR. SPIVAK: When you started this march, none of these leaders came along with you. Now are you going to join them? Are you just going to take a place in the march, or do you plan to go back and lead the march once again, as you did when you started?

MR. MEREDITH: That is not true. This is again to this "loner" bit. Now, I had thought about and planned for this effort to bring out this underlying fear for at least seven or eight years. Over the past two years I have written hundreds of letters to the governors of States, Senator Eastland, everybody, including most of the Negro preachers in that state. And what we were hoping for was a spontaneous thing. I knew that by the time we reached Jackson not only most all the Negroes in Mississippi but most all the Negroes in this country would be genuinely concerned and a part of that effort.

MR. KAPLOW: Are you satisfied with the way the march has been going?

MR. MEREDITH: My satisfaction, of 'course, depends on the people affected, particularly in this case the Negroes m Mississippi, and what is going to happen to them after the others have gone. Now, there has been some apprehension on the part of these people. I have been very much in touch with them, and. many people have wondered what is going to happen when this big force with the press leaves. Of course I am very concerned about that. Over the past week I have talked with almost all of the Negro leaders, and most of them tell me that they are very-at this point-very satisfied with the march, and that satisfies me. .

MR. KAPLOW: Do you think enough people have been registered?

MEREDITH: Well, with the shooting, of course this changed many things. I believe that had things gone on from where I started, I believe by the time we had reached Jackson we would have registered 200,000 Negroes. I understand now there are only about 2,500, but that’s a thing we will never know.

MR. SITTON: Mr. Meredith, you said you would never walk through Mississippi unarmed. Does that mean you will be armed when you rejoin the march next week?

MR. MEREDITH: I think a man should never be helpless.

MR. SITTON: Does this mean that you will be armed then?

MR. MEREDITH: Well, I think that certainly every step should be made. A person is responsible for himself, his life, his welfare and for that of his family. There are many: factors here. I have written to the Governor of the State of Mississippi, and the Governor has ignored me and all others. Now the Governor of Mississippi and the leaders of this country are not going to continue to ignore me and other Negroes. That Just is not going to continue. Now, Chief Marshal McShane called me in my hospital, and he said that he attempted to walk by my side when we walked back. Of course he didn’t--

MR. SITTON: Acting as Chief Marshal? .

MR. MEREDITH: That is Chief Marshal James McShane. This was him speaking, and of course whether or not he will go will depend on the Attorney General and the President, and I doubt that they will let him. But if he went, and there is someone there that I know is prepared and is capable of handling any situation, that is another matter. But I think that people have a responsibility to be prepared to look out for the welfare and safety of themselves and their families.

MR. TERRY: When you began your march, you said you were sick and tired of Negro men hiding behind their women and children in marches and demonstrations. Now in this march that is proceeding toward Jackson, there are children involved. What do you feel about that?

MR. MEREDITH: I feel there is even a greater responsibility for the men of the community and the men, around and concerned to make sure that these women and children are looked out for.

MR. TERRY: I see. Then you are changing your position. You feel their presence is all right?

MR. MEREDITH: This was one of the points of discussion between Dr. King and myself.

MR. JOHNSON: I don't want to belabor this point about being armed or not, but it seems to me that an awful lot of people in this country are very concerned about this, Mr. Meredith. When you went down there you said you chose to carry a Bible instead of a gun, and now if you go back, I am not clear from your answer to Mr. Sitton whether or not you do in fact intend to carry a weapon with you or whether you urge other Negroes around this country to be prepared to defend themselves?

MR. MEREDITH: Well, I think that the responsibility for the maintenance of peace and order is with the government. It starts with the local government; it goes to the state government: it goes to the United States Government. All of these people have refused to take this responsibility. Now, I think that we as citizens of a nation have to see that peace and order and the safety of people are looked out for, and when these people fail then the ones who are affected have responsibility, and I never will relinquish that responsibility.

MR. JOHNSON: Are you suggesting that you should then be prepared to take things into your own hands, the Negroes?

MR. MEREDITH: Certainly, if all of the other responsible agencies fail to do so, there is no choice.

MR. JOHNSON: And you feel that the responsible authority of the government has not upheld this—

MR. MEREDITH: They have indicated clearly that they will not accept the responsibility.

MR. SPIVAK: Mr. Meredith, you were quoted as saying that your march into Mississippi was the first of six steps you planned to take. Can you tell us something about the other steps you plan to take in this fight?

MR. MEREDITH: You will have to read my book, ''Three Years in Mississippi," Mr. Spivak, if you haven't already. I think it is all clear there, but I don't know if I could go into it here because it would take too long. .

MR. KAPLOW: Mr. Meredith, I would like to clear up just two points here: Are we right in understanding that as things stand now you are dissatisfied with the amount of protection you have been given and therefore, when you return, which we understand will be some time next week, you will probably go armed?

MR. MEREDITH: The Governor of the State of Mississippi, I saw him on television, said he was not going to protect the people. I wrote him. He didn't answer me, and it is clear the Federal Bureau of Investigation was as close as from you to I and watched this man shoot me. They did nothing. The state people were there; they did nothing. The local people were there; they did nothing. It is pretty clear what the situation is.

MR. SPIVAK: We have less than two minutes, gentlemen.

MR. SITTON: Mr. Meredith, some have said, Joseph Rauh being one, that the responsibility for your shooting rests squarely on the doorstep of the FBI. Do you agree?

MR. MEREDITH: Well, no, the FBI didn't invent the racial problem in this country. They came much later. This country, whether we like it or not, is based primarily on the theory of white supremacy not just Mississippi, this whole country.
Now, at some point a few years back there were people in this country who thought we had to change this. President Truman, I think, being one, and this process was started. I think officially we’ve gone a long way. But with the general public we still have a long way to go in changing this basic doctrine of white supremacy, which most Americans, black and white, still really believe in.

MR. TERRY: Mr. Meredith, as you wrote in your book ''Three Years in Mississippi," do you still believe that you can stop a mob by lifting your hand and that you cannot die because you have a divine responsibility?

MR. MEREDITH: You know I started to go toward this man when he started to shoot me, but somewhere I changed my mind. I don't know why I changed my mind. And of course, there is much more meaning to that statement than one would see offhand. Of course, I do believe that the perpetuators of responsibility for seeing that humanity is brought about better if they have a program, it does live on.

MR. JOHNSON: Do you believe that the march in Mississippi has brought about any meaningful change in that state as far as race relations go?

MR. MEREDITH: The people there tell me that it is setting a groundwork, and I think this groundwork can be used to bring about a change.

MR. SPIVAK: I think on that note we are going to have to end. Our time is up. I am sorry to interrupt. Thank you, Mr. Meredith, for being with us today on MEET THE PRESS.

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