San Diego Rosalie Martin knows the vicissitudes of raising black boys, having seen two sons through college and graduate school and into corporate careers and now with a grandson in her care. So when her old friend James Meredith, the man who integrated the University of Mississippi at Oxford in 1962, told Martin about his plans for a school tailored specifically for black boys and men, the Golden Triangle financial seminar coordinator signed on. That is how San Diego came to be the first city outside Meredith's home state of Mississippi to host his newest educational project, the Black Boys' and Men's Library School. It's due to open in February.
Despite the segregationist overtones of the school's name, Meredith says no one will be excluded. All races -- and women as well as men -- are welcome to participate, but only black males can be official enrollees. Meredith made that distinction deliberately, he explained last week from his home in Jackson, Mississippi.
"The average black male falls behind by the time he's nine years old; therefore, he's not able to participate in a full manner. The average black man in America, regardless of age, reads below the third-grade level. That's basically illiterate, that's not functional," Meredith said.
Meredith determined that the groups who have built successful lives out of adverse beginnings had one common experience: extensive exposure to public libraries. "It is part of the melting pot ideology. For everyone, all the new Americans who came from Europe between 1870 and 1920, it was the library that acculturated them into the American system. The black male is the only group in America that doesn't use the library."
Acting on that insight, two years ago, Meredith set off on a "black man's march to the library, 225 miles from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi," he recalled. At each town he came to, Meredith was joined by local residents for a visit to the library. "That basically was to introduce the black male to the library, to let him know he would have to go there, that the library is the place of knowledge."
That same year, 1995, Rosalie Martin, who first met Meredith in 1987, invited Meredith to San Diego for a speaking and book tour, making it the first city outside Mississippi to give an outlet to his library club idea. Meredith's books were stocked at campus bookstores, including the one at UCSD, and he was issued more invitations to speak than he had time to honor.
Martin is a member of the Ruth Gleaners, a women's organization of the Linda Vista Second Baptist Church. The Gleaners, a group of 24 named after the Biblical character Ruth, who gleaned the fields for overlooked food, formed the core of the effort to spread Meredith's ideas. They then enlisted Linda Vista's sizable congregation, Martin said, which runs to over 500 people.
"Everybody had grandkids, or if they didn't, they knew somebody in the church," she recalled. "When people want young kids to play ball, they take them to the baseball field or they go out and throw the football. What James was saying was the fathers or big brothers or neighbors should take the young males to the library. You don't have to tell them what to read, but if you take them once a week, they'll find something eventually."
Now Meredith is launching the next step, library schools, with classes on weekends and during after-school hours. They will operate under the auspices of his newly formed Meredith Institute, a nonprofit, tax-exempt charitable foundation. To date, Meredith has funded the operation out of his own pocket. Now he is asking for donations to establish a scholarship fund.
After achieving fame for integrating the University of Mississippi ("Ole Miss") in 1962 under the guardianship of federal troops dispatched by President John F. Kennedy, Meredith continued to work in the Civil Rights movement. In 1966, he was shot in the back during a Civil Rights march, an event that was photographed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning wire-service photo. Meredith recovered from his wounds but withdrew from the mainstream Civil Rights movement. Over the years, he earned a reputation as a somewhat eccentric outsider, prone to making unpredictable -- some said irrational -- pronouncements, often with a conservative bent. At one point Meredith aligned himself with conservative North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms -- to gain access to the Library of Congress, Meredith said -- and onetime Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke -- to challenge the establishment, Meredith explained at the time.
Now, however, Meredith says he hopes to avoid controversy. He declined to comment on questions such as vouchers, bilingual education, home schooling, and the recent flap over ebonics, the Oakland public schools' proposed black English curriculum.
"I don't generally have any fight with our public education system. I wouldn't want it to come under attack," he said. "To me it was never meant to do anything more than produce a qualified workforce for the agricultural and industrial needs of the nation."
Nevertheless, Meredith has rejected the standard public school model. Instead, the 64-year-old self-employed lecturer, author, farmer, publisher, and financial consultant turned to his experiences more than 50 years ago as a student in a segregated, one-room schoolhouse in the Mississippi hills.
"The present system is a group-teaching system," Meredith explained. "Everybody starts off together in kindergarten and goes through together. Anybody falling behind at any point doesn't benefit."
In his childhood school, "the teacher had eight grades in one room, where she would teach a little from each grade. Then the students would teach the other kids what they had learned. When they closed that one-room schoolhouse [and sent Meredith to a regular public school], they wanted to put me in the fourth grade, though I was only seven."
Meredith hopes to replicate that experience. "Basically what the concept is is to make every home a one-room schoolhouse, where anybody in the house that can perform above the third-grade level can teach the entire course of material."