James Meredith — a different kind of maverick
Many strange paths end in San Diego. But none, perhaps, as twisted as the path that brought James Meredith to the comfortable Mission Hills address he now calls home.
You don't have to be a civil right historian to recognize Meredith, who in 1962 became the first black man to enroll at the University of Mississippi. The grainy black-and-white newsreel image, now part of our national mind's eye, still stings: four federal marshals are escorting Meredith to the first day of classes at Old Miss. Meredith, wearing a coat and tie, is jeered by hundreds of white students. Riots leave 2 dead and 100 injured. But for the first time, segregation in Mississippi takes a step backward.
Four years later, Meredith was shot walking down rural Mississippi Highway 51 during the March Against Fear. Bullet fragments remain inside him today. Meredith was never an orator, as was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; nor was he an organizer, like the Reverend Ralph Abernathy. But he was willing to die for what he believed.
After the shooting, King and other civil rights leaders became increasingly uncomfortable with Meredith. They said his opinions were "unpredictable." Meredith said he was independent. In the '70s, Meredith moved to Harlem and made an unsuccessful attempt at running for congress. He returned to Mississippi to start a tree farm, saying racial tension was too high in Northern cities. He made several trips to Africa, trying to improve commercial relations between Africa and black Americans. In 1980, Meredith was arrested in a bizarre accident at a pizza parlor. Meredith said a "buy two, get one free" sales promotion entitled him to a free pizza. There were conflicting stories about whether Meredith was actually entitled to a free pizza, but management prevailed and Meredith was imprisoned when he refused to pay for the pizza. Although free to go after the first night, Meredith spent the next three days in jail, in protest.
By this time, his relationship with the civil rights establishment was almost nonexistent. His message of black self-reliance was anathema to what he calls the "white-liberal, black-bourgeoisie" establishment. "We have a tendency," he told the Wall Street Journal, "to blame everything on somebody else. It ain't what somebody else did to us. It's what's we have not done for us."
In 1985, Meredith taught black studies at the University of Cincinnati, where he criticized the school for low graduation rates among black athletes. Following an unsuccessful attempt for a seat on Ohio's state board, Meredith and his family arrived in San Diego in 1989. About a year ago, Meredith went to work for North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms as a "special assistant." Meredith keeps a Washington D.C. apartment but commutes to San Diego at least once a month to be with his family.
"My wife and I must have made 15 trips to California before we moved to San Diego," Meredith said. "But I decided to move there before I even saw it. I've been fighting liberals for over 28 years. The last 5 years I've been winning that war. Pretty soon liberals are going get knocked out of the saddle somewhere in this country. I think San Diego is that place, mainly because it's so controlled. No city in America is as controlled as San Diego. A very small network of people — fewer than 50 — run San Diego. When they see the liberal solutions are not working, my solutions will be listened to in San Diego like no other city in America."
Meredith does not plan to run for any government office in San Diego, but in June he was a candidate for the Republican Central Committee. His entry in the race attracted little attention. He wanted it that way, he said. "I walked hundreds of miles and talked to thousands of people, campaigning for that seat. But I deliberately wanted no public knowledge of what I was doing. I wanted to find out where the pure power was. I campaigned in every area of the district by specific design. Some I walked. Some I mailed. It was a controlled experiment. Now I have to see what the results were."
He finished dead last, attracting one of the lowest bot totals of any candidate for the central committee. Republican activists and party officials are skeptical of Meredith's claims that he campaigned so extensively. Even so, the results did not disappoint him, he said, because "From my study, I learned that nobody unconnected has ever come that close. I did pretty well considering I was a newcomer."
Meredith's June campaign may have attracted little attention, but a July letter he sent out on Senator Helms's letterhead caused cries of protest. Meredith criticized the 3000 delegates to a convention of the NAACP for saying that federal law-enforcement agencies were harassing black elected officials, such as Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, by singling them out for criminal prosecution. Meredith claimed that 60 to 80 percent of the black leaders in America are involved with "illegal drugs, political corruption, moral turpitude, homosexuality, child abuse, and wife beating. That's the real reason for their position; they're trying to save their own hides. The only way that they can stay out of jail is to apply enough political pressure to keep prosecutors at every level from bringing charges — they they have proof to bring — against them. They are guilty as sin of every single charge I've leveled against them, plus many more. God knows it. The FBI knows it. People in the street know it. And the vast majority of people in the media know it."
Meredith called on the FBI to investigate his allegations. The civil rights establishment — and many of Helms's staff — demanded his resignation. But Meredith kept his job, where he spends most of his days in the Library of Congress. "When I took the job, I told Senator Helms I wanted to totally rewrite America's domestic policy legislation. But in order to do that, I've got to know what was there before. So I spend a lot of time in the library, looking up old legislation."
Meredith is frustrated that he can't get a job — or even an interview — to teach in a San Diego school. But he likes San Diego because the people are friendly, more so than any other place he has lived. "San Diego is the only major city in the country governed by a nonliberal Democratic governing body. Except for the black race issue, where they've adopted the liberal agenda."
Despite the affinity of local governments for affirmative action programs, Meredith likes San Diego's racial climate. The black population here is less than ten percent, far less than other major cities. Because of this, Meredith says, San Diego blacks are more independent and feel less pressure to conform to the civil rights party line.
Meredith's affection for San Diego is hardly mutual. Vernon Sukumu, executive director of the Black Federation in San Diego, compared Meredith to "a Jew who says Hitler had a point.... He hangs with the kind of people who despise blacks."