The story of James Meredith (b. 1933) took place long ago, but the principles of equality under the law and that no one is above the law make his story as relevant today as it was when it played itself out 60 years-ago in Mississippi.
Meredith was a former serviceman in the United States Air Force. In the wake of the US Supreme Court’s 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education, he tried to integrate the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”) by applying for admission in 1961. He was accepted, but his admission was revoked when the registrar learned that he was a Black man. Meredith sued and a federal court ordered the university to admit him, but when Meredith tried to register for classes on September 20, 1962, he found the entrance to the office blocked by Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett (1898-1987).
On September 28, 1962, the Mississippi governor was found guilty of civil contempt and was ordered to cease his interference with desegregation at the university or face arrest and a fine of $10,000 a day. Two days later, Meredith was escorted onto the ‘Ole Miss’ campus by U.S. Marshals setting off riots that resulted in the deaths of two students. He returned the next day and began his classes. In 1963, Meredith, who was a transfer student from the all-Black Jackson State College, graduated with a political science degree.
For those of us who remember the intensity of racism (especially in southern states) in those years, as well as the non-violent principles of the civil rights movement led by Dr. King and the violent reaction against all integration in the southern states, Meredith’s story was huge. It grabbed the national headlines and was a prominent account highlighted on the evening television network news for many days.
Finally, on September 30, 1962, President Kennedy addressed the nation on radio and television. He described the legal steps that led to Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi and his own role as President who had sworn at his inauguration “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
“In this case in which the United States Government was not until recently involved, Mr. Meredith brought a private suit in Federal court against those who were excluding him from the University. A series of Federal courts all the way to the Supreme Court repeatedly ordered Mr. Meredith’s admission to the University. When those orders were defied, and those who sought to implement them were threatened with arrest and violence, the United States Court of Appeals consisting of Chief Judge Tuttle of Georgia, Judge Hutcheson of Texas, Judge Rives of Alabama, Judge Jones of Florida, Judge Brown of Texas, Judge Wisdom of Louisiana, Judge Gewin of Alabama, and Judge Bell of Georgia, made clear the fact that the enforcement of its order had become an obligation of the United States Government. Even though this Government had not originally been a party to the case, my responsibility as President was therefore inescapable. I accept it. My obligation under the Constitution and the statutes of the United States was and is to implement the orders of the court with whatever means are necessary, and with as little force and civil disorder as the circumstances permit.“
President Kennedy also addressed the greater issues at stake; namely, the importance of the rule of law and the final authority of the law courts to affirm and to dispense justice in a democracy.
Kennedy told the nation:
“The orders of the court in the case of Meredith versus Fair are beginning to be carried out. Mr. James Meredith is now in residence on the campus of the University of Mississippi.
This has been accomplished thus far without the use of National Guard or other troops. And it is to be hoped that the law enforcement officers of the State of Mississippi and the Federal marshals will continue to be sufficient in the future.
… our Nation is founded on the principle that observance of the law is the eternal safeguard of liberty and defiance of the law is the surest road to tyranny. The law which we obey includes the final rulings of the courts, as well as the enactments of our legislative bodies. Even among law-abiding men few laws are universally loved, but they are uniformly respected and not resisted.
Americans are free, in short, to disagree with the law but not to disobey it. For in a government of laws and not of men, no man however prominent or powerful, and no mob however unruly or boisterous, is entitled to defy a court of law. If this country should ever reach the point where any man or group of men by force or threat of force could long 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.”
JFK articulated not only what was at stake in 1962 in Mississippi, but what is at stake today for the Department of Justice, the Georgia and New York courts with respect to the Trump-led insurrection leading up to and taking place on January 6, 2021, as well as Trump’s theft of and illegal transfer of government property including many top-secret classified documents to Mar-a-Lago after he left office.
Attorney General Merrick Garland has shown that those principles of American democracy articulated by President Kennedy that have guided the United States for 230+ years since the ratification of the Constitution are guiding him and the DOJ. Though 70 percent (according to polls) of Republican Party voters (approximately 50 million Americans) continue to believe in and advance the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, I have faith that AG Garland, the DOJ and relevant courts will act according to the law “without fear or favor” including a potential indictment and prosecution of Trump in the days, weeks, or months ahead.