INSIDE THE Travel Lodge Motel in downtown Jackson, Miss., just five blocks from the state capitol, there is a small, neon-lit room called The Bar and Lounge where the Ku Klux Klan used to meet for drinks before going to work.
So at first it sounded strange to hear James Meredith say recently, "Yep, it's mine now," referring to his purchase of the place.And then again, it did not sound so strange at all.
It was 12 years ago this Tuesday that Meredith, then 32 years old, was marching alone from Memphis, heading south toward Jackson along a narrow country road bordered by bushes, when he was ambushed by a man wielding a 16-gauge shotgun. For hours, Meredith lay alongside the road, his body riddled with pellets. When he had started his march, many wondered if he had strength to walk that far; as he lay on a surgeon's table, the world waited tensely, wondering if he had enough strength to stay alive.
At age 45, Meredith says he's in fairly good shape - all things considered. "I used to look on everything as a blessing, but these pellets - they go most of 'em out. It was 70 that hit me, mostly in the head."
Meredith's purpose had been to raise support for voter registration drives throughout the South, an area where blacks had long been prevented from voting, by terror and by law.
Four years before that, in 1962, Meredith was escorted by U.S. marshals to register for classes at Ole Miss, then a bastion of "whites-only" education in the name of the University of Mississippi.
President John F. Kennedy, in a recorded conversation, had tried to explain to Mississppi Gov. Ross Barnett what the problem was:
"Here's my problem," Kennedy began, "I don't know Mr. Meredith and I didn't put him in the university, but on the other hand under the Constitution I have to carry out the orders of the court. (Meredith had won a court order admitting him to the school.) I don't want to do it in any way that causes difficulty to you or anyone else, but I've got to do it."
When Barnett was asked by Kennedy if he could maintain law and order during Meredith's integration of Ole Miss, the governor replied, "I don't know whether I can or not. I couldn't have the other afternoon - there was such a mob there it would have been impossible . . . You just don't know the situation down here."
Today - in Meredith's mind - the situation has changed, but only slightly.
Although he owns several businesses, including another nightclub and a "yellow sheet" newspaper, as some prominent residents call it, or "The Outlook," as he calls it, and maintains close ties with prosperous Nigerian businessmen, Meredith sounds, to some extent, like a bitter man.
It could be the shotgun pellets that remain lodged in his head and keep him awake at night if he lies the wrong way. Or it could be his belief that the FBI carried out a plan to discredit him. That would explain why many blacks and whites alike in Jackson shun him.
Wilson F. "Bill" Minor, editor of Jackson's maverick newspaper, The Capital Reporter, explains it this way:
"He just comes across as an erratic person. He ran for the (state) House as a Democrat, for the Senate as a Republican and for the city commission as neither. In the civil rights area, no one pays him any attention. His kids go to private school. He's a strange duck. Hard for people to understand."
To Meredith, one runs for public office when the job opens up. "There are no parties in Mississippi," he says bluntly.
When novelist Margaret Walker-Alexander had her first book of poems published in 1970, titled, "Prophets for a New Day," Meredith's picture was in the collage on the cover. Inside, there was a poem about him.
"I think he has shown great courage during his colorful career," says Alexander, who lives in Jackson and has known Meredith for much of his life. "It takes a kind of odd person to stand up with courage through the kinds of situations he has dealt with."
There were 1,400 black students at Ole Miss two months ago, according to Alexander. "It was a strange feeling remembering Meredith and how he accounted for their being there," she says.
He is beardless now, has one son going to Moorehouse College in Atlanta next week and 10-year-old twins who made straight A's this reporting period at the private school they attend. He has been married 22 years. After graduating from the University of Mississippi, he attended Columbia Law School and studied economics at Ibadan University in Nigeria.
The march that Meredith began from Memphis in 1966, which ended with him and Martin Luther King Jr. leading 12,000 persons into Jackson, "was a tactical thing, something I'd been working on for 20 years," Meredith says.
"Timely strategies, that was my game. This civil rights movement is a liberal white/bourgeoisie black thing, strictly. I never was a part of it, neither were most black people. That's why I got nothing to do with bourgeoisie niggers. They aren't concerned about advancement for blacks, just power brokering for white power holders."
Meredith says that his main interests will take him to Nigeria in August. He says he is part of a group that is trying to build a housing project there.
"The first thing I noticed about being in Africa was what you would call 'seeing black.' You got to have been there to know," he says. "See, the whole orientation is black, not like here where you subconsciously look into a car to see if the person in it is black. In Africa, you know the person is going to be black. Everybody is black. Makes you stop feeling so all alone."
Until he leaves for Africa this summer, Meredith says he will try to spend as much time as he can with his boys, and at his clubs - particularly The Bar and Lounge.
"It used to be that kind of place," Meredith says of the one-time KKK hangout. "Mississippi still is. Who cares about Klan activity in 1978 though, when you go the Mississippi state legislature?
"It's true, though, blacks have made gains. But when I look around and see 'em driving fancy cars, wearing fancy clothes, talking big words but can't buy a home let alone a piece of land to put it on, I say blacks give up too easily.
"In 10 years I say our greatest short-coming is that we think we are successful just because many of us are vitable. It's a great waste of ego."