At 51, James Meredith has taken a strange and unexpected turn in his march into American history. The young black man who sparked white riots by integrating the University of Mississippi in 1962 and who was shot for walking old southern back roads to protest segregation in 1966 now preaches that integration is a "sham," and "the biggest con job ever pulled on any people."
In a day of lecturing here at Ohio Wesleyan University last week, Meredith said the only people benefiting from integration are liberal whites, who he said gained control of black votes for their political fights, and a few "black bourgeoisie" who sold themselves to liberal whites as the voice of the larger black population.
Meredith shocked students and faculty, and angered some, particularly blacks, with remarks in which he seemed to be a black right-winger, sometimes with the sound of a Reaganite, though he refused to acknowledge that he subscribes to the president's ideology.
"Integration is the biggest con job ever pulled on any group of people, any nationality in the world," he said to an American history class. "It was a plot by white liberals to gain black political power for themselves and their wild ideas, and for a few black bourgeoisie who were paid to exercise leverage as black spokesmen. I've never heard any other black person say integration did one good thing for them."
A student raised his hand. You seem to be saying, he told Meredith, that integration is more negative than it is positive.
"Absolutely, that is positively the case, especially as far as the black race is concerned," replied the man who was the point man in an integration fight that forced President Kennedy to send 30,000 federal troops to Mississippi to protect him as he integrated the University of Mississippi. He was rebuffed at least four times and surrounded by rioters who killed two people.
Meredith spoke with some disdain of his former civil rights fights. He told a reporter there is "no history I've been a part of that's worth writing about, nothing that has made black people more viable, competitive."
The sole worthwhile accomplishment of the civil rights era that Meredith acknowledged is Title 2 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which grants blacks the right to stay at hotels and eat at restaurants.
In another class a wide-eyed white student, trying to match the James Meredith in the textbook with the James Meredith before him, asked if he was saying "we shouldn't let blacks come to school here, we should end integration."
"Have you ever heard of Irish, Poles, Germans, Italians and Jews being integrated?" Meredith asked. "They go anywhere and just enjoy their rights. Why call it integration when black folks do the same thing? It's a con job.
"The people who started this integration thing knew that in 30 years they'd still have the same thing, the same problem they could take advantage of. That was the object of the con job -- to keep blacks separate."
Meredith told startled students and faculty that he thought American blacks are now worse off than at any time in history, including slavery. He argued that integration has ruined black education by taking away from black parents the control of their children's education and antagonized whites to the point that they don't want to even hire blacks, leaving record-high black unemployment. Integration has also destroyed the black family, he said, as black children are told white schools, white neighborhoods, white stores are better.
"Mayor Daley the late mayor of Chicago died in the same house he was born in," said Meredith. "But if a black man gets a job with the telephone company, the first thing he wants to do is move out."
The man who put his life on the line in the 1960s to end white supremacy in state laws now tells listeners that his fight is to end "white superiority." He wants blacks to live and shop in black neighborhoods, gain control of black schools and their children's teachers, and even halt crime by black teen-agers by reinstating the right of black men to use "corporal punishment" on young black criminals.
Meredith's philosophy riled black students. They moaned, they smirked, they talked in the back of the class, prompting him to anger. At a nighttime speech a black woman student asked him if he was espousing black racism.
"What I'm talking about is every parent protecting his own interests," Meredith replied. "All the babies I've got are black. I think the world would be a better place if everybody had the right to look after his own. If that's the way it is -- thank God."
The James Meredith who set out decades ago to prove blacks had nothing to fear from whites -- only to end up writhing in dirt, covered in blood from a sniper's buckshot -- denied he has radically changed his views on integration. The principles are the same, he argued.
"I never saw myself fighting for integration," he said. "Only whites were allowed by law and practice to attend the University of Mississippi -- a public institution supported by public dollars. Anything public and supported by public dollars is for me.
"To me it was an insult to hear people say this is a first for the black race," he continued, "for me to enjoy my rights. It was humiliating to hear people say I integrated a school."
In 1985 James Meredith opposes busing to integrate schools.
Still, he shies away from calling his prescription for America a return to segregation: "Why do you have to call it segregation?" he asked a reporter.
"When the godfather took care of crime and problems in the Italian community so the best and brightest of his people could flourish -- was that segregation? When Jews look after their families and Israel too, we don't call that segregation."
Meredith was always the outsider and maverick of the civil rights movement. Even today he has no advisers, no close friends who go through things with him. During a recent week, as he was on the road speaking, his wife didn't hear from him. His son, John, 25, just discharged from the Army, listened to his father at Ohio Wesleyan and said, "I'm going to have to think about this."
Wherever he goes, he stirs up controversy. He has moved from Jackson, Miss., to work at the University of Cincinnati. During his six months in Cincinnati, he has had run-ins with the university about what he said was the relatively low graduation rate for black athletes. In the second semester he is no longer teaching there, but is concentrating on research, writing and speaking.
Meredith opposes the current demonstrations against South Africa as a "distraction" when blacks are starving in Africa. A frequent traveler to Africa, where he is trying to start a business, he argues that black inhumanity to blacks in Africa, in class and tribal warfare and in disputes over handling of aid, is a greater problem than what whites are doing to blacks in South Africa.
Furthermore: "Can you imagine American Jews letting Jews in Israel starve?" he asked here. "Can you imagine Germans here even letting Germans in Germany get hungry? Yet black Americans are watching black Africans starve. It is humiliating."
Later he added: "The black race in American is on a course that doesn't lead them to be competitive. If black people use their resources properly, they can become as competitive as any group in society -- take control of our neighborhoods, our businesses, our schools, including our teachers. The only thing keeping black people from doing it is this idiotic idea about integration, about being racially balanced."
Meredith's move to Cincinnati from Mississippi is meant to catch a wave. The next phase of the black rights struggle is in urban America, he said. He predicts that unemployed black youths, who he said have robbed and torn down black neighborhoods, will soon start rampaging in white neighborhoods and the suburbs. Racial conflict will flare. Like Bernhard Goetz, the New York man who shot several minority youths who asked him for money on the subway, more whites are going to "get guns" and go after blacks, and "no one is going to blame them," said Meredith.
Meredith appears in public these days in a jump suit and a beret. He sees himself as a "general" as blacks respond to the racial conflict he feels is imminent. And who is the enemy? Meredith won't say. Asked if it is whites, he nods but tells a reporter not to push him in directions he does "not want to go in."
Whites, he said, are currently avoiding the "number one problem in America -- race" -- by staying away from blacks whenever possible and thinking of themselves as good people for doing it.
"I'd rather be lynched than ignored and treated like I didn't exist," Meredith told students. "It used to be whites would exploit blacks for cheap labor, even slave labor. Now you don't see blacks picking the fruit or cotton or waiting tables. Whites don't even want to exploit black labor. I'd rather be exploited than ignored."
The hope for solutions short of armed camps of blacks and whites is to be found in whites who are around the age of 30, Meredith said. They know firsthand, he argued, how badly integration has failed because they have had firsthand experience with it in schools.
Young Americans were guinea pigs in a "disastrous social experiment," he said, an experiment that involved mixing children from different classes in schools when the different classes did not mix anywhere and never had.
"My research shows today whites age 30 and under are more racially conscious and hostile than whites over 50 because of desegregation," he said. "With social experimentation of integration, the schoolchildren of the past 20 years had to deal with it, they know the problems. Whites have developed hostilities people don't want to acknowledge."
Whites over 30, he said, decide what would be socially acceptable to say instead of thinking about how they truly feel about race relations. The under-30 group, he said, know they don't want their children to go through the class and racial strife of school life as they experienced it.
Looking over an all-white sociology class here, he asked students to tell him about their high school experiences with blacks. There was no response. At the end he told them he could see "some Ku Klux Klanners" in the room.
"That the under-30s are more racist is a plus," he told them. "Because that person is focusing on his interests and any time people focus on their interest, then they are more likely to come to a workable solution."