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Civil rights icon defied death, but now he and his wife navigate pandemic and protests

Judy Meredith isn’t always sure where her husband goes when he walks out into the Mississippi morning.

At age 87, Jay is as stubborn as ever about his walks.

Some days he leaves home in a crisply pressed suit, rolling behind him a hot-pink suitcase he got from a granddaughter who outgrew its color.

He uses it to carry his books for sale – many of them self-published and printed at the local Kinko’s. People recognize him, though not as much as they used to.

One of Jay’s books, written decades ago, is called “Letters To My Unborn Grandchildren.” Judy and Jay have 11 grandkids now, but he hadn’t always counted on meeting them.  The civil rights years were a dangerous time for Jay.

James Meredith and his wife, Judy, speak with a reporter at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Mississippi, U.S. Image credit REUTERS/Suzi Altman

“All I had to lose was my life,” he wrote to them about that period. And he almost had, when he was gunned down by a white man in 1966.

This year, life has become dangerous again.  The other day Judy overheard Jay refuse a coronavirus test when his doctor called with concerns. Jay’s picture had appeared in the newspaper. He’d been at the park, talking to a group of suburban white kids wearing Black Lives Matter shirts. His age and diabetes make him vulnerable to the virus.

“I’ve just never known Jay to have any fear,” Judy says.

Jay says he’ll leave to God how many more walks he’ll take, or how many more days he’ll have with Judy, his wife of 39 years. 

She’s 16 years younger, but at 71, Judy is also at high risk. Coronavirus cases have surged in the state since last month, when most Mississippi businesses were allowed to reopen. The majority of Mississippians infected, and killed, have been Black.

The virus demands caution, but Judy and Jay haven’t just stayed locked in. America is experiencing a moment of reckoning on race, and they want to bear witness to the changes it brings.

One day last month, on Juneteenth, they ventured out to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. It was still closed because of the pandemic, but the Merediths are always welcome.

Some things are familiar about this summer. The grandkids stop by in the daytime, cautiously, and the couple share home-cooked dinners while their dog, Charlie, steals scraps off Jay’s plate. Outside, the magnolia trees have bloomed, and the asphalt roads have softened under the heat.

Image credit REUTERS/Suzi Altman

But so much else has changed. During the height of a pandemic, people of all skin colors have taken to the streets of Jackson, and cities everywhere, to demand reforms after George Floyd’s killing by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Mississippi has taken down its 126-year-old flag, the last state banner to feature the Confederate battle emblem. On Tuesday, the University of Mississippi, Ole Miss, removed a Confederate monument from the center of campus and put it in a Civil War graveyard.

Not for the first time, the Merediths see their lives, and those of their family, intersecting with momentous, history-shaping events.

In 1965, the Voting Rights Act gave Blacks the vote, but they faced white intimidation against registering. So the next year, Jay undertook a 220-mile solitary “walk against fear,” starting over the Tennessee state line in Memphis.

After walking by Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion and entering Mississippi, he saw a white man waiting with a shotgun off Highway 51. The man, a hardware store clerk, called out his name, and then shot him three times. National radio broke into programming to announce that he was dead. But he was still breathing.

Mississippi had a long history of racial violence against Blacks, but this ambush was different: It had all been caught on camera. The image of Jay writhing on the ground transfixed America, much like the video of George Floyd this year.

Judy calls her husband Jay. Others in their family call him J-Boy or Uncle J-Boy. But he’s better known, in Mississippi and in history books, as James Meredith. 

Image credit REUTERS

The last battle of the civil war

The shooting wasn’t Jay’s first time in the line of fire.

In December 1962, Bob Dylan recorded the song “Oxford Town” about him. At the time, Dylan was still an up-and-coming musician and Meredith was one of the most hated and admired men in America.

He went down to Oxford Town

Guns and clubs followed him down

All because his face was brown

Better get away from Oxford Town

That year, Meredith had orchestrated one of the biggest victories of the American civil rights era when he became the first Black to attend Ole Miss in Oxford.

The school had been an all-white bastion of the Old South. The segregationist governor, Democrat Ross Barnett, had arrived on the scene to block Meredith’s entry himself. White mobs in Oxford wanted him dead. But Meredith, an Air Force veteran, compelled the federal government to send more than 30,000 U.S. troops to uphold his right as a citizen to attend.

He had created one of the tensest moments of John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Some historians have likened it to the last battle of the Civil War.

Growing up in Gary, Indiana, Judy watched these events on TV. “Let’s see if James Meredith survived another day,” she remembers her father saying when he turned on the nightly news.

Judy remembers her church preacher asking congregants to pray for Meredith, and she had. She also remembers her mother and aunt talking about him. “That James Meredith is one good-looking man,” they used to say.

“I thought that was the best reality TV ever made,” Judy says. It was one of the reasons she embarked on a career in broadcast journalism.

Image credit REUTERS

What Jay did at Ole Miss has opened the doors for Judy, too.

In their living room, Dr. Judy Meredith takes down her PhD degree from Mississippi State University to demonstrate. She’s been a TV news reporter and anchor, a Fulbright scholar, a music teacher, a university professor.

Today, Judy and Jay live in Jackson’s Fondren neighborhood, a leafy, mostly white upper-middle-class area. Still, huge racial disparities remain in the state.

These are evident, Judy says, in the surge of coronavirus cases among Blacks here, a sign of enduring economic and health deficits. Blacks make up 38% of the state’s population, but they’ve accounted for 54% of positive tests and half of all deaths among cases in which race has been reported. Things have grown dire this week, with many of the state’s intensive-care units already reaching capacity and Republican Gov. Tate Reeves entreating Mississippians to mask up.

The divides are also on display at public schools. Many in Jackson are nearly all Black, and others in the suburbs nearly all white. Even at Ole Miss, Blacks still make up only 13% of the student body.

In other ways, Judy says, it’s more subtle.

As an older Black woman in the Deep South, she’s noticed something at the supermarket and in department stores: White women coming down the aisles expect her to move out of their way, she says.

She’s mentioned this to friends, white ladies she lunches with. Sometimes she is met with blank stares.

“They do it without even noticing,” Judy says.

In recent years, Judy has begun playing a polite Southern game of chicken with white ladies at the stores. She’s all smiles, but she stands her ground and waits for them to move out of her way.

Image credit REUTERS

Recently, during long hours at home, Judy has been moved to tears when the couple watch George Floyd’s killing. The footage has been inescapable.

“It is terrible, disgusting,” Judy says. But she has trouble understanding why it has prompted such an outpouring. Why now? There have been many other videos depicting police brutality against Blacks. None of them sent millions of protesters into the streets or brought down the Mississippi flag.

Jay says he knows why. The fuse was lit, this time, not just by Floyd’s death, but by lockdowns, soaring unemployment, hunger, pent-up anger.

“The pandemic,” he says, “set up America for an explosion.

A funeral and a wedding

At the Civil Rights Museum, Judy does most of the talking. Even though the place is shut to visitors, a sound system is pumping loud spiritual music, and Jay’s hearing is going. “I’m happy to be a sideshow,” he says.

He’s also wary. Few reporters have ever understood him, he says, admitting that he likes to confound people. One exception, he says, was the late Bill Minor, often considered the dean of Mississippi journalism. (The observation people remember by Minor – the one uttered through the Southern grapevine ever since – is this one: “James Meredith is crazy.” It’s something Jay doesn’t exactly deny, either. Back at Ole Miss, he’d trained himself never to blink when whites threw firecrackers at his feet.)

But at their home the next day, they both wax on during an interview that lasts four hours – at a safe social distance.

They describe how they met, in 1981. Jay was on his way to a funeral in Indiana.

Two years earlier, his first wife, Mary June, had died of a heart attack at age 41, leaving Jay with three boys to raise. Judy was a single mother too, with a son from an earlier marriage.

If she was starstruck by the man she’d watched on TV two decades earlier, she didn’t show it that day. “I didn’t want him getting any ideas,” she says.

Representative Image. Image credit Devdiscourse

He got ideas anyway. Later, at the funeral in Indiana, he peered at the casket and then turned to their mutual friend: “Ain’t nothing I can do for this man, so take me back to that woman.”

For the next several weeks, Judy and Jay courted over long-distance calls that lasted until dawn. They exchanged family histories, and bonded over their childhoods, so similar even though they came from North and South, city and country. They debated current events.

Judy was sharp, not shy about challenging Jay. She reminded him of his mother, Miss Roxie, a proud “belle of the county” who took no sass from Jay, his nine siblings, or anyone else.

“I ain’t never told nobody this,” Jay says. “But I have one of the biggest egos in the world.”

At that, Judy says, “Mmmm-hmmm.”

They married 10 weeks after they met. Early in their life together, there were times when she bristled at his stubbornness. She left once, back to Gary. Jay went north and won her back.

“Now every time I leave home, I check to make sure she’s still here,” he says.

Last year, Judy finished a short documentary about her husband called “Who Is James Meredith?” Before the pandemic hit, it was having a good run at film festivals.

Given their age difference, she seems aware that she will likely be a torchbearer for his legacy.

It’s a complicated one.

At many turns, Jay has inflamed civil rights groups and would-be supporters. He’s never wanted to be part of a movement, often preferring individual action or lone “walks” to collective marches.

Some of his actions have been unorthodox, to say the least.

Like the time in the 1990s he supported David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, for governor of Louisiana. Or when, earlier, he’d endorsed the reelection of Mississippi Gov. Barnett, the man who’d tried to block his way at Ole Miss.

He says everything he’s done in life has followed a plan – a “divine mission” – to dismantle white supremacy, including by showing no fear to its figureheads. In politics, he wants Blacks to know what they’re up against. 

“I prefer bigotry to be out in the open where I can confront it,” he wrote to his unborn grandkids.

Image credit REUTERS/Suzi Altman

He has also courted controversy with speeches that veer into performance art.

One time, in a talk at his alma mater Ole Miss, he played the song “Shake Your Money Maker” by Mississippi bluesman Elmore James, breaking into dance moves and telling students it was the most important thing they could learn about the Black experience in America.

Everybody knows what the song is about, Jay says, but nobody wants to say it.

“I ain’t gonna say it,” Judy says.

“It means you gotta shake your booty,” Jay says, bursting into a laugh that detaches his dentures from his gums.

A family affair

For all Jay’s “lone wolf” agitation and egotism over the years, what’s most important to him is family.

Both he and Judy grew up in families that went to extremes to shield them, as children, from the ugliness of racism.

Judy, born to a Black father and white mother, had been given up at birth. She was adopted at age 3 by parents from East Texas who had migrated north, like millions of other Blacks.

She grew up within earshot of the childhood home of Michael Jackson. The sound of the Jackson 5’s daily band practices filled the street.

“You couldn’t not hear them,” she says.

Her own gift for music was evident before kindergarten, and she spent her childhood almost always near a piano, at home, church and school. It was a sheltered existence, and Judy says her parents “never talked about race relations.” 

She remembers one moment when reality intruded, while riding with her mother on a trip down to East Texas.

James Meredith, whom his wife calls Jay, stands in the doorway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi, wearing a cap reading, “New Miss.” Image credit REUTERS/Suzi Altman

“This little white boy, riding a bike, called my mom n—-er,” she says. “She hollered out the window, ‘Peckerwood,’ but we didn’t talk about it; she didn’t stop to tell me what was going on.”

Jay was raised on an 84-acre farm in Kosciusko, Mississippi (perhaps best known these days as the hometown of Oprah Winfrey). His father, Cap, instructed Jay that nothing could hold him back and he would be called upon to lead. As the Black owner of a sizable farm, Cap was well off for his time. He built fences several feet inside the property line so they could be maintained without bickering with white neighbors, with whom Jay had scarce contact.

Jay remembers the exact moment, at age 15, when he discovered that Southern whites viewed him as inferior. 

It was on a 1948 train ride back from a family road trip to Chicago. When the train reached Memphis, the conductor ordered him and his brother to leave their seats, for which they’d paid full fare, and go stand in the “colored car.” 

Jay says he cried all the way back to Mississippi. 

“I cried, but I also started scheming.” 

Scheming, he says, to accept no Mississippi in which he or his kind could be degraded, just as his father, Cap, had done with his farm.

He talks at length about earlier generations, what they endured, inherited and passed down.

“Most of my life happened before I was born,” Jay says.

Judy and Jay share a vision of family as a relay of sorts, over the arc of time, in which each generation can, and must, seize a new set of gains.

Their son Joseph personified this, graduating summa cum laude from Harvard and later winning the outstanding doctoral student award at Ole Miss. Twelve years ago, Joseph died of lupus at age 39.

Members of the Mississippi Honor Guard lower the flag at the State Capitol in Jackson a day after a law banished the flag with its Confederate emblem. Image credit REUTERS/Suzi Altman REFILE

A new generation at “new miss”

In one of his letters to his grandchildren, Jay wrote: “Life in America is combat.”

Ole Miss was a war zone when Meredith arrived in Oxford in 1962. Thousands of white men, many of them armed, faced off against outnumbered federal marshals, the night sky illuminated by explosions. Two people died, hundreds were injured, and Jay slept through it all in a dorm room.

Today, Judy and Jay think of Mississippi not only as home but as “the center of the universe.”

This might seem improbable. It’s the poorest of the 50 U.S. states, with the lowest life expectancy. People in Jackson sometimes joke that its streets have potholes big enough to catch catfish from.

But when change comes to Mississippi, the couple say, it has a tendency to reverberate elsewhere.

“Nobody wants to be behind Mississippi,” Jay says.

In a generation, Mississippi has gone from the epitome of segregation to a place where scores of Ole Miss students and alumni approach Jay for handshakes or autographs when the couple attend a football game there.

Never mind, Judy says, that a few of the alumni might have yelled the N-word at Jay back in 1962.

In 2006, Judy and Jay attended the unveiling of a statue of him on campus. At first, he had mixed feelings about the statue. For one, he wasn’t invited to the podium to speak at the ceremony. (The actor Morgan Freeman was among those enlisted to talk about him instead. Asked about the unveiling, an Ole Miss representative said, “James Meredith is one of our most notable alumni; however, we are not able to confirm those details from the event from 14 years ago.”)

udy and Jay at an Ole Miss game in the early 1990s. Image credit REUTERS/Photo courtesy of the Meredith family

In 2014, the statue was defaced by white students who placed a noose around its neck along with a Confederate symbol. Afterward, a Black student guarded the statue for months, holding a daily vigil. It has become a popular gathering and protest spot for students, most recently in protective face masks. 

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” wrote another Ole Miss alumnus and a son of Oxford, the novelist William Faulkner. The writer died just a few months before Meredith’s arrival on campus in 1962, but his nephew was in a National Guard unit deployed to protect Meredith. He was attacked by rioters throwing bricks and broke an arm.

Judy and Jay have a granddaughter, Jylah Meredith Knight, who plans to start as a freshman at Ole Miss in the fall.

It isn’t yet clear whether it will be safe for Jylah to attend classes on campus, but unlike her grandfather, she’s in the same predicament as all students. It’s a virus, this time, that has changed everything.

Source: Reuters, Mississippi


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