Meredith was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi of Native American (Choctaw) and Black American heritage. He enlisted in the United States Air Force right out of high school and served from 1951 to 1960. He then attended Jackson State College for two years. He applied to the University of Mississippi, but was denied twice.
James Meredith walking to class at the University of Mississippi, accompanied by Chief Marshal James J. P. McShane on his left.
On October 1, 1962, he became the first black student at the University of Mississippi, after being barred from entering on September 20. His enrollment, virulently opposed by segregationist Governor Ross Barnett, sparked riots on the Oxford campus, which required federal troops and U.S. Marshals, who were sent by President John F. Kennedy. The riots led to a violent clash which left two people dead, including French journalist Paul Guihard, on assignment for the London Daily Sketch, who was found behind a dormitory block with a gunshot wound to the back. 48 soldiers were injured and 28 U.S. Marshals were wounded by gunfire. Barnett was fined $10,000 and sentenced to jail for contempt, but the charges were later dismissed by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Bob Dylan sang about the incident in his song Oxford Town. Meredith's actions are regarded as a pivotal moment in the history of civil rights in the United States. He graduated on August 18, 1963 with a degree in political science.
Many students harassed Meredith during his first two semesters on campus. Though the majority of students accepted Meredith's presence, according to first person accounts chronicled in Nadine Cohodas's book The Band Played Dixie, students living in Meredith's dorm bounced basketballs on the floor just above his room through all hours of the night. When Meredith walked into the cafeteria for meals, the students eating would all turn their backs. If Meredith sat at a table with other students, all of whom were white, the students woul...