James Meredith is best known for two events: being the first black American to enroll in and earn a degree from the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), and being shot. His book opens with a recounting of the latter, which serves as a frame for the Ole Miss events.
In June of 1966, some three years after he graduated from Ole Miss, Mr. Meredith began a one-person march (though others joined him) from Memphis to Jackson with the intent of promoting his call for black people in Mississippi to register to vote. This was big because black people were generally afraid to register and only did so in the face of laws (poll tax, literacy tests, etc) that would prevent them from voting in any case. Mr. Meredith describes the start of his march down highway 51 to strike another blow at the beast of white supremacy. Just outside of the little town of Hernando, the beast took human form as a poor white from the sticks acting on the local tenet of "I'd just as soon kill a n----r as look at him," and Mr. Meredith was shotgunned in cold blood and left for dead.
From here, Mr. Meredith switches to an account of his background and thoughts on the times before beginning his narrative about attending Ole Miss (which was the bigger event though no less life-threatening). In this section, he gets into his reputation as a civil rights rebel, contributing to the moment but never a part of it. He makes no bones about his personal pride and near messiah complex. He was (and is) opinionated and driven to confuse, confound, and confront. This comes through in his writing and nearly put me off at a couple of points. I'm suspicious of people that proudly proclaim themselves as mavericks and declare that they confound others. It's an implication of superiority that is usually unfounded. But I hung with him and found that on balance he comes off as a sympathetic character that genuinely cares about others. Indeed, his attitude of self-confidence and spiritual mission was probably the lightning rod that made him the exemplary focus of the civil rights struggle at that time.
Mr. Meredith describes the University of Mississippi as the bastion of white supremacy in Mississippi. Though a public university, it provided the formal higher-education for most of the state's leaders and maintained an aristocratic ambiance that was exclusive of poor whites as well as minorities. Today it is racially integrated, but there is still an air of that exclusiveness. When Mr. Meredith sought to enroll there, that exclusiveness was buttressed with a violent racial bias that led to riots. He describes his repeated attempts to enroll as the last battle of the Civil War and accounts indicate that he's pretty much correct in that assessment. The inertia against him built to the point that mobs violently opposed the federal marshals (and later the soldiers of the army and national guard) that escorted him at enrollment and in just attending his classes. In all the chaos, shots were fired and people were killed.
The account of his enrollment and time at Ole Miss constitutes the main part of the book. Mr. Meredith describes in graphic detail the anger and torments visited on him throughout his time there. I suspect that many readers, especially younger ones not from the south, will find this narrative hard to believe. After all, you can walk around the Ole Miss campus today, or peruse its website, and see that it's thoroughly integrated and looks like any other university campus. But it was very different in the early 1960s. I was a child then and only vaguely aware of the events centering on James Meredith, but I can affirm the attitudes he describes and the sheer hatred towards black people among working and middle class whites. A quick study of history will affirm his account of the "battle" that erupted from his Ole Miss enrollment. Robert Dallek gives a similar description of it in his book about John Kennedy (An Unfinished Life).
In describing his abuse by the white students at Ole Miss, Mr. Meredith is graphic, quoting their constant use of derogatory terms, insults and harassments, but without reciprocal hatred of them as people. I expect time has tempered his emotions but he does say, regarding his harassers, that "They were programmed to act the way they did." Having grown up in Mississippi, I would concur.
Mr. Meredith graduated from Ole Miss in August of 1963. His ordeal there was barely a year in length (most of his credits to graduate were transferred from other colleges). His military escort around the campus had shrunk and the expressions of hatred had subsided, though mostly from familiarity. He graduated and left, with the implied "good riddance" from staff and students, but he opened a door that others entered.
At this point, Mr. Meredith returns to his ordeal on the road outside of Hernando. Lying on the road, shot, a reporter takes a picture of him that became iconic. The initial news of his death, was corrected after an hour or so and he was taken to a hospital. His march to Jackson was completed by Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders. Mr. Meredith himself recovered enough to complete the march amid a crowd that he didn't intend. He talks here about his differences with the civil rights leaders of the day, especially with regards to strict adherence to nonviolence as their primary tactic. Mr. Meredith believed that force was the only way to overcome the violence that the white supremacist establishment used with impunity. He is referring in this to the use of force by the federal government to make state governments comply with the law. This is what worked for him and his impression of the effectiveness of that force, and his gratitude for it, thoroughly infuse his book.
The book concludes with Mr. Merediths' reflection on growing old, finding meaning in his life, and retaining his sense of mission in his final years. To me, this is the books most poignant part. He went to Japan to complete work on the book. It was a return for him. He had spent three years there when in the Air Force and was touched by the people's lack of prejudice towards him. It was a place he felt acceptance as a human being and it became the symbol for him of that place of equality that Martin Luther King dreamed of beyond the mountain. As an old man, Mr. Meredith climbed Mount Takao and found his renewed inspiration there among nature. He heard the voice of God again, renewing his sense of mission.
That new mission is the challenge part of his book. He asks the reader to commit to helping children in public schools, especially disadvantaged children. He believes such an outpouring of love directed at the support of the nation's children, would transform America into the good place of its potential as a moral leader in the world.
I expect it would indeed.