The Visual Imprint of James Meredith

When James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi 50 years ago on October 1st, 1962 (it was his second attempt; on his first, 11 days prior and sans U.S. Marshalls, the governor of Mississippi turned him back), rioting set off all over campus.  Members of the media were attacked (among the two deaths from the rioting was a French journalist), and much of the film record that would exist was destroyed – as mentioned in this clip from Universal Newsreel:

Other visual documentation of Meredith’s early days at Ole Miss – which tell and important part of the story – were also kept from view for fear of retaliation.  John F. Kennedy had ordered that nothing interfere with the academic aspects of Meredith’s integration of the university, so a young student named Ed Meek – who snapped some incredible photos of Meredith in class from under his trenchcoat –  kept those photos hidden for 40 years. And they tell an important story; on James’ first day of class, dressed up quite professionally, all students and an instructor walked out in protest and in fear of reprisal.  Without the image, the power of the story, and even the narrative itself, shifts and recedes.

Ed Meek’s photo of a white student leaving class while James Meredith sits there, alone.

The significance of visual media from the time can’t be underestimated.  Who can forget the 1967 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of Meredith shot in the beginning of his March Against Fear? The SCLC and SNCC joined Meredith after he was shot to complete the March (Meredith would later call it a Walk), and a young Kwame Ture (then Stokely Carmichael) started publicly formulating the idea of Black Power.

James Meredith, shot a few miles into his (then) solo March Against Fear in 1966. The photo won a 1967 Pulitzer Prize for photojournalism.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Kwame Ture later came to finish the March Against Fear.

Original footage of Meredith’s early days at Ole Miss is still hard to find, but you can see some through Brittanica and C-Span VideoBritish Pathé has some interesting silent footage of Meredith on his March Against Fear, as well.

Since the 60s, a few documentaries have come out about Meredith, in particular in anticipation of this year’s 50th anniversary, and they include some interesting interviews with Meredith – including this one from the BBC. Below, two more contemporary takes – the first from Mississippi Public Broadcasting on Meredith’s legacy and the second from the University of Mississippi media department.

Interestingly enough, Meredith himself won’t be commemorating the 50th anniversary – he doesn’t see the point in celebrating the particular chapter of American history.

About BFC/A

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University was established in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people. The BFC/A's primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions. View all posts by BFC/A

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