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NEWS | Feb. 25, 2016

James Meredith: Civil rights icon reunited with military escorts 53 years later at Fort Hood Black History Month Observance

By Spc. Jacqueline Dowland 13th Public Affairs Detachment

FORT HOOD, Texas - James Howard Meredith, the first African-American to attend the University of Mississippi, was honored Feb. 25 during an annual Black History Month observance here.

During the observance, Meredith met with three former Soldiers from Task Force Echo, assigned to Fort Hood’s 720th Military Police Battalion, 4th Army, who once ensured Meredith’s safety as he attended the University of Mississippi in 1962.

It was over breakfast at the installation’s Club Hood the morning of the observance that Meredith first met with Cpl. Robert Taylor, Spc. George Lewis and Pfc. Gary L. Hackbarth, three dedicated Soldiers who were deployed for Operation Ole Miss in the early '60s. The four men reflected on the historic events that have forever bonded them.

“I never saw Meredith back then because I was pulling security at the perimeter of the campus,” said Taylor. “So, today is a big deal for me to finally meet him.”

Meredith agreed by stating that he’s, “... happy to meet these fellows for the first time. I’m so happy that I lived to see it.”

Meredith, then a 29-year-old Air Force veteran, attempted to register at the University of Mississippi on Sept. 20, 1962, as a transfer student from the all-African-American Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi, after being inspired to further his education despite his school of choice being completely white at the time.

"Before I could engage in business at the level I desired," said Meredith, born June 25, 1933, in Kosciusko, Mississippi, "the system would have to be broken."

Inspired by then-president John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, Meredith wanted to exercise his constitutional rights by putting pressure on the Kennedy administration to enforce civil rights for African-Americans by enrolling at the state-funded university. When Meredith was barred twice from registering, he enlisted the assistance of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“What I did at Ole Miss had nothing to do with going to classes,” said Meredith. “My objective was to destroy the system of white supremacy.”

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s assistance was instrumental in Meredith’s successful enrollment at the university after Kennedy contacted then Democratic governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, convincing him to let Meredith enroll and attend the university.
Once enrolled, Meredith faced challenges as riots broke out on the campus. National Guardsmen and other federal troops, including 150 military police Soldiers from Fort Hood, deployed to the Ole Miss campus to ensure Meredith’s safety. Escorting him to class, searching vehicles and pulling security, under the order of Attorney General Kennedy, the troops ensured no further rioting happened on campus.

“I knew the only way to beat Mississippi was with the United States military,” said Meredith. “I had not just the United States Army fighting my war against Mississippi, but President Kennedy sent in the best of the United States Army.”

Despite the tumultuous atmosphere and being ostracized daily, Meredith persevered, graduating from the University of Mississippi a year later with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Meredith received his diploma alongside his white classmates, as the first African-American graduate of Ole Miss.

The U.S. Army has proven groundbreaking in their progressive efforts toward equality, represented by the presence of African-American Soldiers in their ranks since the Revolutionary War, he said. The presence of Soldiers deployed to Mississippi to assist Meredith in his civil rights quest is another example of the Army’s commitment to equality. 

“Meredith wasn’t doing what he did for himself,” Taylor said. “He was doing it so that other people would have the same opportunity. He showed incredible personal courage by pursuing his goal to the bitter end.”

Original Fort Hood Sentinel article for Operation Ole Miss dated Oct. 19, 1962, is available <a href="" target="blank">here</a>.
B-Roll is available at <a href="" target="blank"></a>.