On this day in 1963, James Meredith received his bachelor of arts in political science from the University of Mississippi, becoming the first African-American graduate in the school’s century-plus history. The ceremony, which the New York Times described as “relaxed and informal,” took place approximately 100 yards from the site of riots that had greeted Meredith when he had arrived at Ole Miss the previous fall.

Meredith, a veteran of the United States Air Force, had decided, while attending Jackson State in 1960-61, to try to integrate Ole Miss. On January 29, 1961, after speaking with Medgar Evers, NAACP Field Secretary for Mississippi, Meredith wrote to Thurgood Marshall, then head of the organization’s Legal Defense and Education Fund. In that letter, Meredith noted, “My long-cherished ambition has been to break the monopoly on rights and privileges held by the whites of the state of Mississippi.” He also explained that he lacked the financial resources to fight what he assumed would be “difficulty with the various agencies here in the state which are against my gaining entrance in the school.” In closing, Meredith assured Marshall, “I am familiar with the probable difficulties involved in such a move as I am undertaking and I am fully prepared to pursue it all the way to a degree from the University of Mississippi.”

He could not have known how bad things would get. After he applied to Ole Miss for admission, state officials used a variety of methods to keep him out. The University first sat on his paperwork, neither admitting nor rejecting him. Meredith then contacted the Justice Department about the delaying tactics. In an impassioned appeal, he explained why he was writing: “I feel that the power and influence of the federal government should be used where necessary to insure compliance with the laws as interpreted by the proper authorities.” Noting the Kennedy administration’s lukewarm engagement with the civil rights movement to that point, Meredith prodded, “I feel the federal government can do more in his area if they choose and they should choose.”

After the Supreme Court ruled, in September of 1961, that Ole Miss must accept Meredith, Mississippi’s governor, Ross Barnett, warned his state’s citizens that they were under attack:

In the absence of constitutional authority and without legislative action, an ambitious federal government, employing naked and arbitrary power, has decided to deny us the right of self-determination in the conduct of the affairs of our sovereign state. Having long since failed in their efforts to conquer the indomitable spirit of the people of Mississippi and their unshakable will to preserve the sovereignty and majesty of our commonwealth, they now seek to break us physically with the power of force.

Even now as I speak to you tonight, professional agitators and the unfriendly liberal press and other trouble makers are pouring across our borders intent upon instigating strife among our people. Paid propagandists are continually hammering away at us in the hope that they can succeed in bringing about a division among us. Every effort is being made to intimidate us into submission to the tyranny of judicial oppression. The Kennedy Administration is lending the power of the federal government to the ruthless demands of these agitators. Thus we see our own federal government teamed up with a motley array of un-American pressure groups against us. This is the crisis we face today.

Without irony, Barnett continued:

Principle is a little word. It is easy to speak and to spell and in print is easily overlooked, but it is a word that is tremendous in its import and meaning denoting respect and obedience to those fundamental and eternal truths that should be respected and form the way of life of all honest and right-thinking people. Expediency is for the hour; principles are for the ages. Principles are a passion for truth and right and justice, and as long as the rains descend and the winds blow, it is but folly to build upon the shifting sands of political expediency. It is better for one’s blood to be poisoned than for him to be poisoned in his principles. So deep and compelling were the convictions and principles of our forefathers that they risked even death to establish this now desecrated Constitution as the American way of life and handed it to us in trust as our sacred heritage and for our preservation.

The day of expediency is past. We must either submit to the unlawful dictates of the federal government or stand up like men and tell them no. The day of reckoning has been delayed as long as possible. It is now upon us. This is the day, and this is the hour. Knowing you as I do, there is no doubt in my mind what the overwhelming majority of loyal Mississippians will do. They will never submit to the moral degradation, to the shame and the ruin which have faced all others who have lacked the courage to defend their beliefs.

Then he concluded:

I have made my position in this matter crystal clear. I have said in every county in Mississippi that no school in our state will be integrated while I am your Governor. I shall do everything in my power to prevent integration in our schools. I assure you that the schools will not be closed if this can possibly be avoided, but they will not be integrated if I can prevent it. As your Governor and Chief Executive of the sovereign State of Mississippi, I now call on every public official and every private citizen of our great state to join me…

With Meredith poised to enter Ole Miss, the Mississippi legislature tried one more gambit, passing a law making it illegal for persons convicted of moral turpitude to matriculate at any of the state’s universities. The same day, a Justice of the Peace ruled that Meredith had falsified information on a voter registration form, an act of moral turpitude. Then, two weeks after that, a federal court invalidated both the law and the conviction. Justice Department lawyers and federal marshals readied to escort Meredith to Oxford. President Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, worked back channels (listen here to their phone conversations with Gov. Barnett) to try to insure that Meredith would enter Ole Miss without confrontation. They failed.

Having called for vigilantism, Governor Barnett reaped the whirlwind. On September 30, a crowd gathered on the University campus. The mob began attacking journalists arrayed to cover the story. The Times reported that federal troops “repulsed wave after wave of advancing students with tear gas bombs. Shouting rioters hurled eggs, rocks and bottles, set fires, overturned cars, and tried to drive a tractor into federal line.” As President Kennedy addressed the nation, promising that the rule of law would carry the day, the violence continued throughout the night, leaving two people dead and 375 others injured. Ultimately, more than 20,000 National Guardsmen had to descend on Oxford, guaranteeing Meredith’s safety at Ole Miss.

Although he faced constant threats, Meredith, urged on by supporters, including the Kennedys, stuck it out, graduating on this day in 1963. Less than a month later, he wrote Bobby Kennedy:

Today, regardless of all other considerations, I am a graduate of the University of Mississippi. For that I am proud of my Country — the United States of America. The question always arises — was it worth the cost? Were the United States Marshals and other security forces needed or necessary? I believe that I echo the feeling of most Americans when I say that no price is too high to pay for freedom of person, equality of opportunity, and human dignity.

Ten days after Meredith mailed that letter, a bomb exploded in Birmingham, Alabama’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Four girls — Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins — were killed while attending Sunday School.

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