James Meredith signs a copy of his latest book for Carlos Rosales and Rufus Ward Tuesday after speaking to the Columbus Rotary Club. The civil rights icon, the first African American to attend Ole Miss, called for greater involvement by black churches in the lives of the impoverished. Photo by: Lee Adams/Dispatch Staff
January 9, 2013 12:14:10 PM
James Meredith was the guest speaker at Tuesday's Columbus Rotary meeting.
Having been a frequent enough Rotary guest not to be considered a guest anymore, I noted that Meredith's appearance drew an especially large crowd.
As Meredith spoke, it was obvious that the audience was listening intently.
Halfway through his speech, though, I wondered if anyone else was thinking what I was thinking.
I am somewhat embarrassed and feel a little guilty in saying that I don't know what to make of James Meredith. His speech before the Rotarians seemed to me a rambling, disjointed, thoroughly unsatisfying presentation.
It may well be that I simply failed to grasp the thread that held Meredith's presentation together and made it a cohesive, effective argument. I won't deny the possibility that I'm just not astute enough to understand some subjects. There are some readers who are fairly convinced of it, in fact.
Another possibility is that Meredith, at age 79, is simply remaining true to his nature. Pegging Meredith is about as easy as nailing Jell-O to a wall.
If ever there was an enigma, it is James Meredith -- who will be remembered as the man who integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962, yet went on to work on the staff of an avowed segregationist, U.S. Senator Jesse Helms. He is a man who regularly wears Ole Miss gear yet said of the university's celebration of the 40th anniversary of his enrollment at Ole Miss in 2002: "It was an embarrassment for me to be there, and for somebody to celebrate it." He is the man who despite his role in the Civil Rights movement later said, "Nothing could be more insulting to me than the concept of civil rights. It means perpetual second-class citizenship for me and my kind."
So, no, I don't quite "get'' James Meredith.
And I wondered if there were any other folks at the Rotary Club who would admit as much.
Meredith opened his remarks by addressing the subject of "the rich and their responsibility to the poor.'' He said the poor are poor not because they are lazy, but because they have little access to power, which determines their lot. He also said the rich have a moral obligation to take care of the poor.
As you might imagine, the Rotarians were not exactly standing on their chairs applauding this perspective.
Meredith did move on to more agreeable ideas, though.
If the lot of the poor is to be changed, the burden falls on the poor themselves, mainly by living out the moral dictates of the Bible, by taking care of their own, by reestablishing the structure of the family.
Using Jesus' parable of The Good Samaritan to illustrate his point, Meredith said the priests who ignored the injured man failed in their moral duty mainly because they asked the wrong question:
"They asked what will happen to me if I help this man?'' Meredith said. "The question should have been, 'What will happen to this man if I don't help him?'"
That reminded me of another observation about the famous parable, this one by Catholic Bishop Fulton Sheen, whose TV program was one of the most popular shows in the early days of television. Sheen wryly observed that the priests ignored the injured man "because they could see that he had already been robbed.''
I believe there is truth in both observations.
Meredith who fiercely clings to his own individualism to the point that he could be dismissed as a contrarian, believes the key to fighting poverty and injustice lies within the church, particularly the black church.
The key, Meredith said, lies in "getting the individual Christian to do his duty.''
To this end, Meredith said Mississippi is supremely qualified to lead the nation in that fight since, according to Meredith, Mississippi is the most Christian of the states.
Mississippi may be the most Christian state in the country if that assertion is based simply on the number of churches per capita, I suppose.
But counting is often a poor means of measuring a thing. The fact that there are more English-speaking people in China than in England does not make China more English than England, after all.
The better measure is the fruit, not the trees. And there is absolutely nothing to suggest that Mississippi, as a society, has ever paid much attention to the poor, the disenfranchised or the oppressed aside from complaining about how lazy, morally-flawed and misguided they are.
For his part, Meredith seems to straddle the border between activism of the left and the status quo of the right. You really want him to pick a side and fight. Somehow, though, he has managed to denounce and affirm competing views simultaneously.
Or, as I said, maybe I just don't get him.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.