GAUTIER -- More than 50 years ago, James Meredith -- flanked by thousands of troops and law enforcement officials -- made his way through violent mobs and deadly riots to become the first black man to enroll at a Mississippi university. Tuesday, the 80-year-old man stood before a crowd at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and told them that his work with public education isn't finished just yet.
"I'm not displeased with what happened over 50 years ago; and now thousands, if not tens of thousands of black Mississippians have law degrees, doctorate degrees and all that other good stuff that you get as a result of higher education, but my God ain't happy with me about what has happened to lower education," the civil rights icon said.
Meredith, who enrolled at the University of Mississippi in October 1962, spoke to students, faculty, staff and visitors in the Fine Arts auditorium on the Jackson County Campus of MGCCC Tuesday morning for a Black History Month event. His registration at the all-white university sparked an uprising, and then-Attorney General Bobby Kennedy sent thousands of U.S. marshals to Oxford to protect him and calm the turmoil. Three years later, Meredith graduated from Ole Miss with a degree in political science.
Tuesday, Meredith called on his audience to take to their churches to fix the issues of poor education and poverty that he feels are plaguing the nation, especially in Mississippi.
"Public school education is the most talked-about thing in America," Meredith said. "And the problem with black education is the total breakdown of moral character in the black community."
After his speech, Meredith answered questions from the crowd, that varied from how he felt when he was shot during a March Against Fear in 1966 to what it was like to be originally denied a college education because of his skin color.
During his speech and at the reception afterwards, Meredith wore a black and gold University of Southern Mississippi hat to honor Clyde Kennard, a black man who was denied admission to Southern Miss and arrested on what many believe was a bogus burglary charge, which he was exonerated from in 2006, more than 40 years after his death.
"If I hadn't known about Clyde Kennard, I probably would have gotten caught in one of those traps," Meredith said. "You have to understand that the powers that be in Mississippi, their main idea was to eliminate any potential threat before it could become a fact."
Walter Malone Jr., who now lives in Gautier, came to the event to hear Meredith speak, but it wasn't his first interaction with the man.
"At the time he entered Ole Miss, I was in the Air Force, and the federal marshals that were sent to protect him were stationed at our base," Malone said. "Our primary mission was to get them over there to protect him every day."
Malone said though Mississippi has made strides in the area of civil rights, he thinks there's still a long way to go.
"I have seen some changes, but I still see some of the same things I saw back then," he said.
Latericca Moore, an MGCCC physical therapy student from Gautier, said she enjoyed hearing what Meredith had to say.
"I think anyone who paves the way for anyone is inspiring because it's hard for anyone nowadays to go to school," she said. "But going what he went through, adding all that, he still managed to get through and that part is inspiring, that he was able to keep going."
But Moore said she feels that society's problems aren't solely race-based.
"I feel like he (Meredith) was singling us out as a black race as a whole, when it's about everyone in general," she said. "Things like that is what keeps us from moving forward; we can't keep moving forward if we keep ourselves in the past."
Sonya Edwards, student activities coordinator, was pleased with the turnout for the event Tuesday.
"I just felt like there was a great energy in the room, a lot of respect for what he's been through," she said. "He's 80 years old, and look at all the things he's done in his life, but he doesn't feel satisfied. He still wants to do things in the community, and that's a lesson we all can learn from."
Meredith will also be speaking on the Perkinston Campus in Malone Hall Auditorium on Wednesday at 2 p.m.; and at the Jefferson Davis Campus on Thursday at 11 a.m.