HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — Wearing a red Ole Miss cap and shirt, James Meredith looked today as if he was ready to cheer the Rebels in a Saturday football game.
Instead, the historical figure who broke the color barrier at the University of Mississippi in 1962 brought a somber message to a crowd of about 300 people at Drake State Technical College.
Society today is turning its back, Meredith said, on the Bible and children.
“My present mission from God is to get the black people in Mississippi to do for themselves all they can do to improve their lives,” Meredith said.
Speaking and taking questions for about 30 minutes, Meredith at times strayed from his points of emphasis but his audience nevertheless followed along on the meandering journey.
Even in addressing a largely African American audience at a school designated as a Historically Black College, Meredith received words and applause in affirmation of the sometimes uncomfortable issues he was driving home.
“The truth of the matter is we black people are failing our young people,” he said. “Usually, we’re blaming somebody else in the past as being the reason.”
The 79-year-old Meredith graduated in 1963 from Ole Miss – where he enrolled in school under military escort ordered by U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He eventually earned a law degree from Columbia University and has been a civil rights activist for most of his adult life.
He has published 16 books and was signing copies of his most recent work, A Mission from God, at Drake State.
Meredith quoted from the Gospel of Luke – to whom much is given, much is expected – and said, God has been good to me. So I think that means he expects a lot out of me.”
For much of his lecture today, Meredith underscored the importance of caring for children.
“Only the family of God can solve the problems of our time,” he said. “Survival says you should train your child in the ways you should go. And when he is old, he will not depart from it. The African proverb says, it takes a village to raise a child.”
Meredith also took an illustration from the parable Jesus told about the good Samaritan.
“Why did the religious leaders pass their brother by and not help him?” Meredith said. “It may be the same reason we old folks today fail to do our job. Those preachers probably asked the wrong question: What will happen to me if I help this man?
“Like the elders of today, when we see a child in need of guidance, we ask, What will happen to me if I help this child? The question should be, What will happen to this child if I don’t do my job?”
But one other illustration captured his audience perhaps more than any other. Meredith talked about the need of providing children a structured upbringing but how that frequently doesn’t happen.
Unless they have the potential to be a star football player, he said.
“Any dumb person can tell if a child has extra special talent – whether they are smart, real smart, average or slow,” he said. “Right now, we’re losing all our young people because nobody is monitoring them.”
A moment later, Meredith added, “Every black boy 9 years old with extra athletic ability has got somebody following them daily.”
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