Photograph shows James Meredith walking on the campus of the University of Mississippi, accompanied by U.S. marshals. LOC photo reproduced in Simerg

A lesson in Black history in a classroom in Jinja, Uganda: The case of Mississippi’s African-American James Meredith

Editor’s note: The following special piece for Simerg by UK’s Shiraz Pradhan is the second in Simerg’s series of articles on the subject of race, inequality, cultural diversity and pluralism. The first article in the series was President Kennedy’s address on June 13, 1963 to the Americans on the subject of Civil Rights. Shiraz’s piece has been adapted from a chapter in his latest novel “Michelangelo in Jinja” and contains illustrations that do not form part of his novel. Following the article, we have a video of a fascinating talk delivered at the US Library of Congress by Henry T. Gallagher that details the events, including the riot, that took place during the admission of the first black American student, James Meredith, to the University of Mississippi. Mr. Gallagher was among the 20,000 troops that were dispatched by President Kennedy to restore law and order in Mississippi during the riot. He was also personally responsible for looking after the safety of Mr. Meredith.

Stranglehold on Neck of Black People

A frontispiece illustration in "The Child's Anti-Slavery Book…, New York, [1860], showing an African-American slave father leaving his family as he is sold away from his family. Photo: US Library of Congress. Reproduced in Simerg.
A frontispiece illustration in “The Child’s Anti-Slavery Book…, New York, [1860], showing an African-American slave father leaving his family as he is sold away from his family. Photo: US Library of Congress.

By SHIRAZ PRADHAN

When James Meredith was being admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi as its first African-American student, the Uganda Argus carried a cryptic headline “Segregation Defeated”. This simple headline, in the months and years that followed, would change the history of Uganda and rest of Africa.

This event caused great joy in our part of the world and fueled the Ugandan ambition for independence. But in the next several weeks the story turned ugly as many white people of Mississippi and other southern states of the USA reacted violently to black encroachment on the white domain of university education and other civil privileges, forcing President John F. Kennedy to send troops in order to restore law and order.

Yes, it was that stark – blatant denial of black rights! The Meredith saga acted as a catalyst for the re-emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in the US originally started by Martin Luther King in 1954.

Photograph shows James Meredith walking on the campus of the University of Mississippi, accompanied by U.S. marshals. LOC photo reproduced in Simerg
Photograph shows James Meredith walking on the campus of the University of Mississippi, accompanied by U.S. marshals. Photo: Marion S. Trikosko / US Library of Congress via U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection.

Mr Batra, our history teacher. seized on the Meredith story to shift his focus from Western and Eastern philosophies to philosophy of action and human rights. He said that philosophy, search for God and reaching nirvana were only words if they did not improve human condition. “As important as God is,” he said, “concern for human condition is no less. We have a duty to our fellow beings. God would wish for that. Today, I will talk about people whose philosophies were based on actions to improve the conditions of their people. More importantly, I will speak about the struggles of black people of America.”

Our teacher electrified the class. Jinja Secondary School in those days was called Indian Secondary School. William Wilberforce and Joseph Bufumbiro where the first native Ugandans who had joined our class. We had become aware of black aspirations. Africa in the 1960s was a smoldering tinder, ready to burst into flames at the slightest wind. The apartheid in South Africa was a stranglehold on the neck of Black People of South Africa. The Sharpeville massacre of innocent blacks in South Africa was fresh in our minds. Ian Smith of South Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) was ready to crush the hopes of black people for an equitable independence with one-man-one-vote and was conniving with the British to declare a minority White Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), which he did in 1965.

The Mau Mau Insurgency for independence that lasted from 1952-1960 in our neighboring Kenya and the subsequent killings of the innocent Kikuyu people by the British was a pink-elephant in the room that no one wanted to mention.

Rolling a chalk-stick in his hand, Mr. Batra sensed our mood and continued. “We will shift our attention to that part of American history that was saddening. In the 1900s, the freed African-American slaves, still called by the derogatory term ‘negroes’, were struggling to gain equality.

Booker T Washington, Library of Congress Photo, reproduced in Simerg
Booker T. Washington, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front; created / published between 1880 and 1890. Photograph possibly by Harry Shepherd. Photo: Booker T. Washington Collection, US Library of Congress.

Booker T. Washington was the first freed slave who had gained high prominence in politics in Washington, DC in the early 1900s. He was an advocate for building African-American economic strength, which he argued would give them the desired freedoms and equality. At this date, although freed, the African-American had no voting rights and no protection under the law. The lynching of black people for petty crimes or in some cases no crimes had accelerated. The whites made sure that black enterprises failed.

Booker T. Washington revolted against this white tyranny and sought to protect the senseless lynching of black people. The constitution drawn-up by the founding fathers of US recognized equal rights but in reality the rights of the black people were ignored. With no legal avenues at his disposal Booker T. Washington agreed to the only compromise solution to protect the rights of black people and save them from murder and lynching. This solution came to be known as the Atlanta Convention.

Agreed in 1905, this illegal convention was never written down. In it, the white establishment demanded that black people forego voting rights, agree only to basic education with no right to university education and no equality in law. The last dehumanizing demand of white people was for a forced segregation of black people in return for limited safety in law and basic freedom.

A poster in the collection of US Library of Congress condemning the South African apartheid policies, reproduced in Simerg
A poster designed and created in 1976 by Wilfred Owen Brigade condemning the South African apartheid regime, and showing support of the international boycott. Photo: US Library of Congress.

The white people of South Africa learned apartheid from this page of US history. Although not fully satisfactory, the Atlanta Convention stopped the senseless lynching and persecution of the black people. This was the singular achievement of Booker T. Washington.

As an afterthought, Mr Batra added, “The importance of James Meredith story that you read in Uganda Argus is that it has taken fifty years for one black student to challenge the unwritten, unlawful Atlanta Convention. The reaction of the white people of the south US demonstrates that white attitude towards the black people has not changed since the abolition of slavery.”

In his characteristic fashion, Mr Batra had not finished jarring our senses with impactful and unjust events from history. He had saved the most powerful of these for the last. He concluded his lesson by saying, “You will study the life of Abraham Lincoln in your literature class next year. He was the 35th president of the US. He abolished slavery in the US and restored human dignity. You would think that this would be a joyful achievement for the US and for Mr Lincoln. Unfortunately, he was silenced like Mahatma Gandhi by an assassin’s bullet soon after proclamation of the abolition of slavery.”

Caption in this illustration by Udo J. Keppler reads: "President Roosevelt: Lincoln emancipated you, the people gave you citizenship and I'll protect your rights."
Caption in this illustration by Udo J. Keppler reads: “President Roosevelt: Lincoln emancipated you, the people gave you citizenship and I’ll protect your rights.” The illustration shows President Theodore Roosevelt, standing with right hand on the left shoulder of an African American man, standing to the left, and his left hand on a paper labeled “15th Amendment”; behind them is a statue labeled “Lincoln – With Malice Toward None With Charity Toward all” showing Abraham Lincoln standing at the top with freed African American slaves. Section 1 of the 15th Amendment of the American Constitution reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Section 2 then goes on to declare, “The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” Photo: US Library of Congress.

I asked. “Sir, why does every great life end in a tragedy?” Mr Batra thought for a while, before he answered: “Historically the human was a hunter-gatherer. His survival depended on defending his territory and maintaining superiority over others by dehumanizing and enslaving the enemy. The ancient humans hunted in bands. Anyone not belonging to the band was an enemy. This is the human instinct. In this sense a band can be any group with common interest and common characteristics such as race, color or religion. Anyone that challenges this convention is an enemy who needs to be dealt with.”

African-Americans with wagon pointing guns at slave-catchers, Library of Congress photo reproduced in Simerg
An illustration entitled ‘A bold stroke for freedom in “William Still, The Underground Railroad” 1872, p. 125, depicting African-Americans with wagon pointing guns at slave-catchers. Photo: US Library of Congress.

In the coming years the situation in Africa became grim as the apartheid grip on South Africa became stronger, Southern Rhodesia sunk in to a quagmire and Algeria began a war for independence from its French master. It was this one lesson with Mr Batra that gave us the motivation to pick up banners to end tyranny in Africa and to fight for justice for Nelson Mandela when the illegal South African regime tried him for treason.

Watch an important webcast presented by the US Library of Congress

SUMMARY: In September 1962, James Meredith became the first African American admitted to the University of Mississippi. A milestone in the civil rights movement, his admission triggered a riot spurred by a mob of 3,000 whites from across the South and all-but-officially stoked by the state’s segregationist authorities. The escalating conflict prompted President John F. Kennedy to send in 20,000 regular Army troops, in addition to federalized Mississippi National Guard soldiers, to restore law and order. “James Meredith and the Ole Miss Riot” is the memoir of one of the participants, a young Army second lieutenant named Henry T. Gallagher, born and raised in Minnesota.

VIDEO: James Meredith & the Ole Miss Riot

Date posted: June 12, 2020.

Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few.

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About the author: Shiraz Pradhan is a professional engineer, writer and philosopher. He grew up in Uganda and attended universities in Kenya and Pennsylvania, USA, and graduated with advanced degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics. As part of his involvement in several mega-project across the world, he has lived and worked in several countries in North and South America, Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Europe. This has given him a globalist world-view which flavours his writings. His first novel Dancing with Shadows was published in 2015. Michelangelo in Jinja is his second book. Summing his writing, Pacific Book Review said: “Pradhan’s work is the first one I’m aware that is actively Globalist.” Shiraz has a keen interest in Judaeo-Christian History, Islamic Studies, Sufism and philosophies of the Vedas and Upanishads. With his interest and familiarity with several languages and dialects, Shiraz has specialized in the study of ancient and medieval devotional traditions of South Asia including the Nizari Ismail Ginans. He has published several essays and articles on these subjects, many of which have been published on this website. He is currently completing a book titles Amarapuri, the Abode of Eternity for publication in late 2020.  He is the Chairman of the Association of the Study of Ginans which specializes in the preservation, study and research of the ancient Ginans. Shiraz currently lives in the UK with his family.

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