James Meredith Bails On Ole Miss Debate
There'll be something sorely missing from this Friday's historic presidential debate at the University of Mississippi. Despite an earnest invitation and high expectations, James Meredith won't be there.
Many a story has been written over the past week about the symbolism of Barack Obama, the first African-American presidential nominee of either major party, debating GOP nominee John McCain at Ole Miss, where Meredith, in 1962, became the first black student to enroll in the Deep South college amid angry, deadly protests. And many journalists undoubtedly were hoping to see Meredith in the audience at his alma mater's Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts.
But Meredith wants no part of it. "I'm not going to be there," Meredith told the Sleuth during a telephone interview late Tuesday afternoon. "My wife and son will be there. I'm taking care of the grandbabies."
That came as a surprise to Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat, who told the Sleuth earlier he had invited Meredith and believed he would be there.
Meredith, 75, said he's boycotting the debate because he doesn't want to be a distraction. "What anybody would be interested in with James Meredith at the debate is 50 years old," he said, referring to the bloody riots over his enrollment at Ole Miss 46 years ago that left two dead and hundreds of others injured.
The unconventional civil rights icon refused to say whether he's supporting Obama or McCain, or even whether he'll vote on Election Day. "I won't discuss that," he said, adding, "I'm supporting the poor and the responsibility of the rich to the poor."
Meredith did say, however, that he thinks race is "THE factor" in this year's presidential election.
"White supremacy is for real," he said, suggesting that various groups he identifies as white supremacists "got plans."
Surprisingly, Meredith ran as a Republican candidate for several public offices, including for Congress, in the 1970s and even worked briefly in the late 1980s for the late conservative North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms.
He wouldn't elaborate on what he thinks white supremacists might be up to in this election, nor did he give any clues about which way he's leaning. But Meredith cited a number of racially tinged hot spots in recent political history.
For example, he mentioned the infamous Willie Horton ads that helped sink Michael Dukakis's presidential candidacy in 1988 and asked, "Have you heard about what George Bush's people did to John McCain in 2000?"
Meredith was referring, at least in part, to the smear campaign against McCain during the South Carolina primary in which Bush operatives made an issue of McCain's adopted daughter Bridget's skin color. (You can read about it in this 2004 article by McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis titled "The anatomy of a smear campaign.")
The Ole Miss alumnus also mentioned McCain's family's ties to the Deep South. "McCain's grandfather was born and raised 20 miles from where I live," Meredith said, referring to McCain's maternal grandfather, Archie Wright. (Actually, McCain's great-great grandfather owned a plantation in Mississippi.)
And he declared, "The most important person in this election is Sean Hannity." As proof, he pointed to Fox News' seemingly endless coverage of the controversy over Obama's former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, during the Democratic presidential primary.
"I want to be able to change things after the election," Meredith told us.
But for anyone who wants to know what he's talking about, you'd better hold your breath. "I'm not going to talk about it until after Nov. 4."
Mary Ann Akers
September 24, 2008; 7:05 AM ET
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