Civil rights icon James Meredith turns 90 and urges people to fight crime by obeying the Ten Commandments

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — James Meredith knew he was putting his life on the line in the 1960s pursuing what he believes to be his divine mission: to conquer white supremacy in the deeply and often violently separated state of Mississippi.

Half a century later, the civil rights leader is still talking about his mission from God. In recent weeks, he has made several appearances in his home country, urging people to obey the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule in order to reduce crime. On her 90th birthday on Sunday, Meredith said older generations should lead the way.

“Not only can old people control it, but it’s their job to control it,” Meredith told The Associated Press on Sunday after an event in her honor at the Mississippi Capitol.

Meredith is a civil rights icon who has long resisted this label because he believes it distinguishes issues such as the right to vote and equal access to education from other human rights.

During the event, Meredith fell while trying to stand and speak. He leaned on an unsecured desk, and he crashed forward with Meredith on top. People nearby rushed to put him back in a wheelchair.

Meredith suffered no visible injuries. An ambulance crew later examined him, then Meredith drove to his home in Jackson to celebrate his birthday with his family. His wife, Judy Alsobrooks Meredith, said on Monday he was spending time with his grandchildren and showed no signs of pain.

In October 1962, federal marshals escorted Meredith as he enrolled as the first black student at the University of Mississippi, while whites rioted on the Oxford campus. Then-Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett stirred the crowd into a frenzy by declaring that Ole Miss would not be integrated under his leadership.

Meredith was a 29-year-old Air Force veteran who had previously attended one of Mississippi’s historically black colleges, Jackson State. NAACP attorneys represented him when he obtained a federal court order to enter the state’s flagship public university. After a largely solitary existence at Ole Miss, Meredith earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1963.

After graduating, Meredith set out to promote black voter registration and show that a black man could cross the Mississippi without fear. In June 1966, a white man with a shotgun wounded Meredith on the second day of a march from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. With Meredith hospitalized, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael and other civil rights leaders continued the march, often followed by long lines of activists and locals.

Less than three weeks after being shot, Meredith had recovered enough to join the home stretch of what became known as March Against Fear. It ended at the State Capitol, where about 15,000 people gathered for Mississippi’s largest civil rights rally.

This year, Meredith had planned to walk 200 miles (322 kilometers) in Mississippi to spread her anti-crime message — about the same distance as the Walk Against Fear. Instead, he has made a series of appearances in recent weeks, often using a rollator, wheelchair or golf cart.

On Sunday, Meredith rode in a golf cart for the final quarter-mile (0.40 kilometer) from Jackson City Hall to the Mississippi Capitol, led by a high school marching band and accompanied by dozens of people on foot. A racially diverse group of about 200 people sought shade under magnolias and oaks while listening to songs, speeches and a childhood poem praising Meredith.

Flonzie BrownWright, a longtime civil rights activist from Mississippi who participated in the 1966 March Against Fear, said she thought Meredith was a genius at creating strategies for social change.

“He’s a very smart man with great old-fashioned wisdom. He was able to use that for the greater good of his people,” BrownWright said Sunday. “I love him like a big brother.”

In the decades following Meredith’s onboarding of Ole Miss, the university erected a statue of him on campus and held several events to honor him and his legacy.

John Meredith said on Sunday his father had a profound effect on higher education, but the March Against Fear had a bigger impact on him as a son because it demonstrated the importance of elections.

“The silent gift of the vote is the ability to help shape the laws under which you live. That’s the beauty and the curse of America,” said John Meredith, the current city council president of Huntsville, Alabama. “Voting brings inclusion, diversity and opportunity. Not voting results in loss of freedom…and government oppression.

At the Capitol’s anniversary celebration, Iyanu B. Carson, a 5th grade student from Jackson, read her poem titled “90 Years of History,” saying she longs to be like Meredith.

“You made the choice to use your voice, you were strong and made them believe you belonged,” Iyanu said. “Today we celebrate history, and Mr. Meredith, history is you! We are proud of your accomplishments and all that you have been through.

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