Editor’s Note: James Meredith is a US Air Force veteran, the first black graduate of the University of Mississippi, and the author of “Three Years in Mississippi” and the memoir, “A Mission from God,” written with William Doyle. Twenty-five years ago, when Doyle read the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” he was struck by the passage, “One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, courageously and with a majestic sense of purpose facing jeering and hostile mobs and the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer.” He sought out Meredith and the two have been discussing American history and race relations ever since. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors. View more opinions at CNN.
The death of George Floyd last month set us on an entirely new path of history. Perhaps it will lead to the beast of white supremacy, which has cursed this nation since before its history began, finally being conquered.
Black people have always known how powerful and dangerous white supremacy is, but now the entire world is on the march, saying: We’re not going to take it anymore. This may be the greatest thing to ever happen to America, and I think it will change the destiny of our nation for the better.
When I was a boy, my father told me that I was on a mission from God to destroy the system of white supremacy and to uplift black and brown people to their proper position. I took his challenge very seriously.
In 1961, as a 28-year-old Air Force veteran of the desegregated military, I sued the state of Mississippi, which was at that time a neo-Confederate, terrorist police state, for the right to get my education at the University of Mississippi. I forced the President of the United States and the Supreme Court to back my rights as an American citizen, and the federal courts ordered me into the university.
In response, the state of Mississippi rebelled and started an insurrection, blocked me and my federal escorts from entering the school, and became a breakaway republic on the issue of race.
A bloody riot of some 2,000 white people ensued.
President John F. Kennedy sent in thousands of combat troops to crush the rebellion, and the gates of higher education in the United States were opened for all Americans. This victory for me and for the US Constitution shattered the system of state-sponsored white supremacy in Mississippi.
In 1966, while a student at Columbia University Law School, I began a one-man “March Against Fear” through Mississippi to inspire black people to vote. On Day Two, I was shot by a sniper, filling my body with pellets that remain under my skin today. Martin Luther King Jr. and the leaders of the civil rights movement came to Mississippi and took up the march, which attracted thousands of people and inspired thousands more to vote.
Federal voting registrars followed in force. There was no turning back. The floodgates of voter registration were opened for all Americans.
Over the years I’ve made speeches, traveled the world, written books, opened and closed businesses, been a liberal, a conservative, a farmer, husband, father and grandfather. In 2002, I watched with pride as my son Joseph received the Outstanding Doctoral Student Achievement Award at the University of Mississippi business school.
In 2013 I was awarded the Harvard Graduate School of Education Medal for Education Impact, the highest honor given by the school.
And I’m still here, still alive, still going strong, still taking a power walk every day, even through the pandemic.
But when I see people across America – and around the world – peacefully marching for racial justice and honoring the memory of George Floyd and other martyrs like Medgar Evers, my best friend and brother-figure from so long ago, I am filled with both joy and hope.
White supremacy may be the most evil beast that’s ever stalked the halls of history, and today it may finally be mortally wounded. This happened for two reasons. For the first and only time in my life, society was shut down by a pandemic, which prepared the people for an explosion. And then the video of Floyd’s death was seen by countless people the world over. Without that video, white supremacy in America might have remained nearly as powerful as it’s ever been for the past 500 years.
That video, you see, reveals what my life is all about. I am George Floyd. As a black man growing up in Mississippi in the mid-20th century, I was stripped of all the rights of American citizenship. I was subject to being beaten, tortured or lynched at any moment by a white person who had little reason to fear punishment. I’ve devoted my life to destroying that reality, and to the idea of honoring the full citizenship rights of every American.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Today, black and brown people are inspiring the world with their strength, determination, and willingness to see the struggle through to total victory.
I believe that this global uprising will never stop, and it will move into every heart, home and community on Earth, until the day when all people are treated with the dignity, respect and love that God intends for us. I believe that on that day, white supremacy will finally be buried forever.