By STEVEN NALLEY
James Meredith has made a promise to God.
He will celebrate his 79th birthday tomorrow, and this October will mark the 50th anniversary of his admission to the University of Mississippi — the first admission of an African American in the school’s history. His age did not stop him from walking along Highway 51 from Mississippi’s border with Tennessee to its border with Louisiana this summer, in a campaign reminiscent of his 1966 March Against Fear. This time, he said, the mission is about more than racial issues, and it does not end with that walk. He said he plans to literally devote the rest of his life to helping Mississippians help themselves.
“I promised God, if I kept living, that I was going to spend the rest of my life trying to make people understand that they have the solution to our problem,” Meredith said. “People are still looking for somebody else to solve a problem that only we can solve. We have a near total breakdown in moral character in the state of Mississippi, and (the solution lies) with our education system, training up our children.”
Meredith is in the midst of his Walk For Education and Truth, following up his walk along Highway 51 with a visit to every county in the state to discuss five faith-centered principles he believes will resolve many of the social, educational and moral issues the state faces.
Meredith carries cards displaying these five principles, giving them to anyone open to his ideas. His journey took him to Starkville Thursday, and while in town, he visited the Oktibbeha County Courthouse, where Oktibbeha Deputy Clerk Dylan Hawkins said she was surprised and pleased to meet Meredith. She said a key phrase on the card, below the principles, caught her attention: “Prevention is better than cure.”
“I was impressed,” Hawkins said. “I think it’s excellent that he mentions the Bible and God’s plan, and that he quotes African proverbs. He was a very pleasant man, (and he was) well-spoken.”
In each town he visits, Meredith said his primary goal is to speak with media outlets and raise awareness of his proposals, bringing him to the Starkville Daily News office Thursday. He said he visits courthouses out of respect for elected officials, not out of a belief that the solutions to Mississippi’s education problems lie with the state. There is only so much government programs can do, he said, whether they are public schools or prisons.
“You cannot lock everybody up, and that’s what’s been the process for the last 20 years, and it’s coming to a head,” Meredith said. “No society can do that. No teacher can teach 25 kids, 9 years old, that they can’t get to sit down and pay attention. No child that has not been taught right from wrong... (can) be disciplined, and if they cannot be disciplined, they cannot be taught.”
For these reasons, Meredith’s first principle is, “Only the family of God can solve the problems of our time.” Building on that, the second principle is Proverbs 22:6: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” The third is the African proverb Hawkins mentioned: “It takes a village to raise a child.”
To illustrate how these first few principles work, Meredith used bullying in schools as an example.
“Every one of these situations start where the students (who bully others) live, in the community, and that’s the only place it can be stopped,” Meredith said. “Raising a child is more than school. School is part of the process, but most people think the school is supposed to do it all. The school cannot teach morality.”
The fourth principle, Meredith said, is for every church in Mississippi to take responsibility for every child born within two miles of the church, and the fifth principle is for each church to keep a record of each child from birth until age 21. These two principles are aimed at correcting the difficulty many Mississippians face with getting professional recommendations, he said.
“It used to be that the preacher (or) the high school principal could tell you about everybody,” Meredith said. “We not only don’t know each other now, we don’t want to know each other now, and that has to change. The people who need recommendation most in life are the people with the most problems.”
Meredith said he believes these five principles will provide children, particularly those between birth and age 5, with the foundation they need to become productive, upstanding citizens. He compared this foundation to Biblical parables.
“When (Jesus Christ) talked about building your house on a solid foundation, he wasn’t talking about a rock,” Meredith said. “He was talking about the foundation of human beings. I feel, beyond a doubt, if we start (providing this foundation), we will improve our education system in one year’s time by 50 percent. We will solve our crime problem. We will solve our family breakdown problem.”
Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said he did not have the opportunity to meet Meredith while he was in town. Upon learning about Meredith’s five principles, he said he agrees with Meredith’s idea that children’s educational needs stretch beyond the school system and into the home.
“Quality schools that offer a child every advantage possible are a necessity for a successful community, but just as important is that the citizens of the community have the mindset that every child must be nurtured and encouraged to achieve every educational advantage that the community offers,” Wiseman said. “James Meredith has fought for education, often at great personal sacrifice, for his entire adult life. He should be valued as a resource for those who seek ways to improve education in the 21st century.”