To many in the United States, the name James Meredith is, in itself, a symbol. This man sitting in a small house on a quiet street in San Diego was the first black student ever enrolled in the University of Mississippi. The year: 1962.
For that reason alone, Meredith, 57, is a civil rights pioneer. Like Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson before him, he is recognized for having been first, in some critical way, in the struggle for racial equality.
"James Meredith is a pioneer in American history and certainly in the civil rights movement," said Niger Innis, director of the Washington chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE. "In his own way, he was the first. Nothing more needs to be said."
But what Meredith says, and is said about him, is often surprising, even shocking. His alliances with right-wing politicians, his disdain of the civil rights movement and his bold gestures--he is now running for president--have left a residue of skepticism. To those who know only the name and its footnote in history, Meredith's credentials and public posture often come as a shattering revelation.
From September, 1989, until February, Meredith placed his family in a house in Mission Hills while working in Washington as a domestic-policy adviser to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Helms filibustered against a national holiday in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Helms provided every member of the Senate with a 350-page FBI report on King and denounced King's "Marxism" as "not compatible with the concepts of this country." Meredith said recently that he was fired by Helms because the senator was "too liberal for me."
He said that Helms had grown increasingly concerned over a partnership that Meredith has cultivated for years with Louisiana legislator and gubernatorial candidate David Duke, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan.
"The reason I was given (for the firing) was that I was too far to the right for Helms, which is very true," Meredith said last week, at his home in Mission Hills. "But the other reason was the David Duke connection. That was the biggest of all the reasons."
During his tenure with Helms, Meredith said Duke made him an honorary member of the Louisiana Legislature and "sent the certificate to Helms' office in Washington. When they saw that, they got terribly upset.
"Helms had told me that, if it ever became public--my association with Duke--that I would immediately be fired."
Despite many calls to his office, neither Helms nor his press secretary was available for comment.
Glenn Montecino, Duke's legislative assistant and spokesman, said from his office in Baton Rouge, La., that Meredith and Duke have "no formal relationship at the moment" but hope to have in the future. He described their association as an "intimate friendship."
If Duke wins the governor's race, Montecino said, Meredith may end up a staff member, working in the Health and Welfare Department. Duke is founder of the National Assn. for the Advancement of White People, which Meredith supports.
"Duke believes, and I do, too, that there are millions of whites in this country who have been denied their opportunity at the American dream," Meredith said.
Meredith said he has Duke's backing in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Meredith's base is San Diego, where his family has lived since 1989 for what he calls "educational and medical reasons."
The candidate said he is still relentlessly "pro-black." He simply disagrees with the "liberal agenda of the elite ruling class," which "pigeonholes" blacks, Latinos, women and gays into the same category and weakens--rather then emboldens--each group politically.
But it is blacks Meredith is concerned with, and because he believes blacks are stronger as a separate political force, he sees Helms and Duke as being more in tune with the needs of his own constituency than George Bush or even Jesse Jackson.
President Bush was right in vetoing the Civil Rights Act of 1990, Meredith said, because its primary goal was to help women, homosexuals and Latinos.
"It did nothing to help blacks," he said.
At the same time, he resents newly elected Gov. Pete Wilson for using the Bush veto to lure white voters. Meredith calls Wilson "one of the most powerful--and dangerous--men in America," without really elaborating.
Meredith has three college-age sons by his first wife, who died in 1979, and a daughter by his wife of 11 years, Judy. All but one live in a rented house in Mission Hills, not far from downtown.
One son is confined to a local hospital as a victim of lupus. Another is a graduate student in business at the University of San Diego. The third is an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati. Meredith's daughter is a third-grader at the elite, private Francis Parker School, where tuition is $6,805 a year.
On a recent morning, Meredith wore a crisp, powder blue business suit and said he had grown disillusioned by "the total lack of structure and organization in San Diego." He said that, in two years, "no one in my family has made a dime in California."
As a result, he said, he may soon return to his native Mississippi "so I can make ends meet."
Leaders in the civil rights movement say Meredith once supported himself largely through public speaking. He said that, for most of the last three decades, he made enough speaking at colleges in one month alone--February, Black History Month--that he was able to support himself and his family for the rest of the year.
But most of the speeches have ended.
"The liberals have completely blocked that off--totally," Meredith said. "This year in February--zero. I've had to sell off about a third of everything I own . . . houses, land, just to keep things going."
Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said listeners at Meredith's speeches often leave disappointed and confused.
"I've had students come to me crying like babies after they had used their limited funds to hire him to speak," Hooks said from NAACP headquarters in Baltimore. "What they got was a hodgepodge of nothing. They usually want to know if they can get their money back.
"Here's a man who never had a mission, or if he did, it's long gone. He's obviously lost his way, if, in fact, he ever had one."
If bitterness toward Meredith runs deep in some quarters, Meredith wants folks to know the feeling is mutual.
"For 25 years, my biggest obstacle was that everyone thought I was one of the civil rights people, the liberal agenda people, the nonviolent people," he said. "I have never been any of that, and the so-called leadership knew that--you understand? It was to their advantage to portray me that way . . . because of my history, which coincided in time with much of what they were doing."
The individualism and isolation that Meredith cherishes began at an early age. Born in Kosciusko, Miss., in steamy Attala County, Meredith was taught by his father, Moses (Cap) Meredith, that "death was to be preferred" over suffering indignities at the hands of whites.
Cap Meredith was the first in his family to own a piece of property, an 84-acre farm called appropriately "my own place." Meredith's father shared the boundaries of his land with white neighbors, and, though they offered to pool resources for a common border fence, Cap declined.
He not only built his own fence, he yanked it 2 feet back from the property line to underscore what was his.
"It was to prevent his white neighbors from ever being in a position to take advantage of him," Meredith said. And it was the "authority of the fence," he said, that became a symbol for pride, independence and faith in what Cap called his "own kind."
There are those who argue that Meredith's stubborn pride has served to detach him not only from white people but also from people in general.
For years now, Meredith, who sees himself as a warrior, has been at war with the very movement he helped to spawn. In 1989, Meredith told the Washington Post that 60% of black leaders were involved in the drug culture, and that 80% were in some form of corruption.
He suggested he would blow the whistle on them. It did not endear him to onetime colleagues.
"That was complete irresponsibility!" Hooks said. "Bald-faced lies! Meredith has no philosophy or approach. In conversation, he never goes from A to B, or even A to C. He goes from A to Roman numeral I and then back to F in this meandering mishmash.
"He never says nothing about anything. I'm not sure he's capable of saying anything. Ask a student what he said, and they can't explain it. They just shake their heads."
Hooks said that Meredith had "betrayed" any alliances he might have had by "cozying up to the likes of Helms and Duke." As a result, he said, leaders in the movement have come to regard Meredith as a maverick eccentric at best, and at worst, a nut.
"I don't know how any articulate, intelligent, self-respecting black person could ever work for Jesse Helms or David Duke," Hooks said. "Unless he's trying to convert them--you know, redemption for the sinner--but with Meredith, I don't get that feeling."
Meredith said he knows "they think I'm crazy, but it don't bother me, 'cause I think they're crazy."
In his 1964 book, "Three Years in Mississippi," Meredith acknowledged that he was once diagnosed by an Air Force psychiatrist as having an "obsessive-compulsive neurosis" because of consistent anxieties about race.
But it's "the liberal agenda . . . the biggest trick being pulled on people in modern time" that now causes him sleepless nights, Meredith said.
He said the liberal agenda had created a "sharp polarization in America" between rich and poor, black and white, and that scores of blacks share in feeding the elitism.
"The whole aim of the so-called civil rights movement is to establish a dual citizenship in America," Meredith said. "Blacks that go along with it get special privileges for doing so . . . just as the Jews who supported the Germans got special privileges for doing so."
Suddenly, he flashed back to the era and the very valiant gesture that stamped him in the public's consciousness forever.
"I never understood the emotionalism that people were experiencing by watching the activities taking place (in Mississippi in 1962)," he said. "I was never really involved with that. I was at war . I saw myself as a general. I was commanding, against my enemy! And at that time, my enemy was the white supremacists.
"But even then, I knew who my true enemy was. It was the liberal elite, without a doubt. The white supremacists had a narrower goal. The liberal thing was more permanent--to make the black a second-class citizen forever, and to me, that was sinister."
Moments later, Meredith was railing about the Los Angeles police beating.
"It wasn't David Duke who beat Rodney King, it was the liberal black mayor Tom Bradley's police who beat Rodney King," he said. "But liberals all over America have created a perception that the Klan did that.
"You can't find me a black in America who, in the last 15 years, can give an account of men in hoods riding down the street scaring them, abusing them in any way. But there's not a black family in America that can't point to the police abusing them. We've got perceptions that don't fit reality."
Innis, the director of the Washington chapter of CORE and the son of civil rights leader Roy Innis, said he can appreciate Meredith's motivation, and that he's tried to understand him.
"I see no problem with a black man making sure that every facet of the American political spectrum is integrated and has a black perspective, whether it be conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat. . . . The media often give the perception that the black political point of view is a monolith, when, in fact, we're not," Innis said.
"We're as diverse and varied a people as any ethnic group in the country. For that reason, it does not bother me that James worked for Jesse Helms. But David Duke is a different story. For David Duke, I have no comment. You'll have to ask James about that one."
Innis said it may be that, after years of fighting the predator--or people who symbolize the predator--Meredith has taken on their viewpoint as a way of defending himself against them.
One prominent civil rights leader, who asked not to be quoted by name, said he had studied Meredith for years, fearing that he posed a problem for those wishing to "protect the reputation" of the movement.
"Was it a case of Meredith being one way and changing? No, I don't think so," the man said. "Many of us had misgivings about James Meredith from the very beginning. We were concerned about him even before he entered the University of Mississippi."
Hooks said his concerns were magnified in 1966, when Meredith decided to walk from Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., in the March Against Fear. The march ended for Meredith when a white man sprayed him with birdshot on a hot dusty road.
"There was no rhyme or reason for that at all," Hooks said. "It was just something he decided to do."
"Everyone thought he would be killed," James Farmer, the former head of CORE, said in a recent interview. "It was complete egomania."
Meredith said the walk was intended to demonstrate that blacks in the South should overcome their fear and register to vote, after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Meredith, who sees himself as a biblical character, said that surviving a gunshot wound proved that, in God's eyes, he was more a Moses than a Jesus.
He once told an interviewer that "God's role for me is similar to his role for Moses and Christ" and referred to himself as "the most important black leader in America and in the world."
Ask Meredith about other black leaders, and again his comments are tinged with contempt. Jesse Jackson is "a Democrat. . . . Enough said?" South Africa's Nelson Mandela is the harbinger of "nothing good, because it's all about elitism."
But ask him about Martin Luther King Jr., who championed his efforts as a Mississippi student, and suddenly, a new Meredith is talking, a man who seems to have gone back, however briefly, to an earlier, simpler, more idealistic time.
"Dr. King articulated the hopes and the sorrows and the wishes of the black race better than anyone ever did," Meredith said. "King was the only one in the movement that I ever had any relationship with at all. The others I had zero respect for.
"So what can I say about Dr. King? Well . . . I miss him. I really miss him. He was a great man."