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Lunch with two legends



Sheriff Martin Pace with Dr. James Meredith during his visit to River City Early College (photo by David Day)

On Nov. 12, the Vicksburg Daily News had the pleasure of organizing a presentation with civil rights icon James Meredith and the students of the River City Early College. The best and brightest students there had a chance to interact with one of the remaining major players in the civil rights fight in America.

James Meredith was the first African American to be enrolled at the University of Mississippi. He compelled the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, to enforce civil rights for African Americans. Kennedy sent federal troops and nationalized the Mississippi National Guard, ordering them on campus to keep the peace after 2 people died in riots the day before Meredith registered.

Meredith’s actions were a key step forward in the fight for civil rights.

One of the posters at RCEC for Dr. Meredith’s visit (photo by Kelley Branch)

To the students and educators at the RCEC, he was enthralling. Those young minds were taken to the fight for civil rights and that point in time by Dr. Meredith. He explained the separation of the races back then, how he was treated in spite of being educated and an Air Force veteran. He explained that in the Jim Crow South, all that mattered was the color of his skin. Meredith talked about the fight to change all that and his role in it.

For most of the teenagers it was their first time facing the cruel reality of the racial struggle during that period of time.

The room at RCEC was silent as the 10th graders heard Meredith explain, “If you didn’t do what they wanted, they disappeared you. You would be in the bottom of a river or hanging from a tree.” There was stunned silence in the room as the students grasped the magnitude of the forces against Meredith at that time. Meredith continued with, “They’d leave you up there for a couple of days so everyone could see you. After someone took you down your clothes were left up there for months.”

(photo by Kelley Branch)

Meredith went on to graduate with a degree in political science.

In 1966 Meredith organized a March Against Fear to register African Americans to vote. He was going to march across the state of Mississippi, 220 miles from Memphis to Jackson. Despite state police protection, Meredith was shot on the second day of the march. Civil Rights leaders from around the country gathered to finish the march for Meredith. Recovering from his wounds, he was able to rejoin the march before it reached Jackson. 15,000 people marched into Jackson with the wounded James Meredith at the front. It was the largest march in the state’s history.

4000 people registered to vote during the march.

In spite of the struggle and the fight for rights, James Meredith is skilled at setting people at ease. Most people who approach him are in awe and aware of who he is and what he has done. They move slowly and respectfully toward him. By the time they walk away they are smiling and usually laughing, over joyed at the new friend they’ve made.

Dr. James Meredith (photo by Kelley Branch)

James Meredith is on what he is calling his Third Mission. The first was registering at the university and the second was the March Against Fear in 1966. He is traveling to every county in Mississippi and going to city hall or the Sheriff’s department to meet with community leaders and spread his message about the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule.

For this meeting, Dr. Meredith had requested Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace’s presence. Several years ago James Meredith spoke in Vicksburg and Sheriff Pace was the only elected official to show up. That moved Dr. Meredith and he has mentioned the Sheriff’s show of support and respect many times over the years as he has traveled around on this mission.

Dr. Meredith was delighted when the Sheriff entered the room. They joked and you could see there was a real connection between them.

Sheriff Pace with Dr. James Meredith (photo by David Day)

After the meeting and the massive accolades from everyone involved, it was lunch time and Dr. Meredith is a big fan of Walnut Hills. Joining the party was Meredith’s granddaughter (and driver), renowned photographer Suzi Altman, the Sheriff and Vicksburg Daily News administrator Kelley Branch, the publishers boss, Rhonda Day, and me.

As we were seated you could see the people peaking in the room spying on the famous folks seated at that table. Suzi Altman is James Meredith’s photographer. She has traveled with him almost everywhere including to France. They recently returned from a trip to Minnesota. Dr. Meredith wanted to be present when the court decided the fate of Derrick Chauvin, the officer involved in the death of George Floyd. Altmans photography work on Emmit Till is currently on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

Dave Tell, author of ‘Remembering Emmett Till’ and photographer Suzi Altman, whose work is also included in the exhibit (photo courtesy of Suzi Altman)

Most locals know her for her work saving and restoring Margaret’s Grocery on N. Washington Street in Kings.

Meredith sat at one end of the table, to his immediate left was the Sheriff and the two men talked throughout the meal, often laughing and joking with each other. Sheriff Pace is probably the most recognizable person in Warren County and he spoke with most everyone in the room at one point or another. During one of those conversations James Meredith broke out a paper and pen and began to write something out on the back of a menu. He studiously wrote for several minutes and handed it to the Sheriff, along with a few hushed words, when he was done. The Sheriff nodded.

Dr. Meredith was delighted when the Sheriff entered the room. They joked and you could see there was a real connection between them. (photo by David Day)

People talk about former Sheriff Paul Barrett to this day. They tell stories of the things he did and his impact on them, their life and Warren County. People will do the same thing with Sheriff Pace. He is a master of public relations and a damn fine law man as well. From this viewpoint, he puts the safety of his deputies above all else. He is forever on the radio advising how to approach a scene along with offering his 30 plus years of knowledge on those individual situations. He also has an uncanny knowledge of every square inch of the county. It is not uncommon to hear him explain to a younger deputy, “At that location we had an incident with their older brother in 2017. That brick house with white trim sits back at the end of a road on the right. There was an old Jeep in the yard for a long time, it was there a couple of months ago. Mind that shed just before the house, there may be someone in there.”

I witnessed the Sheriff chase a desperado in a car all over Warren County including in the city. That person ditched the car on Old 27 and ran into the woods there near a ravine. There must have been 20 separate units at that scene including the K-9 that was able to apprehend the desperate young man shortly after he ran from the car. As they brought the young man, emaciated, exhausted and frighteningly pale back to the roadway, he collapsed. The Sheriff got him a water, propped him up and then held him as he put the bottle to the desperados lips.

Sheriff Pace will be remembered for a very long time in Warren County, he too will become a legend. And as we enjoyed an excellent lunch at Walnut Hills, those two legends laughed and joked.

When the meal was over Dr. Meredith was offered a tour of the kitchen to meet the staff. They were thrilled and James Meredith had them laughing and at ease in no time at all. Everyone in that kitchen shook the Sheriff’s hand too.

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