Meredith was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi. He enlisted in the United States Air Force immediately after high school and served from 1951 to 1960 and attended Jackson State College for two years, then applied to the University of Mississippi. At that time African-Americans were not allowed to attend that university, but intending to be the first on that path, Meredith stated, "Nobody hand picked me...I believed, and believe now, that I have a divine responsibility. I am familiar with the probable difficulties involved in such a move as I am undertaking and I am fully prepared to pursue it all the way to a degree from the University of Mississippi."
Meridith applied at the school but was denied admission twice. On May 31, 1961, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a suit in the U.S. District Court alleging that the color of his skin was the only reason for Meredith not being accepted into the university. The case went through many hearings and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled that Meredith had the right to be admitted.
Though Meredith was now allowed to register to the school, the Governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, attempted to block his entrance, passing a law that “prohibited any person who was convicted of a state crime from admission to a state school.” This law was directed at Meredith, who had been convicted of “false voter registration.”
A deal was finally reached between the Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Governor Barnett and Meredith was allowed to attend the university. On October 1, 1962, he became the first black student at the University of Mississippi, after being barred from entering on September 20. His enrollment sparked riots on the Oxford campus, and required enforcement by U.S. Marshals and later by (federal) U.S. Army military police from the 503rd Military Police Battalion sent by President John F. Kennedy. Troops from Mississippi Army National Guard and U.S. Border Patrol were called in, as well. The riots led to a violent clash which left two people dead, including French journalist Paul Guihard, on assignment for the London Daily Sketch, who was found behind the Lyceum building with a gunshot wound to the back. 160 soldiers were injured, and 28 U.S. Marshals were wounded by gunfire.
Barnett was fined $10,000 and sentenced to jail for contempt, but the charges were later dismissed by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Bob Dylan sang about the incident in his song "Oxford Town". Meredith's actions are regarded as a pivotal moment in the history of civil rights in the United States. He graduated on August 18, 1963 with a degree in political science.
Many students harassed Meredith during his two semesters on campus. Though the majority of students accepted Meredith's presence, students living in Meredith's dorm bounced basketballs on the floor just above his room through all hours of the night. When Meredith walked into the cafeteria for meals, the students eating would all turn their backs. If Meredith sat at a table with other students, all of whom were white, the students would immediately get up and go to another table.
In an interview for CNN, Meredith stated, "I was engaged in a war. I considered myself engaged in a war from Day One. And my objective was to force the federal government – the Kennedy administration at that time – into a position where they would have to use the United States military force to enforce my rights as a citizen".James Meredith currently lives in Jackson, Mississippi with his second wife, Judy Alsobrook Meredith.