Ed Schmitt is a Marquette PhD alum who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. A few months ago he received a surprise phone all from a living legend–the Civil Rights activist James Meredith.
When my cell phone began ringing early on a Friday evening last spring, I expected it to be my daughter. She and a friend had been at a local shopping mall, and it was almost time to go pick her up. Seeing an unfamiliar area code, I hesitated before answering. “Mr. Schmitt,” the caller said, in a measured and slightly weary tone, “this is James Meredith.” I dropped the car keys which I had just grabbed and, while stammering my deep appreciation for his call, began casting about for paper and a pen. I sent a letter to the legendary civil rights figure a few weeks earlier, with a request to interview him for my book project about the activist and comedian Dick Gregory. And now I was quite unexpectedly talking to him in my kitchen.
I’d conducted many interviews before, but never with someone of quite his stature, and never on such short notice. He could tell I was a bit flustered. As I thought about the best way to proceed (my mind raced between – “you don’t have your notes in front of you” and “don’t let this opportunity pass”), I mentioned the possibility of sending him some questions to consider and then scheduling another time to talk. “Whenever and however you want to do it,” he said reassuringly. What followed was a delightful hour-long discussion with one of the most famous heroes of twentieth century U.S. history, and a renewed appreciation for the value of oral history.
I contacted Meredith seeking to learn more about his relationship with Gregory, and particularly how he viewed Gregory’s role in the movement. Both men are fascinating, deeply committed, and somewhat enigmatic. Born less than a year apart, they were a bit older than most of the student activists who energized the black freedom struggle through the sit-ins and other direct action protests of the early 1960s. And both were military veterans, who continue to view themselves as lifelong soldiers in the battle for equality.
While Meredith is best known as the first African American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, I hoped to focus on a couple of later episodes in his career that I thought might provide insight into Gregory’s significance. He was open to discussing all of these, and his memory seemed quite sharp despite the passage of fifty years since the events in question. I learned about Meredith’s high regard for Gregory despite their philosophical disagreement regarding the strategy of nonviolence, was made aware of a mutual friend I had not been familiar with who became an important Gregory ally in the South, and perhaps most importantly, I gained a deeper appreciation for the human complexity and personal relationships involved in the movement.
Historians love written documents and have always viewed oral history a bit more cautiously. Perhaps because we are trained to be skeptical of documents, it is even easier to question the motive or memory of a living figure than something fixed in print. While it must indeed be assessed critically, oral history can provide things written documents cannot. Hearing Meredith bristle when he discussed how others tried to use his 1966 “March Against Fear” for their own purposes, or noting his tone of voice when he said that for most of his career Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t really understand poverty conveyed insights beyond what written documents may have. And to hear him gently tell his grandchild to go play in another room because he was discussing “important matters” was to be reminded powerfully of the humanity of a figure who might otherwise be relegated to a role as an iconic set piece in a too familiar tale.
The term “interactive history” has become popular in an age of eye popping technologies that bring the past alive in new ways for students. In truth, history has always been interactive, even with seemingly fixed print documents. Uncovering a pivotal handwritten note on a memo from an advisor to a president, or a viewing firsthand the artistry in an ancient manuscript allows us to encounter the past in sometimes thrilling ways. But perhaps no source is as interactive as an oral history interview. To explore topics of your choosing with an historical figure – and to be able to ask a follow up questions – is historical inquiry at its most interactive. Concluding my interview with Meredith, I asked if I might contact him again should further questions arise. He repeated what he said at the outset: “Whenever and however you want to do it.” All historians should be so fortunate as to have access to such a source.
. Ed Schmitt received his PhD from Marquette University in 2003 and is now an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Parkside. His first book, based on the dissertation he wrote under the direction of Robert Hay, was President of the Other America: Robert Kennedy and the Politics of Poverty (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011–https://www.umass.edu/umpress/title/president-other-america). He is currently researching a book on the role of activist and entertainer Dick Gregory in the social movements of the 1960s and 70s.