He was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi of Native American (Choctaw) and African American heritage. Meredith enlisted in the United States Air Force right out of high school and served from 1951 to 1960. He then attended Jackson State College for two years.
In 1962 he became the first black student at the University of Mississippi after being barred from entering on September 20. His enrollment, opposed by Governor Ross Barnett, required federal troops to enforce and led to a violent clash which left two people dead, 48 soldiers injured and 30 U.S. Marshals with gun wounds. His actions are regarded as a pivotal moment in the history of civil rights. He graduated on August 18, 1963.
He received an LL.B (law degree) from Columbia University in 1968.
He led a civil rights march, the "March Against Fear" from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi in 1966 and was wounded by a sniper. As an author he wrote a memoir of this days at the University of Mississippi and several self-published books. He was an active Republican and served for several years as a domestic advisor on the staff of archconservative Senator Jesse Helms. In 2002, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his integration of the University of Mississippi, at the age of 69, he was the proprietor of a small used car lot in Jackson, Mississippi. On the celebration activities surrounding the 40th anniversary Meredith said, "It was an embarrassment for me to be there, and for somebody to celebrate it, oh my God"
James Meredith views himself as an individual American citizen who demanded and got the rights properly extended to any American, not as a participant in the US civil rights movement. There is considerable disrespect between James Meredith and the organized Civil Rights Movement. Meredith said recently that "Nothing could be more insulting to me than the concept of civil rights. It means perpetual second-class citizenship for me and my kind".
In a recent 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"