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Civil Rights Pioneer Is a Maverick to Movement : Politics: James Meredith, the first black student ever enrolled at the University of Mississippi, irks activists over his alliances with right-wing politicians and his disdain of the civil rights leadership.

April 28, 1991|MICHAEL GRANBERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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