The Long, Lonely Road of Rights Hero James Meredith Ends in a Job with Jesse Helms

updated 10/16/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/16/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

I am not a well-adjusted Negro," said James H. Meredith in September 1962, just before he became the first black to register at the all-white University of Mississippi. He was so ill-attuned to the requirements of second-class citizenship that he seemed blind to danger and deaf to threats; when he began classes, it took 16,000 troops to quell the ensuing riots. Four years later he embarked on a solitary "walk against fear" from Memphis to Jackson, Miss., to inspire black voter registration, and this time he was felled by a racist's shotgun blast.

More than two decades later, the onetime symbol of the civil rights movement is still marching to his own, typically eccentric drumbeat. Now 56, Meredith has just signed on as a paid adviser to North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, an unbending conservative who came to Congress in 1972 with the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan. The two were paired at a speaking engagement earlier this year, and afterward they began corresponding. "He and I share exactly the same views on the importance of traditional family values in American life," says Meredith. "There's not another man on the Hill whose views are so closely aligned with mine."

Though the two seem perhaps the oddest of political bedfellows, they do share one great enthusiasm: reviling all things liberal. "The many welfare programs, low-cost housing, affirmative action in employment, busing of schoolchildren and all the other liberal reforms are just white control of blacks in disguise," says Meredith. By hitching up with Helms, he gets not just a forum for his ideas but a place to hang his hat, which he had thrown unsuccessfully into the ring, variously as a Democratic, Independent or Republican candidate for the Senate, the House and even the Cincinnati School Board.

He had joined the University of Cincinnati in 1984 as a visiting professor, but within months he had enraged students and faculty alike with inaccurate charges of racist enrollment, his grandiose self-visions ("God sent me to Cincinnati," he once boasted) and incorrect public claims that he was a full professor. Nor did he fare any better in business as the proprietor of a bar, a cosmetics-and-jewelry store, a TV repair shop and—most disastrously—a landlord: He spent two days in jail in 1969 for harassing his tenants in a Bronx, N.Y., apartment building.

Helms, however, seems to hope that Meredith's hiring will give oomph to his 1990 campaign for a fourth Senate term, especially among the 22 percent of North Carolinians who are black. But Meredith, who will now keep a Washington, D.C., residence along with the San Diego home he shares with second wife Judy Also-brooks, a former Cincinnati TV reporter, and their 7-year-old daughter, sees for himself a far grander role. "I will be, in the future, the most important black leader in America and the world," he says. "I have a divine responsibility to lead the black race to its rightful destiny."

Perhaps no one will follow him this time, but then, James H. Meredith never did mind walking alone. Some even suggest that those early years, when he stood alone against the mob, may account for the erratic odyssey that has followed. "Most of us couldn't have withstood the pressures. The whole thing was most traumatic," says Dr. Aaron Henry, director of the Mississippi NAACP. "If any of us has earned the right to be eccentric, Jim has."

—Arturo Gonzalez in San Diego, Sandra Salmans in Washington, D.C.

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