In 1962, a straight-A University of Alabama student named Melvin Meyer became a lightning rod of controversy when he published an editorial in the Crimson White, Alabama’s student newspaper, that countered the bigotry that was roiling the American south at the time.
Meyer, a Jew from Starkville, Miss., was responding to the escalating tensions in his home state following James Meredith’s attempts to enroll as the first black student at the University of Mississippi. The editorial, which urged integration at Ole Miss and elsewhere, earned Meyer the anti-Semitic ire of Ku Klux Klan sympathizers. It also placed him in the crosshairs of Klan members and segregationist leaders in the South, including Alabama Governor George Wallace. And it ultimately led him on a path to Sufi Islam.
Today, Meyer, who goes by Murshid Wali Ali Meyer, is a little-known civil rights figure. But his editorial’s argument for equality still resonates decades after the apex of the civil rights movement.
“I was never an activist,” Meyer told the Forward from his San Francisco home. “But the whole experience made me more socially conscious.”
In 1962, just eight years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, which ended legal segregation in public schools, universities across the American south were experiencing the tumult of integration. James Meredith, who would later go on to become a leader of the civil rights movement, applied to and was rejected from the University of Mississippi in 1961. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed suit against the university on his behalf, alleging that he was rejected because of his skin color. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Meredith should be admitted. But in September 1962, Meredith was barred from entering the school.
At the University of Alabama, students, faculty and administrators watched the unfolding drama at Ole Miss and sensed that their school would be the next to integrate. (In 1956, Alabama did admit one black student under court order, Autherine Lucy, but she was later expelled for political reasons.)