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Symbol of bravery over hate sells out

In 1962, the federal government grabbed the state of Mississippi by the scruff of its red neck and forced it to swallow the bitter pill of integration. That year, surrounded by federal troops _ and bigotry's violence _ James Meredith became the first black student to walk the hallowed halls of Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi. But the picture of James Meredith that burned itself onto my memory was taken four years later. It shows a young Meredith lying beside a road with a terrified look on his face. He has just been shot by a man who didn't appreciate his trying to show there was no reason for black people to fear white people in Mississippi.

It is an ugly picture, a document of ugly times.

But it is a far prettier picture than the one a pathetic Meredith posed for before a handful of people here Monday.

The ugliness wasn't in Meredith's face, covered now by a scraggly, gray beard. Nor was it in the bumbling, disorganized "lecture" he delivered.

The real ugliness was deeper than those things _ but not much deeper. And it kept popping its arm into the air and waving, so it should have been hard to miss for any of the 100 or so people who showed up at the University of South Florida to hear Meredith.

Oddly, only a half-dozen or so black people came to see the man who symbolized courage in the face of vicious racism, and one of them was a television reporter assigned to be there.

But that should have been expected. Meredith, after all, has made his living since 1980 by telling college students he is just the opposite of what he seemed to be. He slams black leaders, black values and any legislation aimed at finishing the job he helped to start nearly 30 years ago.

He still is not a profound speaker _ or even an interesting one. His only memorable remarks were physical, made 30 years ago with the help of bigots who stood in his way. His name became synonymous with, and memorable only because of, those moments.

Then last year he emerged from obscurity to join the staff of Jesse Helms, the North Carolina senator whose opposition to civil rights legislation is legendary.

Black people don't listen to Meredith anymore. They just wag their heads and turn away.

So I went to hear Meredith with little hope of being enlightened. I went there hoping to find out what happened to a once proud man who had inspired courage in many others. I wanted to know what happened to the man in the picture from 1966.

I was hoping that he had just gotten tired, as Martin Luther King's longtime friend Ralph Abernathy had, and allowed himself to be duped into forsaking his past.

But a duped man was not the pose Meredith struck Monday. He was a desperate man. He was a man at a party, without a personality, wanting to be the center of attention, with no one interested in what he had to say.

So he told his listeners how smart he was. And every few minutes, in case they had forgotten, he told them again.

He said he scored highest on an I.Q. test at Gibbs High School in 1950-51; he earned a law degree from Columbia University. "With all that intelligence ..." (a favorite way of introducing actions he took in his life), everyone, of course, should listen to him.

But those who do listen hear more hatred _ disguised as research findings _ of black people than they hear from Jesse Helms or the people who tried to keep Meredith from going to college.

"Every political decision blacks have made has been made on emotion," Meredith said with the same authority he declared "85 percent of blacks think as I do."

I guess there's a market for that kind of stuff when it comes from the mouth of a black man _ even one without an audience.

It's sad to think that he sold his place in history for a few moments of notice. But, I guess, with his salary and speaking fees, he will end up with considerably more than a few pieces of silver.

Elijah Gosier is a staff writer for the South Pinellas editions.