Door Ajar – The M.B. Mayfield Story
The first time I talked to James Howard Meredith I was on the balcony of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi.
It was Saturday afternoon at the end of spring and the beginning of summer. My short-sleeved shirt was damp on my back, but not sticky and sweaty as it would be in a matter of weeks.
As I dialed the number, which I wasn’t even sure was Meredith’s, I didn’t realize that I faced the Confederate statue that stands in front of the courthouse.
When the ring tone ended in an abrupt “Hello!” it jolted me and woke me from my dazed state. I went from I might have James Meredith the civil rights campaigner’s phone number, to this might actually be the eighty-year-old man who integrated the University of Mississippi.
It is well known that Meredith was the first black student to attend Ole Miss amidst the rioting that caused two deaths in 1962.
In 1966 Meredith was shot on the side of the road on his march from Memphis to Jackson. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr organized a fifteen thousand strong march coming from Jackson to meet Meredith, who rose from his hospital bed to rejoin the march within twenty days of being shot.
“Is that James Meredith?” I asked.
“Who’s asking?” Came a cynical if not mocking response. And who could blame him? I was just another reporter looking for a story.
I paused and reminded myself you only get one chance in these situations. I found myself staring at the Confederate statue, not ideal. Or maybe that was the motivation I needed to untie my tongue.
I turned on a heel and gave my name and my credentials which was embarrassing since deep down I knew full well that a handful of film festivals had just rejected my first documentary.
And then Meredith asked me what my documentary was about. It was at that moment I realized that maybe I hadn’t thought this through very well. Or maybe Meredith was more serious than I had envisaged and he was just plain intimidating to me?
Nervously it came it out, “Ah, Mr. Meredith, I am doing a documentary on an African American artist who was at Ole Miss in 1949.”
“And what do you want from me?” I could imagine Meredith rolling his eyes.
I can’t remember what else was said, but somehow, I managed to get a date and time to go down to Jackson, Mississippi to interview Meredith.
One of the things I was conscious of was how was I not going to trivialize and disrespect Meredith’s legacy when telling Mayfield’s story.
M.B. Mayfield was a primitive artist from Ecru. At the age of twenty-six, Mayfield’s work was discovered by Stuart R. Purser the first chairman of the art department at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss.) In fact, it was when Purser was on his way to Ole Miss to start his new position in 1949 that he came across Mayfield’s art roadside in Ecru.
Purser hatched a plan; he hired Mayfield as a janitor for the art department in 1949. It allowed him to teach Mayfield, who had to sit in the broom closet with the door cracked.
Fast forward to 1962, Airforce veteran and former student at Jackson State University, Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss. He was accompanied by five hundred U.S. Marshalls ordered by then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
Maybe I was a touch too ambitious in trying to involve Meredith in my documentary. However, in the end, to me, his involvement symbolized his endorsement of what I was doing.
To have told Mayfield’s story will no doubt be a career highlight for me. To have told it with Meredith is something I will cherish forever.
And so, when I got off the phone with Meredith last night, I sighed relief, for he said to me there’s a good chance he and his wife will be coming to the premiere of Door Ajar on Sunday, February 10th at the Oxford Film Festival. You see I didn’t tell you this, but when he agreed that I could come to Jackson to try to interview him, he added at the end of the call, “You can come down and try your luck on that day.” True story!
Door Ajar – The M.B. Mayfield Story, World Premiere is on Sunday, February 10th, 2019, 10:00 am at Malco 1. Get your tickets here: