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A Gentleman of Sewanee

On January 7, one day after the riot on Capitol Hill, the FBI arrested Cleveland Grover Meredith, Jr. at a Holiday Inn in Washington, D.C. Meredith, who graduated from Sewanee in 1990, had texted someone that he was thinking about “heading over to Pelosi CUNT’s speech and putting a bullet in her noggin on Live TV.” Though most media outlets don’t mention it, he also threatened to kill D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. After his arrest, Meredith told police that he had mental health issues and a drug problem. Arguing for pre-trial detention, attorney Michael Sherwin described Meredith as “a clearly disturbed, deranged, and dangerous individual.” 

News quickly broke among the Sewanee community that an alumnus had threatened to kill the Speaker of the House. Vice-Chancellor Brigety addressed the allegations in a January 10 email. Noting the presumption of innocence, the University “strongly condemned” Meredith’s actions without naming him or specifying what he did. On the “Sewanee Forum” Facebook group, alumni reacted with various degrees of dismissal and dismay. When alumna Kelly Blake commented that Meredith’s behavior was the result of Trumpian demagoguery, group moderator Charles Fowler replied: “Good try but no. Logical fallacy. That’s just how a crazy person flips out.”

I’m personally disinclined to see Meredith’s arrest as the inevitable result of drug use or mental illness. What he and other rioters did in Washington is not “just how a crazy person flips out.” Viewing insurrection or political terrorism as a symptom of bipolar disorder has the double effect of both needlessly demonizing people struggling with mental illness and lazily misunderstanding the events of January 6. The riot on Capitol Hill was a cultural phenomenon, a spasm of violence that emerged from four years of governance by a man who believes, by all accounts, that might makes right.

I also don’t think Meredith’s time at Sewanee was insignificant to the nature of his alleged crime. A friend of Meredith’s, Matt Arnett, downplayed his Sewanee education in an interview with The New Yorker. The University of the South “isn’t exactly a bastion of militant conservatism,” he said. “I don’t think that he changed much there.”

We’re getting off too easily here. Sewanee was, actually, a “bastion of militant conservatism,” at least in its earliest years. Ours is a university created by men who led an armed rebellion against the U.S. government. Their founding vision was of a grand Southern redoubt against the “fanatical domination” which sought to abolish chattel slavery in America. As Houston Roberson wrote in 2007, the University began as a place to “educate the sons of patrician southerners ‘in harmony with Southern principles.’” Even after the Civil War’s end and Sewanee’s subsequent re-founding, the school remained, in the words of historian Charles Reagan Wilson, “one of the major institutional shrines to the Lost Cause.” Only in September 2020 did Sewanee fully distance itself from that heritage in a statement “categorically rejecting” its “past veneration of the Confederacy.” 

There are also elements of Sewanee’s identity and story that resonate with violent resistance to change, beyond the imagery or veneration of the Lost Cause. One such aspect is the chivalrous standard supposedly upheld by Sewanee men. In a 2008 article on the 1899 Iron Men, Woody Register wrote that the history of football and sport at Sewanee is integral to “the touchstone of an essential Sewanee identity: what it means to be a ‘Sewanee man.’” A Sewanee Man is masculine, honorable, and patrician – perfect for ruling over the South’s “lesser peoples.” 

Register draws on Sewanee-educated historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s work, writing that the “sacred honor” of Sewanee men was rooted in southern traditions of masculinity. These traditions “bound them to uphold and defend the honor of family and community and made them acutely sensitive to challenge or insult.” When they had to defend their reputations, Sewanee men wouldn’t hesitate to do so with violence. In this context, challenges to manliness went hand in hand with challenges to whiteness. Register writes that the violence of sport, especially a sport as segregated by race and class as college football, served as a way of enforcing “their privilege as white men who, in their minds at least, were destined to lead the New South.” 

Cleve Meredith didn’t play football at Sewanee; he played lacrosse. And he attended the school a century after the Iron Men played. But he was from the same patrician stock as the old Sewanee archetype. A self-described “fifth generation Atlantan,” Meredith grew up in a wealthy suburb and graduated from the selective Lovett School before attending Sewanee. And the attitude Register describes as essential to the “Sewanee man” – one violently sensitive to insults – is uncannily witnessed in Meredith’s appearance in a September 1989 issue of The Sewanee Purple

Unmentioned by any article covering his arrest, the front-page Purple story describes how Meredith, then a senior at the College, took part in a fight between Sewanee students and visiting football players from Lambuth University. The reporter writes that the “violence began when Cleve Meredith” grew upset with suggestive comments made by a Lambuth player towards a female Sewanee student. The female student in turn responded with “racial remarks,” provoking a brawl which ended with a Sewanee student and an assistant coach from Lambuth in the emergency room.

Granted, Sewanee had changed much between the Gilded Age and 1989. The School of Theology integrated in 1952, some four years before Brown v. Board, and the College followed in 1963. In 1985, USA Today ranked Sewanee third, after Stanford and Oberlin, as one of the best colleges for African Americans in the US. 

But: Sewanee students are photographed openly wearing blackface in Cap and Gown yearbooks as late as 1983. And Cleve Meredith’s fight rhymes too well with the idea of the “Sewanee Man” to be mere apophenia. As Karl Marx wrote in his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare upon the brains of the living.” In fighting the football players from Lambuth, Meredith was both defending both his honor and that of the female student. In turn, her racist response to harassment reveals that much of the racial infrastructure below Sewanee’s changed exterior was still there. It was all up to code. 

*** 

Available evidence indicates that Meredith believed himself to be a “protector.” A left-wing friend, Suleiman Fetrat, told The New Yorker that Meredith had promised him “‘when it all goes down, I’ll protect your children.’” Recalling the code of honor described by Woody Register, Sewanee men “regarded themselves as protectors, not oppressors: as racial progressives rather than as defenders of an Old South past, or crude demagogues who profited from racial strife.” 

Meredith fulfilled that last distinction, as well. In June, he showed up to a Black Lives Matter protest in Hiawassee, Georgia armed with an IWI Tavor X95 rifle, one of the guns the FBI found in his trailer on January 7. A photo in a local paper shows him clad in shorts and boater shoes without socks, sunglasses propped atop curly yellow hair. Minus the gun and his crows’ feet, he looked like a typical Sewanee student. 

Calling BLM a “political stunt” carried out by “the New World Order, Cabal, Deep State – whatever you want to call it,” Meredith declared that he “disagreed” with the “violence surrounding” the protests. It was all a ploy by the aforementioned shadow government to start a “race war.” The chaos provided by the BLM protests makes it easier for them to take power, he insisted.

On his Facebook page, Meredith regularly posted about guns, explosives, and President Trump. In one post, he asked for “a schematic of the main breaker panel/power supply for CNN Atlanta.” On May 30, he filmed himself driving to the CNN headquarters in Atlanta and getting kicked off their property. The next day, Meredith asked if “any of u Ballistics experts can tell me how many craniums a single 5.56 green tip will go through at say 5’ from target?” The FBI found about 2,500 rounds of 5.56 green tip ammunition in Meredith’s truck after his arrest on January 7.  

The New Yorker article published shortly after his arrest notes that Meredith’s parents had reported him to the police in Hiawassee, Georgia after he moved there in 2018. They were concerned about Meredith’s belief in the QAnon conspiracy theory, and thought he might be dangerous. The Hiawassee police chief, Paul Smith, in turn alerted the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, but the investigation into Meredith’s online activity petered out. Meredith was not arrested until a full day after the riot at the US Capitol. 

Cleve Meredith’s Facebook profile is gone now. Until mid-January, the only remnant of him anywhere on the site was a bizarre “parody page” mimicking Meredith’s original account, replete with photos taken from his profile. Before it was deleted, the page was run by a self-described “Gen-Xer” who claimed to have worked as an investigator “for corporations and privately.” The page’s owner declined to give me their name, but said in an exchange on Facebook Messenger that Meredith had harassed them online before they made the page as a way to “just…have a little fun mocking him.” 

“I first interacted with Cleve a couple of years ago,” they wrote, “He popped into a political thread here on [Facebook] and threatened to kill me and my friends.”

One early post made on the page is somewhat chilling in light of Meredith’s eventful trip to Washington. On June 1, 2020, the page’s owner wrote: “Please note: This is a parody account. The real Cleve Meredith is a wannabe Patriot/Domestic Terrorist. If/when he is ever arrested, please do not mistake him for me.” Then, as a kind of afterthought: “Media inquiries welcome.”

The owner of the parody page claimed to have reported Meredith to law enforcement as early as May 2020. “I think that’s why he was ‘on their radar,’” the page owner said, referring to a text Meredith sent shortly before his arrest.

 “I’ve been on the radar awhile now,” Meredith wrote, referring to the FBI, “They now I’m harmless [sic].” In all likelihood, he was correct; law enforcement likely viewed him as crazy but benign. At least, until January 6.

Meredith’s friend Matt Arnett described him to The New Yorker as a man of means who saw his “way of life changing” in a world where “white control of everything” was no longer assured. It was this fear of losing control that led him to embrace conspiracy theories like QAnon. At its core, QAnon posits that the Trump presidency was engaged in a valiant effort to protect the world’s children from a global cabal of elite, devil-worshipping pedophiles. Hari Kunzru wrote in Harper’s that, like most conspiracies, Q-Anon relies on the notion that somewhere, the true arbiters of power reside and plot their evil deeds. Retribution and justice come because “the hero can kick down the door and take them out” in one swift, violent motion. Q-adherents live in a reality where the day can and will be won by force. 

All of this isn’t to claim that Q-Anon is a direct symptom of old southern ideas about manhood and violence. Rather, Q-Anon provided a perfect framework of thinking for someone like Cleve Meredith, who believed in those old ideas despite (or perhaps because of) their political incorrectness. I don’t think that Sewanee endowed him with those notions, but a Sewanee education didn’t disabuse them, either. As Arnett told the New Yorker, “I don’t think he changed much there.”

In 1952, when administrators and faculty were openly floating the idea of admitting Black seminarians at the School of Theology, the Sewanee Alumni Association of Selma, Alabama wrote to Vice-Chancellor McCrady to register their disgust. In their eyes, the idea of Sewanee integrating was “insidious and diabolical.” When another alumnus studying at the General Theological Seminary saw the Selma Alumni’s letter re-printed in the Purple, he was shocked. “To think,” he wrote to the Vice-Chancellor, “that an education at Sewanee can still cause men to retain such feelings…” Knowing what we do about Sewanee’s history, his surprise was unwarranted. So, too, is any about Cleveland Meredith. After all, were these not gentlemen of Sewanee? 

One reply on “A Gentleman of Sewanee”

When I attended Sewanee from 1978-82, I certainly experienced this mindset from many on campus. I was only 8 years removed from Sewanee as an all male, predominantly Southern institution. However, it was not the only perspective of males on campus at that time. I too had ancestors from Sewanee’s early days. This Sewanee gentleman mystique was not what drew me there nor did it interest me as I matriculated. Most of my close friends thought little of the old South. Sewanee’s history certainly contributes to those who foment white supremacy, but there are factors of choice and environment that go far beyond The Domain that reinforce such perspectives. I wonder if the fact that Steven Miller and Mo Brooks attended Duke brings about similar introspection there?

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