By Claire Smith, Editor-in-Chief
Cleveland “Cleve” Grover Meredith Jr. (C’90) made national headlines as one of the first people arrested for his involvement in the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Meredith’s name quickly rippled through Sewanee circles, as alumni and students realized he was once a student of the University of the South. In an email condemning the events at the Capitol, Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety acknowledged that a Sewanee alumnus was facing federal charges related to the Capitol attacks.
At first glance, Meredith had a fairly typical Sewanee career. A self-described “fifth generation Atlantan,” he graduated in 1986 from The Lovett School, an Episcopal prep school that serves the wealthy suburbs of Atlanta. At the University of the South, Meredith pledged SAE and joined the rugby and lacrosse teams. He was a member of the Economics Club, and graduated with a B.A. in Economics in 1990. Senior year, he was even among a handful of students inducted into the exclusive Red Ribbon Society.
Meredith’s time at Sewanee wasn’t without incident, however. A 1989 Sewanee Purple article reported that during his senior year, Meredith started a fight with a group of visiting football players from Lambuth College. After Lambuth players allegedly made “lewd comments” toward Meredith’s girlfriend outside of Gailor Hall, both Meredith and the female student responded with “racial and derogatory comments,” before a physical altercation broke out that led to two hospitalizations. The Athletic Director at the time, Bill Huyck, is quoted in the article saying that such remarks were never justifiable, but countered that it would be “easier to understand” if they were made in the heat of the moment.
Michael Raeber (C’90), the Purple reporter who covered the fight, recalled that once Lambuth’s coach accused Sewanee students of using racist language, “the significance and sensitivity of the story changed dramatically.” Raeber also confirmed that Meredith’s girlfriend admitted during an interview to using racial epithets, and speculated that they played a significant role in either instigating or escalating the incident.
Meredith’s altercation does not appear to have affected his standing in the University. He graduated in the spring of 1990 and settled back in the Atlanta area, where he opened a car wash business called Car-Nutz Car Wash, married, and had two children. By the time of Barack Obama’s election, he was active on Facebook and garnering concern from friends for his frequent posts on politics and race, which put an obsessive focus on “the African American community,” the dangers of Islam, and the racist origins of the Democratic Party. During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Meredith began posting QAnon conspiracies and sharing increasingly controversial content on social media.
In time, social media ramblings became public acts. In the first of a series of public stunts, Meredith erected billboard outside of his business that simply read “#QANON.” He repeatedly posted the same image of the billboard on Twitter, each time vying for attention from a different tagged politician or QAnon account. While they started as little more than attention-seeking strategies, Meredith’s acts became more public and put him further on the fringe. He also began severing connections with his family and community.
In the next year, Meredith separated from his wife, sold his business, and moved from Cobb County to Hiawassee, a smaller, more conservative town in northern Georgia. His parents contacted Police Chief Paul Smith to alert them of Meredith’s troubling behavior on social media. Smith says that Meredith’s parents described “a change in him recently,” particularly in his online presence and QAnon involvement, and expressed their fears that he would be a danger to himself or others in Hiawassee. They also alerted Smith that they had already reported their son to the FBI.
Hiawassee may have been more conservative than the Atlanta suburbs, but Meredith certainly did not find a safe haven there. With a population of around 900 people, Smith described the community as small and quiet, with little of the flash that Meredith was accustomed to. Smith says that Meredith immediately stood out in town as he hauled his speed boat around in his blue two-door BMW sports car, decked out with Trump’s Hollywood stars. Meredith did not have a job in Hiawassee, and likely relied on family money. The only time most people encountered him was when he drove from his townhouse to the boat ramp.
Around this time, Meredith’s former Sewanee contemporary, Jon Meacham (C’91), Meacham, a journalist and presidential biographer who frequently spoke in opposition to President Trump, was scheduled to lecture at The Lovett School on Trump’s presidency in the wake of the Mueller report. (Meacham and Meredith were reportedly not close at Sewanee and had no contact in the three decades since attending college at the same time.) On Facebook, Meredith threatened Meacham with physical violence, garnering concern from Lovett administrators. Driving from Hiawassee to Lovett’s campus, he repeated his threat to harm Meacham while “skirmishing with campus security.” Meredith was subsequently banned from Lovett’s campus.
In June of 2020, Meredith once again entered the fray, this time at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Hiawassee. Meredith was photographed in The North Georgia News open-carrying a semi-automatic rifle, which he said he brought “just to let those that are protesting [know] not to get violent.” Police immediately recognized Meredith when he drove to the demonstration in his Trump-star BMW, and immediately called undercover police to distract and isolate him from BLM protestors. Undercover police played “buddy-buddy” with Meredith and asked him about his gun, until he got bored and left the protest early.
A few months later, in the fall of 2020, Meredith moved from Hiawassee to an adjacent town in North Carolina. His parents once again contacted the police to alert them to their son’s potential to behave dangerously.
A few months later, Meredith travelled across the country with his rifle, along with two more guns and over 2,500 rounds of ammunition to join the insurrectionist mob that entered the Capitol building and attempted to disrupt election proceedings on January 6. Texts from his journey obtained by the FBI include misogynistic slurs against Mayor of Washington D.C. Muriel Bowser and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, with threats to run Pelosi over and “put a bullet in her noggin on Live TV.” Texts refer to the planned insurrection as “target practice” and muse, “this is gunna b AWESOME [sic].” Commenting on Meredith’s eventual arrest, Chief Smith said his “immediate thought was that I wasn’t entirely surprised, and my second thought was that I’m grateful that he never did something like that here.”
Cleve Meredith’s eventual arrest in January was a culmination of increasingly volatile and attention-seeking behavior. When, though, did Meredith’s behavior move from tolerable to dangerous? When does a college buddy or a nutty guy with a Twitter account become an insurrectionist?
A New Yorker profile attempting to answer this question glosses unconvincingly over his encounters with Lovett and Sewanee: “He had not been especially interested in politics in high school, and didn’t seem to be at Sewanee either, [a friend] said. “It’s not exactly a bastion of militant conservatism… I don’t think he changed much there.” Observers close to the matter caution against seeing a connection between the Sewanee of that time and the radicalism that followed.
It is also the case, however, that Sewanee was— and is— a microcosm of the debates over inclusion, memory, and identity that are unfolding across the country, a fact that gives the University community an occasion to assess its past and its present. Much of this work is already unfolding, with the Roberson Project and the Regents’ statement on the University’s historic ties to the Confederacy and the Lost Cause. Most recently, ongoing conflict over these issues came out during Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety’s announcement of threats made against him and his family, where he invited the campus to participate in the “EQB: Reflection and Response” initiative.
One need only glance past Meredith’s Gailor brawl in the Purple to see that Sewanee even then was trying to adapt to changing times and was the site of frequent debate around issues of diversity and campus culture. One article in the same issue discusses a new Gay-Straight Alliance, and another reports on the Task Force on Minority Recruitment and Retention, which was founded to keep Sewanee “in pace with the rapidly changing climate of American liberal arts colleges.” These initiatives were part of a wider re-evaluation of the University by Vice-Chancellor Samuel Williamson, which included inquiries into the status of women and minorities, the role of Greek Life and community service, and the content of the University’s curriculum.
Only a few years after Meredith left Lovett, which was well-publicized in the 1960s for its resistance to integration, the school philosophy was entirely re-written with a new emphasis on inclusion and socially conscious directives. As Meredith resettled in Atlanta, he watched a relic of segregation attempt to transform into an inclusive and socially-engaged school. One can imagine Meredith angrily watch his alma mater invite a well-platformed, politically liberal Sewanee classmate to speak on President Trump. Both Lovett and Sewanee had seemingly turned against him and the politics he centered his life around.
Cleve Meredith as an individual does not reflect all of Sewanee. He is a known “Thrill Seeker” who craves attention from those in power. His background, however, is not unlike that of many who pass through Sewanee’s gates. A member of a wealthy family with long ties to the South and the recipient of an elite education, he is no loner or disadvantaged outsider. He is someone angered by a world that is questioning– albeit unevenly and with plenty of resistance– the value of privilege and exclusivity, both of which heavily impacted his life and shielded him from accountability.
Meredith’s journey from privileged college kid to insurrectionist is full of incidents where he revealed himself as dangerous or prejudiced but faced few consequences. Concerned friends, relatives, and authorities watched him warily, but didn’t know how to label his behavior as dangerous and hold him accountable. Perhaps too many people agreed that he had a right to feel angry.
The way the Sewanee community responds to Meredith matters. If Meredith’s behavior doesn’t represent Sewanee, then the way others in the community respond certainly does. In light of Meredith’s arrest and Vice-Chancellor Brigety’s recent announcement on threats made against him as the first Black leader of the University, Sewanee faces an opportunity to speak honestly about its values and denounce what it finds dangerous or intolerable.