Fear and Loathing in Mississippi
"Down to the Crossroads" revisits James Meredith's long march.
photograph by Susan Prater
No one would argue that historians have overlooked the 220-mile “March Against Fear” from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1966. But unlike other signal events in the civil rights movement, the march and the man behind it, James Meredith, have not been accorded an in-depth, book-length study — a study that follows Meredith from June 5th, the day he set out with four others from the sidewalk in front of The Peabody hotel, until the day, three weeks later, the marchers reached Jackson, where an estimated crowd of 15,000 had gathered.
The march certainly had its headline events, not the least of which the wounding of Meredith by a Memphis man named Aubrey James Norvell, who used a shotgun to hit Meredith with a scattering of bird shot on Highway 51 outside Hernando on the afternoon of June 6th. The march also made famous Stokely Carmichael’s call in Greenwood for “black power.” In addition, the march in one way or another involved every prominent member of the civil rights movement, from leaders in Memphis to Martin Luther King Jr., who debated strategy from his room at the Lorraine Motel. That much, then, has been duly documented.
Readers will learn more of the Meredith march in Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Aram Goudsouzian, chair of the history department at the University of Memphis. So much more, in fact, that the book significantly advances our understanding of this turning point in civil rights history — a point where the “illusion of organized unity” among black leaders was beginning to crack and “creative tensions” were primed to go public, with King as “spiritual force” versus Carmichael as “bitter challenger to liberal sensibilities.”
According to Goudsouzian: “Because it united black organizations and compelled national attention, [the Meredith march] was clearly a key moment in civil rights history, akin to the Freedom Rides, Birmingham Campaign, or Selma-to-Montgomery march. Yet its spirit of debate and improvisation clouded the meaning of what The Washington Post called ‘this strange parade — half army of liberation and half civil rights carnival show.’”
That opinion of the march and its participants wasn’t the worst of it. After it was all over on June 26th, a congressman from Mississippi characterized the marchers as “goateed riffraff and just plain junks and punks from all over the nation,” while government and the media enjoyed an “old fashioned field day kicking Mississippi.” The Commercial Appeal weighed in as well:
“The sovereign State of Mississippi has survived the ordeal without being intimidated by those who chanted their demands for ‘black power’ and the destruction of courthouses and the violent overthrow of county governments,” the paper editorialized with more than a touch of hyperbole. “The march accomplished nothing of consequence for the self-appointed leaders of the civil rights movement that could not have been accomplished without the hullabaloo.”
The march accomplished nothing of consequence? Tell that to El Fondren, a man probably born a slave, who entered the courthouse in Batesville and emerged for the first time in his very long life a registered voter. Marchers cheered him, and with Fondren, at least one component of the march’s manifesto was that much closer to being met: registration of Mississippi’s disenfranchised African Americans.
And what of the “hullabaloo”? That is an odd word to describe the tear-gassing of marchers in Canton by local law enforcement and the physical violence threatened in Philadelphia, all of this without the protection of federal authorities, which made the “March Against Fear” unlike the demonstrations in Oxford when Meredith integrated the campus of Ole Miss in 1962. (Asked about the march, Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach at the outset commented: “I don’t think it’s going to amount to much.”)
But what of James Meredith and his own goals for the march? While lawmakers in Washington weighed the Civil Rights Bill of 1966, Meredith wanted the march “to challenge that all-pervasive fear that dominates the day to day life of the Negro in the United States, especially in the South, and particularly in Mississippi.” He also ordered: “Absolutely NO WOMEN OR CHILDREN should be allowed. I am sick and tired of Negro Men hiding behind their women and children.” (That order, needless to say, went unheeded.)
This, then, was not a typical mid-’60s civil rights march. President Johnson didn’t provide federal troops for participants’ protection. The national press was either in short supply or more focused on Carmichael’s lightning-rod rhetoric, though the photograph of Meredith wounded on the highway did win AP photographer Jack Thornell a Pulitzer Prize and earned Meredith national sympathy.
That sympathy was tested, however, once many Americans — black and white — began to question the more militant direction the movement was taking. King understood but resisted using black power as a rallying cry, but he couldn’t help registering shock at the poverty he witnessed and the hatred he felt in small-town and road-side Mississippi.
Meredith started the march by announcing he’d go it alone if he had to, but others were welcome so long as they were “independent” men. And by independent, Meredith meant it. Recuperating from his wounds in New York City, he wouldn’t rejoin the march until it once more traveled his route, Highway 51, at Canton after he watched it detour through the Delta. (“Nobody consulted me about any changes in the plans,” Meredith said at the time.)
And what of Aubrey James Norvell? He pleaded guilty to the shooting of Meredith, received a five-year sentence for assault and battery with intent to kill, and was released from the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman in 1968. He lives today in Bartlett, but his motive for shooting Meredith remains unknown and Goudsouzian’s efforts to meet with him remain unrealized. “He politely shuts everybody down,” Goudsouzian in a recent phone interview says of Norvell.
James Meredith himself remains an elusive figure as well, from civil rights icon to, later in life, ally of far-right conservatives. He’s been called “a detriment to the movement” — unpredictable according to some; affable but an enigma, according to others — while whites at the time of the march complained he was “headline-hungry” and a “mentally defective masochist.” Historian Martin Duberman thought him delusional and naive, but a man to be admired for his iron will. It was a journalist from Newsweek who perhaps captured Meredith best. That reporter once said to him that it was difficult for a white man to understand Meredith’s experience. “You’re right,” Meredith replied. “But no Negro understands me either.”
“To some degree, he’s an impossible man to explain, because he’s so full of contradictions,” Goudzouzian says of Meredith. “He purposely likes to mask himself. He was my first interview for this book, and he started out by telling me, ‘James Meredith ain’t nothing but a trickster.’
“But the march is more central to explaining Meredith than the Ole Miss crisis,” according to Goudsouzian. “Ole Miss was a first step. The march was more about Meredith’s vision of what he thought his place in the U.S. was. His tactics were a strange amalgamation: top-down, with Meredith at the center of things but also rousing up people at the grass roots.”
And as for that other center of attention during the march:
“People have painted the Meredith march as a sort of step in Martin Luther King’s evolution, leading toward Memphis,” Goudsouzian says. “I wouldn’t say I was surprised to find anything new about King in researching this book. But I did find myself becoming more impressed by how King was uniting these different strands of the civil rights movement, how he was trying to appeal to people’s best instincts while also acknowledging the real roots of black power. He was continually at the political center of the march, wrestling with these issues all the time, in the very graceful way he often did.”
In late June and early July of 1967, Meredith finished the march he’d started the year before. “Every man is his own man on this walk,” he said of the miles from Hernando to Canton that he’d missed the previous year while recuperating from his shotgun wounds.
A dozen or so marchers joined him. Local law enforcement didn’t harass him. As Goudsouzian, who researched and wrote much of Down to the Crossroads from his apartment overlooking the National Civil Rights Museum, says of Meredith: “[I]n three trips over thirteen months, he fulfilled his promise to walk Highway 51 from Memphis to Jackson.”
“I had to continue,” James Meredith said simply, “to be sure that I was not afraid.”