Fear and Loathing in Mississippi
"Down to the Crossroads" revisits James Meredith's long march.
photograph by Susan Prater
(page 1 of 2)
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.”)