Fear and Loathing in Mississippi
"Down to the Crossroads" revisits James Meredith's long march.
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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.”