The phrase “black power” might conjure the iconic image of John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s long black arms capped by black leather fists raised high during the medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Or it might call forth the image of a stoic African American wearing a beret and clad in leather. What will probably not come to mind is the pivotal and harrowing three-week Meredith March Against Fear that began in the summer of 1966 in Memphis, Tennessee and then headed south through a deeply segregated Mississippi, ultimately destined for Jackson. However, the Meredith March Against Fear was an event at the crux of the civil rights and black power movements: The former ushered in a new era of bolder protests carried out by the latter.
Aram Goudsouzian’s epic, textured and human account of the conflicted civil rights hero James Meredith and the march he spearheaded, Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power and the Meredith March Against Fear, digs deeply into the dynamic shift in black and American consciousness this previously scantly analyzed moment fostered.
Meredith was the key figure in integrating the University of Mississippi in 1963. By 1966, Meredith saw the “Ole Miss crisis as having earned him a place in the civil rights firmament, but he doesn’t have an organization to work within and he doesn’t have an infrastructure that is commensurate with his level of political notoriety,” Goudsouzian explains. So on June 6, 1966 Meredith begins the march in order to bolster black voter registration and oppose racism; the next day, while walking down Highway 51, he’s shot by a white man. Meredith lived and Goudsouzian tells the saga through 100 new interviews with some of the many actors that were on the ground in Mississippi that year, extensive research of the popular and obscure reportage of the times, surveillance files and myriad archives. I recently asked Goudsouzian about the book.
What surprised you the most once you really started digging into the story of the march?
Two things jump to mind. One is the complicated way that the state of Mississippi and the white authorities in Mississippi tried to deal with the march, in that they tried to be so exceptionally careful at the beginning of the march in terms of accommodating the marchers, in terms of protecting them, in terms of trying to avoid anymore violence which would cause just even more trouble in Mississippi (more federal intervention, more negative media, more negative national and international condemnation). And the careful way the new Governor, Paul Johnson, tries to manage that, and how that ultimately falls apart by the end of the march. [Johnson becomes] disenchanted with the march and the black militancy and the detour into the Delta and how it’s registering huge amounts of voters. That he basically, even though it’s never explicit, gives the go-ahead for the state troopers to launch the tear gas attack. That’s quite a shift, to go from ‘let’s protect them’ to using those actual state troopers to brutalize the marchers. The other thing was just the experience of the interviews. The uplifting aspect to it to a lot of people was really important. And that’s something that can get lost if you just focus on the surface coverage by some of the national media.
How did the volatility within the movement between Meredith’s philosophy of violent action in the face of violent action versus the nonviolent action that actually prevailed resolve itself?
If there’s two core elements to the movement as embodied by Martin Luther King, one is the philosophy of nonviolence and the other is this belief in the brotherhood of man across racial lines. It’s not that King doesn’t believe in black progress and black unity and black uplift (certainly he does), but in the larger context of what he calls a “beloved community.” The critique of nonviolence is coming from a lot of different directions during the march, there’s different conversations that the media often, at the time, tends to lump into one thing. They sort of conflate Stokely Carmichael with James Meredith, when really all they share is a criticism of nonviolence as a tactic. Someone like James Meredith believes in the United States as a militaristic nation, it’s a nation that respects force. And black people can never really achieve an equality until they show that they’re willing to use force, if necessary.
What is the most important outcome of the Meredith March Against Fear?
Its primary legacy in history is that it birthed the slogan of black power. But in and of itself what does that mean? That means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Black power has many definitions. And certainly black power births...a sense of meaning, a sense of larger purpose to a lot of various militant strains within the African American community, certainly a group like the Black Panthers that will form later in 1966 and various revolutionary-style organizations that are adopting elements of black power. But “black power” means, again, different things to different people. To someone on the ground in Mississippi in 1966, black power is an outgrowth of the civil rights movement. You talk to activists who’ve been organizing in Mississippi since the early 60s, they say, ‘We were always working for black power.’ All that meant was black people unifying together, putting black people into office, leveraging the power of the black community as a whole. We’re always fighting for black power. If you could talk about one key legacy of the Meredith march it is, again, the birth of black power, but that is a very complicated legacy.
Evan Rodriguez is a writer living in Georgetown, Texas. You can follow him on Twitter.