Down to the Crossroads

Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear

by Aram Goudsouzian

21 February 2014


A Sense of Destiny

Although Meredith enjoyed traveling with his wife and young son through Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, he also complained that Nigerian officials ignored his presence and delayed his funding. Within a year he abandoned his fellowship. His prestige was fading. A July 1965 headline in the New York Amsterdam News asked: “Whatever Happened to James Meredith?”

Meredith had long plotted a march from Memphis to Jackson. In Nigeria, he announced plans for a worldwide lecture tour on race relations, culminating with the walk down Highway 51. He never did the speaking tour, and through most of 1965 the march remained a rumor, bigger in the minds of enemies than allies. After journalist Louis Lomax mentioned it during a lecture at Kentucky State University, the Federal Bureau of Investigation pressed its informants for more information, to no avail. A race-baiting Mississippi columnist named Tom Ethridge snickered that Meredith was acting out of self-interest, creating rifts among black leaders, and considering “a number of other stunts and schemes up his sleeve, to stimulate the ‘revolution.’ ”

Ironically, Meredith had inspired a similar walk in April 1963. Horrified by the Ole Miss crisis, a Baltimore postman named William Moore had started walking from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, where he would deliver a message of racial compassion to Governor Ross Barnett. Like Meredith, Moore was a military veteran exercising his constitutional rights. Unlike Meredith, Moore was a white pacifist. He wore a sandwich board that proclaimed END SEGREGATION IN AMERICA AND EQUAL RIGHTS FOR ALL. On the third day of his journey, near Attalla, Alabama, a Ku Klux Klansman murdered him. Five times, civil rights demonstrators and local activists tried resuming his journey, and each time police arrested them. Moore’s “Freedom Walk” was never finished.

In the fall of 1965, with his Mississippi march just an idea, Meredith enrolled at law school at Columbia University. He envisioned a career in politics, “the center of things where the policies are made.” He joined student political clubs, sought to be a delegate at the 1967 New York State Constitutional Convention, and accepted speaking engagements around the country.

He also finished writing Three Years in Mississippi, a memoir of his experience at Ole Miss. Published in spring 1966, it captured his contradictions. It included affecting portraits of black life in Mississippi, detached descriptions of his legal battles for admission, and grim tales of his campus ordeal. It also suggested a mystical self-assurance, one that was both profound and strange. He made repeated, matter-of-fact references to his “Divine Responsibility.” Other passages implied that same sense of destiny. “My most stabilizing belief,” he wrote, “is that I have never made a mistake in my life, because I never make arbitrary or pre-determined decisions.” Like Meredith himself, the book was sometimes lyrical and insightful, and at other times dry or bizarre.

Meredith hoped that Three Years in Mississippi would restore him to the limelight, but he lacked the clout of major black public figures. He offered to appear on Today, but the NBC show declined—it had just interviewed James Baldwin, Alex Haley, and James Farmer. The Saturday Evening Post rebuffed his offer to write an article. The New York Times would not even publish his letter to the editor, which criticized press coverage of the planning session for the White House Conference on Civil Rights.

Meredith conceived his Memphis-to-Jackson walk as part of a bigger crusade—one that would not only free African Americans from second-class status, but also advance his own political ambitions. “I am seriously considering running for the Democratic Nomination for Governor or Lt. Governor of Mississippi in the 1967 primary elections,” he wrote to Rev. R.L.T. Smith of the Jackson NAACP. Meredith asked Smith for confidential advice about fund-raising, campaign managers, and the viability of black candidates in Mississippi. He planned to campaign while law school was out of session, and he hoped to register voters during the summer of 1966. While walking down Highway 51, he could build his political base, identifying local leaders and uniting black people under his leadership.

Meredith also contacted white authorities in Mississippi, seeking the protection due any citizen. In January 1966 he wrote to Governor Paul Johnson that “I plan to go to the people where they are—in every nook and hollow in Mississippi—just the way you have done or any other Mississippian seeking to find out what the people want and how their wishes can best be served.” By March, the governor had not responded, so he wrote similar letters to the sheriffs of ten counties along Highway 51. Only Madison County sheriff Jack Cauthen wrote back, assuring him that police would protect him if he acted lawfully.

Perhaps most important, Meredith sought to conquer black people’s fears. In July 1965, while back in Kosciusko for his father’s funeral, a comment by his mother struck him. His younger brother was deploying to Vietnam. “I feel less afraid for him going to fight in Vietnam than I do to have him come home to Mississippi and have these white folks kill him,” she said. Fear, thought Meredith, kept blacks on the bottom level. “I wanted to drive despair from the frustrated mind of a teenage Negro boy who had only just begun to feel the consequences of being inferior,” he reflected.

Why should he have to drop his head and restrain his fist when he is insulted and abused without cause, when his father has taught him all his life to treat everybody right? Why does he have to look the other way when a white female passes by, when every day he sees his sister approached by a white man? Who is he going to hate and vent his anger on? The white man for being so cruel, or his father for being so weak? I want that teenage boy to know himself.

By walking into Mississippi towns and encouraging voter registration, Meredith would defy this culture of racial intimidation, setting a powerful example.

Robert Weeks first offered to join him. The white, forty-year-old Episcopalian minister had admired Meredith’s courage at Ole Miss, and he had missed the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, which had drawn clergy from across the country. As chaplain for the Hampton Training School in New Hampton, New York, he tended to about two hundred troubled boys, many of whom were blacks and Hispanics from New York City. In the spring of 1966, one of the boys dismissed him as a typical white liberal. “You wouldn’t shed blood for me,” he said. It troubled Weeks. Was his work a calling, or was it just a career? Would he sacrifice himself for justice? When he read about Meredith’s plan, he saw a chance to test his ideals.

Sherwood Ross attended Meredith’s press conference at the White House Conference on Civil Rights and then offered his services as a publicist. He had worked for the Urban League in Chicago and New York, but he wanted to experience the southern civil rights struggle. Though a pacifist, he had served in the air force without seeing combat, and he yearned for some sort of self-defining challenge. He also feared for Meredith’s safety. If he raised the march’s profile, he could surround Meredith with reporters, and then no one would attack him, except perhaps “a demented person or a fanatic.” After taking a press release to the city desks of the Washington newspapers, he drove with Meredith back to New York City, where he gave the release to The New York Times.

Ross also called the Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Congress of Racial Equality, but the big organizations told him that Meredith marched to the beat of his own drummer. No one contacted any black leaders in Memphis. Even A. W. Willis, Meredith’s attorney of record during the Ole Miss lawsuit, admitted that “I don’t know anything except what I read in the paper.”

On the plane from New York on the morning of Sunday, June 5, Meredith and Ross met Weeks. After a late breakfast at the home of his cousins, Katherine and Robert Terrell, Meredith went to the Peabody Hotel, where he saw his friend Claude Sterrett, the sharply dressed twenty-four-year-old vice president of Rojac Records. The final member of the original group, Joseph Crittenden, owned a downtown gas station and convenience store. Long active in the Memphis movement, he had also participated in the March on Washington and the Selma-to-Montgomery march. He decided to join Meredith that very day, while driving home from church.

Meredith’s residual notoriety from Ole Miss had stimulated some attention for his walk, but his stubborn independence prevented it from becoming a mass-marching media showcase. No one, besides Meredith himself, believed in its potential impact. To those paying attention, it simply highlighted Meredith’s courage (or folly) in marching through Mississippi. An eleven-year-old girl from the Bronx named Arlene Wilder marked the occasion with a poem. It began:

Oh God, in Heaven,

Let James Meredith be all right.
Let the angels watch over him,
Day and night.

But how would James Meredith watch over himself? The night before he started, he contemplated whether to carry a Bible or a gun. The choice was fraught with political symbolism. The gun reinforced his bedrock faith in self-reliant manhood—if a man was conquering fear, a man should protect himself. But Meredith also believed that an American citizen deserved the protection of the American government when exercising a basic American right. And if he wanted broad support, then he needed to appeal to the public’s better instincts. Civil rights and Christian righteousness had fused in the public imagination, thanks to Martin Luther King and his kind. So Meredith made a choice that he later called “calculated propaganda.” He brought the Bible.

On the morning of Monday, June 6, Weeks said a prayer under a big, green WELCOME TO MISSISSIPPI sign. That sign had long evoked mixed emotions in Meredith. He adored the state’s natural beauty and took pride in his family’s heritage, but Mississippi also had the lowest percentage of registered black voters and the most intense history of racial violence. The ghosts of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers haunted any black person who considered challenging Jim Crow. “If only I had my fair share in the running and managing of the state of Mississippi,” mused Meredith, “what a wonderful land this could be.”

About thirty whites glared, shouted, and gestured at the group as it passed into Mississippi. Sterrett decided to prickle the hecklers by complementing his gray suit with a tie in the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy. He carried two small flags, and across his back he draped a large silk rebel flag with the words HELL NO.

As they crossed the state line, the DeSoto County sheriff and his deputies awaited. “We’re here to enforce the law,” said the sheriff. “Meredith can walk all the way from here to Africa if he wants to.” Two cars of state highway patrolmen, sent by Mississippi governor Paul Johnson, also followed the marchers; Weeks called one officer “Ol’ Stone Face” when he kept ignoring their smiles and greetings. The third law enforcement organization on hand was the FBI. Its agents followed the march to observe if state and local police protected civilians without racial discrimination.

In the flat and open fields along the highway, a few black workers watched Meredith and his party, but they seemed hesitant to approach, especially if their white bosses were in sight. Occasionally a car brushed past them, or a gas station mounted a cardboard closed sign, or someone yelled, “I hope to hell you die before you get there.” After about eight miles, while they snacked on ham sandwiches at a small state park, Meredith admitted that he was disappointed by the black turnout.

That all changed in Hernando. The seat of DeSoto County, about twelve miles south of the state line, was the first real town along the route. Passing some sagging old mansions and dozens of rickety shacks, Meredith’s group looped around the courthouse and into the main square. About 150 African Americans stood waiting at the far end. They were young and old, men and women, farmhands and shopkeepers. Some men looked downward at first, but Meredith’s pride buoyed them. He smiled, greeted people, and shook hands. Register and vote, he urged.

Never before had a black person in Hernando so openly defied racial custom. “God bless you, James Meredith,” they exclaimed, despite the group of whites leering and hooting from across the square. Local blacks treated him to a hamburger and milk at a cafe off the courthouse square, and one old farmer pressed a dollar bill into his hand. “You just keep that,” he said. “You just keep that.”

Meredith’s spirits soared. “Hernando represented to me the whole purpose of my return to Mississippi,” he explained. “I had gone there to talk to Negroes, to explain that the old order was passing, that they should stand up as men with nothing to fear.” Sherwood Ross had tears in his eyes. The scene reminded him of a Hollywood movie, with the hero basking in a triumphant homecoming. He bought sandwiches, apples, and orange juice for the group from a small store, and they ate a midafternoon lunch under some shady trees. If life had any meaning, he thought, it revealed itself in these beautiful moments.

As they continued south, Meredith brimmed with optimism. “Did you see them?” he asked. “They were men.” His party picked up a fifth marcher, Bill Massey, a twenty-one-year-old black soldier from Nesbit, Mississippi, home on furlough. Meredith had originally wanted to reach Coldwater, nine miles to the south, but decided to stop sooner. He twirled his walking stick and teased a group of reporters about getting tired.

Some teenagers brandished a mocking, scribbled chalk sign decorated with Confederate flags that read, YOU’RE 197.4 MILES FROM JACKSON, JAMES, THAT’S 1,032,272 FOOTS. Meredith joked that they should join him. They laughed, and one called him a “damn fool,” but in a friendly sort of way. Meredith laughed, too, and offered to shake their hands. “No,” said one boy. “You’re still in Mississippi.”

Around four o’clock, Claude Sterrett ran up, nearly breathless. He had just spoken with an elderly black man, who had warned that a gun-wielding crank was down the road. Meredith looked up from some newspaper clippings about the first day of his march. “Well,” he shrugged. He knew the dangers. In Memphis, he had mentioned the possibility of an assassination by a lone sniper. Along the route, he had even pointed out suspicious characters to the police.

Meredith’s companions also noticed potential threats. Joseph Crittenden remembered one particular man—a stocky white fellow in dark glasses and an open white shirt, holding an unlit pipe, sizing up the scene while puttering by in his car.

They passed over gently rolling hills. Thick groves of pine trees and scrub oaks lined the gray asphalt road. It had rained that morning, so even though it was hot and sunny, the air felt damp, and the red clay soil smelled earthy and alive. Cars of reporters and officers leapfrogged the marchers, sometimes disappearing behind the next hill. At about 4:15, some of the reporters and Robert Weeks ducked into a country store, where they sipped cold drinks and soothed their aching feet. A few hundred yards ahead, Meredith and three others walked down a dipping stretch of road. Some cars trailed well behind them and others were out in front.

They heard a shout: “James Meredith! James Meredith!” A white man stood on the east side of the road, ahead of Meredith, in a gully lined with honeysuckle and dotted with broken pine seedlings. It was the same pipe-toting man that Crittenden had noticed. He held a shotgun in one hand. He waved people away with the other. “I only want James Meredith!” Deliberately, even calmly, he walked closer, to about thirty feet in front of them. He paused a moment, waiting for people to clear away. The policemen hung back. The armed man had rendered everyone panicked, paralyzed. The moment was at once frenzied and in slow motion.

The man raised his gun; a glint of sunshine reflected off the barrel. “James, look out!” shouted Crittenden. A shot boomed out, and Meredith screamed. Everyone scrambled away, tripping over each other. The man fired again. Meredith crawled across the road, trying to reach cover behind a car. His eyes were white with panic. His mouth gaped open. “Who, who…” he cried. The white man walked onto the road and fired a third shot, this time from closer range. Then he walked back into the woods.

Meredith lay on his left shoulder and arm, with his right leg pulled up. Blood pooled below his right shoulder, and more blood dotted his head, neck, leg, and arm. His pith helmet had flipped off and landed upside down, while his walking stick lay on the ground, its ivory tip cracked and bloodstained. Reporters barked questions, photographers snapped away, and marchers screamed for an ambulance. Someone suggested that Weeks administer last rites. At that moment, while splayed on the gravel shoulder of Highway 51, Meredith regretted taking the Bible. He should have brought the gun.

Photo by © Susan Prater

Photo by © Susan Prater

Aram Goudsouzian is chair of the history department at the University of Memphis. He earned his B.A. from Colby College and his Ph.D. from Purdue University. He is the author of King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, The Hurricane of 1938, and Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.

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