[21 February 2014]
Excerpted from Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear by Aram Goudsouzian (footnotes omitted), published in February 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2014 by Aram Goudsouzian. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
THE BIBLE AND THE GUN
Memphis to Hernando
June 5–6, 1966
It is sometimes said that the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. For generations, the rich whites who owned the dark soil straddled by the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers came to Memphis, twelve miles north of the state border. Here men traded cotton, secured loans, and indulged in sumptuous feasts, high-stakes poker, and fleshly pleasures. Their wives visited department stores and beauty parlors, and their children caught trains to boarding schools and elite colleges. The hub of this social world was the Peabody lobby, with its elegant splendors: stately columns, a lavish mezzanine, ornate moldings on the ceiling. In the center stood a travertine marble fountain, holding a classical sculpture festooned with flowers. Ducks waddled in the fountain pool. The hotel epitomized a particular kind of southern grace, the kind that excluded someone like James Meredith.
At 1:45 p.m. on Sunday, June 5, Meredith stood outside the hotel, ready to launch what he called his “second assault on Mississippi.” He was a small, slightly built black man with a thin mustache. He wore a short-sleeved checkered shirt, sunglasses, and a yellow pith helmet. In one hand he brandished an ebony walking stick with an ivory head, a gift from an African village chief. In the other he held a Bible.
His walk was scheduled to begin at two o’clock, but his publicity man Sherwood Ross figured that whoever was coming was already there. So Meredith started walking. Four people accompanied him. Two were black, the New York record executive Claude Sterrett and the Memphis businessman Joseph Crittenden. The two whites were Ross and a minister from New York, Robert Weeks. It was an unusual spectacle. A few television cameras recorded footage. The New York Times and major wire services sent reporters, but The Commercial Appeal of Memphis did not. A handful of whites watched with curiosity. At first, a man behind them waved a small Confederate flag, but after two policemen requested that he desist, he left.
Meredith led his cadre across Beale Street, the heart of Memphis blues, where Delta migrants such as Robert Johnson, B.B. King, and Howlin’ Wolf had strummed and picked and moaned and wailed. Proving Ross wrong, some members of the Memphis NAACP arrived just after the marchers left the Peabody, including Maxine and Vasco Smith, the branch’s executive director and vice president. They soon caught up to Meredith. As they weaved through the densely packed black neighborhoods south of Beale, some women and children walked alongside them, enjoying the hullabaloo. Others spilled onto porches and sidewalks, extending good wishes.
Meredith puzzled Weeks. Meredith dodged deep questions by steering conversations toward trivialities, yet he possessed a spiritual calm. Weeks likened him to Joan of Arc, “a militaristic mystic.” He seemed unfazed by any harassment—when reporters mentioned the man waving the Confederate flag, he just praised General Stonewall Jackson. It bothered him more that only women and children had joined the walk through Memphis. “Negro men are afraid to be men down here,” he grumbled.
As they walked through South Memphis, they crossed neighborhoods where much of the city’s black population was concentrated. They passed near Stax Records, where Otis Redding and Rufus Thomas were popularizing the funky, soulful, modern Memphis sound. By late afternoon, about eight miles south of downtown in rural Whitehaven, they walked past a white colonial mansion, set back about a hundred yards from Highway 51, bounded by fourteen rural acres. It was Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley.
As the surroundings got rural, the mood got hostile. Whites drove up and down the highway, snapping photos and yelling insults. Cars whizzed so close to the marchers that the wind whipped their pant legs. “Hurry up, nigger, you’re gonna get killed in Mississippi,” jeered one man. Weeks’s clerical collar branded him a special race traitor. “Hey preacher!” said an old man, leaning out of his car, his face promising violent mischief. “Where are you staying tonight?” Other hecklers waved Confederate battle flags, and in the early evening, two men rode back and forth on horseback, wearing ten-gallon hats and wielding massive flags, whooping the rebel yell.
A little after 6:30, Meredith’s party stopped a quarter mile north of the state line. About thirty cars filled with whites had gathered to block them, but Tennessee state policemen dispersed the troublemakers before the marchers arrived. Anyway, Meredith had decided that Mississippi could wait until the next morning. Before catching a ride back to Memphis, he shrugged off the possibility of danger. He had seen worse.
Ross, by contrast, had never tasted such venom. As a radio reporter, he had covered civil rights stories in northern cities, but nothing prepared him for the anger, and even distress, of their detractors along Highway 51. These young whites, he surmised, viewed Meredith as the symbol of a changing order, one that weakened their own status. He feared what would happen in Mississippi, the most notoriously racist state in the Union. They needed federal men, he figured. Ross called Whitney Young, the executive director of the National Urban League.
“Get us some protection, please,” he urged. “We’re going to get shot tomorrow.”
James Meredith had long considered himself the sole architect of his special destiny. When he was about seven years old, he accompanied his father, Moses “Cap” Meredith, to the home of a white farmer. Cap owned cows that had been grazing on the farmer’s property, and he needed to pay the white man. He called out his presence from the front walkway. After a long, long silence, the white man told Cap to go to the back porch, per racial custom. But Cap refused to budge. For three hours, he sat on his mule wagon. He would not even let his squirming son urinate in the woods. Finally, the white man walked outside to conduct their business. The child learned his first lesson about manhood.
Christened J.H. and known as “J,” the oldest son of Cap and Roxie Meredith was born during the Great Depression in the hardscrabble Hill Country of central Mississippi, surrounded by the institutions and customs of white supremacy. But his parents provided a model of conservative self-reliance. Cap had registered to vote in 1919, and his family owned an eighty-four-acre farm north of Kosciusko, the seat of Attala County. The children chopped cotton and slopped hogs. They learned to save money, study hard, and avoid kowtowing to whites. Whenever possible, Cap kept them on his property, away from white people’s homes.
From a young age, “J” saw himself as set apart, special. His family claimed ancestors that included a white chief justice of Mississippi and the leader of the Choctaw Nation—a multicultural heritage of elites that separated them from the bulk of Attala County blacks, who lived in shotgun shacks and obeyed codes of white dominance. Abiding by the ideals of frugality, order, education, and respectability, Meredith developed faith in his own potential. For his senior year of high school, he lived with an uncle in St. Petersburg, Florida. He won an essay contest sponsored by the American Legion on the subject “Why I Am Proud to Be an American.”
In 1951 he enlisted in the United States Air Force under the name James Howard Meredith. The military reinforced his respect for personal discipline and chain-of-command leadership. In 1957 the air force stationed him in Japan. Living without America’s racial baggage was liberating—but also frustrating. He yearned to fight Jim Crow, but he could not do so while in the military. Those limits exacerbated his tendency to boil over with nervous tension, to explode with emotional exhaustion. “Patient is extremely concerned with racial problems, and his symptoms are intensified whenever there is heightened tempo in the racial problems in the United States and Africa,” noted a military psychiatrist. “He loses his temper at times over minor incidents both at home and elsewhere.”
Meredith returned to Mississippi in 1960. While continuing his education at all-black Jackson State College, he applied for transfer to the all-white University of Mississippi, known to all as Ole Miss. It took a federal court case, elaborate negotiations between Governor Ross Barnett and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, multiple attempts to register for classes, the enlistment of U.S. marshals, and the activation of the National Guard, but Meredith finally enrolled at Ole Miss. When he arrived on campus, an angry horde tossed bottles, bricks, and Molotov cocktails while laying siege to the marshals. Two innocent onlookers died during the chaos. On the morning of October 1, 1962, Meredith awoke to attend his first class. He saw ravaged grounds and smelled tear gas. Because of his single-minded resolve, the federal government had enforced his constitutional right to attend the university of his choice.
The crisis turned Meredith into a civil rights hero. Stoic and courageous, he projected the image of a loyal American citizen seeking educational opportunity. Throughout the academic year, marshals and soldiers monitored him as he encountered racist slurs, cruel pranks, hate mail, and social isolation. He refused to be a passive victim: he criticized the segregation of army units during the riot, threatened to leave the university unless conditions improved, and dismissed concerns about his personal safety. “It was an ordeal that tested not only his moral character, but his mental fiber as well,” lauded The Chicago Defender upon his August 19 graduation. “American education, in all its turbulent history, has not had a comparable stalwart example.”
The Ole Miss crisis served as a flashpoint for the civil rights movement, dramatizing racial injustice to the entire world, just like the student sit-ins of 1960 and the Freedom Rides of 1961. But Meredith felt alienated from political organizations. He rejected any place within a mass movement. The trials of Ole Miss had scarred him—he was more of a loner than ever before. Yet the ordeal also deepened his faith in his own singular mission.
His independent streak ruffled the feathers of the black establishment. At the annual NAACP convention in July 1963, Meredith disparaged the upcoming March on Washington, complaining to a banquet room of youth leaders about “the very low quality of leadership present among our young Negroes, and the childish nature of their activities.” He also called them “burrheads.” In response, delegates cheered a speech that rebuked him, while black leaders and columnists ripped him. The backlash sparked Meredith’s unpredictable temper. “My makeup cannot endure this kind of intolerance,” he seethed, shedding tears of rage and shame.
Meredith also criticized nonviolence, the movement’s preeminent (and media-friendly) tactic. He disparaged the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, which exposed black women and children to snapping police dogs, crushing blasts from fire hoses, and violent police officers. Meredith’s father had slept near a loaded shotgun. Meredith himself had served nine years in the military. Nonviolence, in his mind, crippled black manhood. A man possessed basic rights, including the right to defend himself.
Yet Meredith longed for influence within the civil rights movement. In 1964 he wrote to Martin Luther King, chastising him for never returning his phone calls or letters. “I have a great need to know what is going on that will have a future bearing on my people,” wrote Meredith. “I think I should know what is going on behind the scenes as well as what is going on publicly.”
After Ole Miss, he established the James Meredith Educational Fund for scholarship and job placement programs, but soon dropped the effort. He moved to Washington, D.C., and considered running for Congress, but in the summer of 1964 he accepted a three-year postgraduate fellowship from the University of Ibadan. He moved to Nigeria because he saw connections between the plights of black Americans and black Africans, but also because he was dissatisfied with the civil rights leadership. “It was really simply a question of whether I should destroy certain elements of our struggle, or to give it time to let it destroy itself,” he reflected.
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.