Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear

Aram Goudsouzian

Martin Luther King, Jr., narrowly escaped a mob attack; protesters were teargassed by state police; Lyndon Johnson refused to intervene; and Stokely Carmichael led the chant that would define a new kind of civil rights movement: Black Power.

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.


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.

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