March Against Fear
The March Against Fear was an event started on June 6, 1966 by James Meredith, a civil rights leader known for insisting on his right as the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi. He started the solitary walk from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, a distance of 220 miles, to protest against continuing racism after passage of federal civil rights legislation in the previous two years. He invited only black men to join him and did not want it to be a large media event dominated by major organizations. On the second day of his walk, Meredith was shot by a white gunman with shotgun and wounded in several places. He was treated for a time in a hospital but soon released, but needed more time for recovery.
Major civil rights organizations rallied, vowing to carry on the march through the Mississippi Delta in his name. SNCC, SCLC, MFDP, and the Human Rights Medical Committee took part, with the Deacons for Defense and Justice from Louisiana providing protection. They struggled over goals, but also did community organizing and voter registration. They registered more than 4,000 African Americans for voting in counties along the way. Some people marched for a short time, others stayed through all the events; some national leaders took part in intermittent fashion, having commitments in other cities.
Stokeley Carmichael became nationally known as the new leader of SNCC, making headlines with speeches about Black Power, and Rev. Martin Luther King continued to attract admiring crowds; his leadership and reputation brought numerous people out to see him, inspiring some to join the march. As the march headed south, the number of participants grew. Finally, an estimated 15,000 mostly black marchers entered the capital of Jackson on June 26, making it the largest civil rights march in the history of the state. The march served as a catalyst for continued community organizing and political growth over the following years among African Americans in the state. They have maintained a high rate of voting and participation in politics since then.
Disappointed by the slow pace of change following passage of civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, James Meredith decided to make a solo March Against Fear from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi, the state capital, passing through many communities in the Mississippi Delta, the heart of the black population in the state, during the 220-mile journey. He knew the work of change was just beginning. He was noted for having been the first African American to be admitted to the University of Mississippi, insisting on his right to study there. He had persisted through isolation and harassment. He was independent and wanted only black men on the march, wanting to avoid a major media event that featured white participants.
On the second day, he was shot by a white gunman who approached from the side of the road, shooting him three times with a shotgun. Meredith was wounded and fell to the road. People rushed to get an ambulance and took him to the hospital.
When they learned of the shooting, other civil rights leaders, including SCLC's Martin Luther King, SNCC's Stokely Carmichael, Cleveland Sellers and Floyd McKissick, and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), as well as the Human Rights Medical Committee (HRMC) and other civil rights organizations, decided to continue the march in Meredith's name. The NAACP were originally involved but Roy Wilkins pulled out on learning that the Deacons for Defense and Justice were going to be protecting the march. Ordinary people, both black and white, came from across the South and all parts of the country to participate. The marchers slept on the ground outside or in large tents, and were fed mainly by local black communities. A press truck preceded them and the march was covered by national media. Along the way, members of the different civil rights groups argued and collaborated, struggling to achieve their sometimes overlapping and differing goals.
SNCC and MFDP worked to expand community organizing and achieve voter registration by reaching out to the black communities in the Delta. In most places, few blacks had registered to vote, still oppressed by fear and social and economic intimidation in the Jim Crow society. Along the way, the different civil rights groups struggled to reconcile their goals and to enhance the meaning of the march to promote black freedoms. It grew slowly and was embraced by black communities along the way, and by some sympathetic whites. Other whites expressed hostility, jeering and threatening, driving close to marchers. Although overt violence was generally limited, marchers from out of state were shocked and horrified by the virulence of hate expressed in some communities, particularly Philadelphia, where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1963, and Canton.
Governor Paul Johnson, Jr. of Mississippi vowed to protect the marchers if they obeyed the law, but relations between the Highway State Police and marchers were sometimes tense. In some localities, mayors and local officials worked to keep relations peaceful. Local black communities and their churches provided food, housing and places of rest to marchers. They generally camped along the way, after returning to Memphis at the end of the first days.
On the early evening of Thursday, June 16, 1966, when the marchers arrived in Greenwood, Mississippi, and tried to set up camp at Stone Street Negro Elementary School, Carmichael was arrested for trespassing on public property. He was held for several hours by police before rejoining the marchers at a local park, where they had set up camp and were beginning a night-time rally. According to civil rights historian David Garrow, an angry Carmichael took the speaker's platform, delivering his famous "Black Power" speech, arguing that blacks had to build their own political and economic power to attain independence.
King, who had flown to Chicago on Wednesday to help organize the open housing marches in the city, returned to Mississippi on Friday. He found that some of the civil rights movements' internal divisions between the old guard and new guard had gone public. Marchers called out SNCC's "Black Power" slogan as well as SCLC's "Freedom Now!"
In Canton, Mississippi, the march was attacked and tear-gassed by the Mississippi State Police, who were joined by other police agencies, after marchers tried to erect tents on school grounds. This contradicted the governor's commitment to protect them. Leaders felt the violence took place because the president did not offer federal forces to protect them after the violence in Philadelphia. Before that, while relations were often tense, the police had mostly respected the marchers. Several marchers were wounded in this attack, one severely. Human Rights Medical Committee members conducted a house-to-house search that night looking for wounded marchers. The nuns of the Catholic school extended their help and hospitality to the marchers, especially to the wounded.
The march stopped at Tougaloo College, a historically black college, before entering Jackson. Marchers could rest and get food and showers. Many more people joined the march at that point; national leaders returned to it from commitments in other parts of the country. The growing crowd was entertained by James Brown, Dick Gregory, and other major musicians and entertainment figures, including actor Marlon Brando, who spoke briefly.
The next day, June 26, marchers entered the city of Jackson from several different streams and were estimated to number 15,000 strong, the largest civil rights march in Mississippi history. They were warmly welcomed in the black neighborhoods and by some whites. However, many whites jeered and threatened the marchers; others simply stayed indoors. The Highway Police and other forces were out in number, as the city and state had vowed to protect the marchers after the attacks in Philadelphia and Canton. As a result of negotiations with authorities, the marchers gathered at the back of the state capitol to hear speeches, sing protest and celebration songs, and celebrate their achievements.
After a short hospital treatment, Meredith was released. He planned to rejoin the march, then withdrew for a time, as he had not intended it to be such a large media event. He rejoined the March on June 25, the day before it arrived in Jackson and walked in the front line next to Martin Luther King and other leaders.
In total, the march expressed "both the depths of black grievances and the height of black possibilities," and it had to do with "oppressed people controlling their own destiny."
Legacy and honors
- The march "defied Jim Crow's culture of intimidation" by the very act of blacks asserting themselves through the different communities, celebrating their identities, and organizing.
- In the counties along the route, 4,077 African Americans registered to vote, many for the first time. Federal examiners registered 1,422 and county clerks did the rest.
- Later black veterans of the Mississippi movement noted that the march had longstanding political and cultural effects, serving to galvanize community organizing among blacks in the state.
- In 1997 Jack R. Thornell won the annual Pulitzer Prize for Photography for his photograph of James Meredith struggling on the road in Mississippi after being shot.
- Pearson, Hugh (1994). Shadow of the Panther. Perseus Books. ISBN 978-0-201-63278-1.
- David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, William Morrow and Company (1986), p. 481.
- Aram Goudsouzian, Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear, New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2014, p. 246
- "Photography", The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2013-11-13.
- Goudsouzian, Aram. Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux. 2014.