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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

March Against Fear

A week after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, the Nation received a jolt in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Author Rick Perlstein summarized how it began:

The spark came at the corner of 116th and Avalon. Two black men, brothers, were stopped by a California highway patrolman at 7:19 p.m., the driver under suspicion of drunkenness. The three scuffled; a crowd gathered. Their mother came out from her house to quarrel with the cops, then another woman joined the fight. The crowd thought the second woman was pregnant (she was wearing a barber's smock). When the cops struck the second woman-kicking a pregnant woman in the stomach?-the mob surged as one. By ten fifteen several hundred Watts residents were on the street, throwing things at white car passengers, staving in store windows, looting. Police tried to seal off the immediate area. But things had already spiraled out of control. [Perlstein, Rick, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, Scribner, 2009, p. 9-10]

The riot lasted 5 days (August 11 through 15) and resulted in 34 deaths, over 1,000 injuries, and nearly 4,000 arrests. It shocked the State and the Nation. Its causes would be debated and its meaning for America examined, with opposite reactions from left and right, at all levels of government, in academia and the media, as well as within the Civil Rights Movement. Some wanted to understand the problems that prompted the residents to riot; others wanted to use stronger force to clamp down on the rioters.

The Watts Riots were a turning point that would shift the Civil Rights Movement away from the nonviolent protests that Dr. King used to initiate the creative tension that could lead to solutions. Radical, even violent leaders would grow increasingly influential as riots hit other cities in coming years. These new leaders began to see Dr. King as a relic of an earlier era when it was possible to imagine a society where whites and African-Americans could be coaxed by nonviolent principles to live together in harmony. Opposition to the Vietnam War, in which African-Americans experienced disproportionate combat-related deaths, added to this new vision of violent revolt - and the impression that the Nation was coming apart at the seams.

The transformation would become clear after the White House staged its long-delayed Conference on "To Fulfill These Rights." The 2-day conference opened on June 1, 1966, at the Sheraton-Park Hotel in Washington under the co-chairmanship of A. Philip Randolph and Ben W. Heineman, Chairman of the Board of the Chicago and Northwestern Railway Company. The 2,400 delegates included Dr. King, CORE Director Floyd B. McKissick, Executive Director Whitney M. Young, Jr., of the National Urban League, Walter Reuther of the United Automobile Workers, and NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins. The White House had sought a diverse mix of delegates with an emphasis on moderates.

The conference was, as Branch put it, "born a living anachronism," based on ideas that were not accepted by a new generation of African-American leaders. SNCC, for example, refused to participate. Stokely Carmichael, who had replaced John Lewis as chairman just the month before, was taking the organization away from the ideas that Lewis and his mentor, Dr. King, advocated. Instead of participating in the White House Conference, SNCC members picketed outside the hotel with signs greeting delegates with sentiments such as: SAVE US FROM OUR NEGRO LEADERS, and UNCLE TOMS!. When Dr. King arrived, protesters called out "Black Jesus!" in derisive tones. [Canaan, p. 471]

In remarks at 10 p.m. on June 1, the President recalled his Howard University address announcing his plan for the conference. He said, "And now you have come tonight from every region of this great land, from every walk of life, to play your part in this momentous undertaking and in this great adventure." He added:

You are here because you represent the humane and the progressive spirit of our people. Through two centuries of trial and triumph that spirit has moved the American democracy from an ideal to a powerful reality.

You are here tonight because your country needs your collective judgment. The dilemma that you deal with is too deeply rooted in pride and prejudice, too profound and complex, and too critical to our future for any one man or any one administration to ever resolve . . . .

So you are here, finally, because in your variety of background and circumstance you symbolize those who have a stake in including the Negro American in our society. And that is everybody-Negro and white, rich and poor, manager and worker, city dweller and suburbanite.

Government could not solve the problems alone, nor could individuals wall themselves off from the effects of widespread poverty and discrimination.

He acknowledged that in its first day, the conference had seen considerable dissention among delegates. At the same time, he said, the conference had seen "a lot of people that are plowing the furrows that are going to come up with constructive ideas, with vision, and with a platform that will bring a lot of people into agreement on goals that we have yet to achieve."

African-Americans were 11 percent of the population and held 15 percent of Federal jobs. "We are not satisfied that we have attained equal and exact justice and equal employment, but I have been working at it very diligently for 5 years."

In closing, he noted that Presidents rarely introduce other speakers, but he was making an exception for "one who 12 years ago established in the field of civil rights a beachhead from which we shall never retreat." He continued:

Since that day, he has already occupied two great offices-distinguished Justice of the Court of Appeals, and tonight a great Solicitor General of the United States of America . . . . I am very proud that he serves my administration. I am very proud that his is the voice of the people of all the United States before the highest and greatest court of this land. And nothing, I think, could be really more appropriate than that this man should speak to the first great national conference that has ever been called to really consider the rights and the opportunities of Negro Americans.

He introduced Thurgood Marshall, who had led the team before the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education. He had become Solicitor General in August 1965, the first African-American to hold the post.

Marshall's remarks would offend Dr. King by championing the fight for justice in the courts rather than through nonviolent protest. "I submit that the history of the Negro demonstrates the importance of getting rid of hostile laws, and seeking the security of new friendly laws." Privately, Dr. King was used to Marshall's criticism, such as calling him "a boy on a man's errand." Marshall made clear in private that he saw Dr. King's "missionary marches as a nuisance," as Branch summarized the Solicitor General's view. However, Marshall's public words especially stung as he added to the growing evidence that Dr. King was becoming isolated and irrelevant. [Canaan, p. 472-473] Dr. King spent much of the conference, particularly the second day, in his hotel room.

The conference ended the following day after moderate voices blocked contentious disputes on the Vietnam War initiated by McKissick and his allies. At one point, James M. Nabrit, Jr., Deputy Representative to the United Nations, ruled a Vietnam resolution out of order, saying, "I don't want to put that albatross around the civil rights movement."

The conference-marked by angry debates on Vietnam, politicians trying to advance their careers, and widening divisions among African-Americans-resulted in more than 100 pages of recommendations, including calls for new public works programs, guaranteed employment, and initiatives in education, housing, and justice. [Herbers, John, "Rights Conference Averts Showdown on War Policy," The New York Times, June 3, 1966]

Amid the controversies of the conference, reporters barely noticed a banner hung in the Sheraton-Park press room declaring that the "World Committee for Preservation of James Meredith" would sponsor a "March Against Fear." Meredith, a Mississippi native and U.S. Air Force veteran (1951-1960), had been the first African-American to attend the University of Mississippi. It took a Supreme Court ruling, negotiations with Governor Barnett, intervention by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and protection by U.S. marshals, but Meredith had begun attending on October 1, 1962. Riots cost two lives, left 160 soldiers and 26 marshals injured. Meredith was harassed through his two semesters, but by 1966, he had transferred to Columbia Law School in New York.

Beginning on June 5, he planned to conduct a 220-mile "March Against Fear" from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to inspire the State's African-Americans to register to vote and conquer their fear about living and traveling in Mississippi. "Nothing can be more enslaving than fear," he told reporters. "We've got to root this out." Unlike the carefully planned Voting Rights March the year before, the March Against Fear consisted of James Meredith and anybody who felt like straggling along.

He left Memphis on Sunday, June 5, from the elegant Peabody Hotel on Union Avenue. The New York Times described his appearance:

He wore a yellow pith helmet and had exchanged the blue suit and button-down collar in which he arrived at the airport from New York this morning for a short-sleeved shirt and gray cotton trousers. He wore heavy-soled walking shoes. He carried an ebony walking stick with an ivory head.

He was accompanied by a few companions, including a 24-year old New York friend and a white Episcopal minister from Monroe, New York, but he had not tried to gather supporters for the march. "If anyone wants to go, it's his business. But I want to make it clear that he's on his own." He had not made any arrangements for the march, but was hoping people along the way would provide food and shelter.

Three police cars accompanied him as he left downtown Memphis and headed toward U.S. 51. [Reed, Roy, "Meredith Begins Mississippi Walk to Combat Fear," The New York Times, June 6, 1966]

Meredith reached the Mississippi border by evening, and was 14 miles along U.S. 51, near Hernando, when Aubrey Norvell, a 40-year old hardware contractor, emerged from the woods and fired his shotgun at Meredith. Norvell was arrested immediately by officers accompanying the March Against Fear, and Meredith was taken off for surgery in Bowld Hospital in Memphis to remove 70 shotgun pellets from his back and scalp. Reports of his death were inaccurate, but his injuries prompted civil rights leaders to decide to continue the march they had paid little attention to initially.

After visiting Meredith in the hospital, Dr. King, Reverend James Lawson, Floyd McKissick and 21 others resumed the march from the point of the shooting incident near Hernando. The marchers included Stokely Carmichael, now the head of SNCC. Taylor Branch summarized the start:

King locked arms with Floyd McKissick and Stokely Carmichael . . . before a line of Mississippi state troopers confronted them at the top of the first gentle hill with orders to get off the pavement. King blinked with surprise, and called for protection instead, but the troopers resolutely shoved him aside with the others. "We walked from Selma to Montgomery in the middle of the road," he protested to no avail, stumbling backward. Troopers knocked Cleveland Sellers [a 22-year old SNCC leader] to the ground. Carmichael lunged toward the most aggressive one, but King kept his arm crooked tightly with an elbow and called out for help. [Canaan, p. 476-477]

That evening, camped in a pasture, Carmichael apologized to Dr. King for his violent outburst. Carmichael, born in New York City, had joined the movement while attending Howard University in June 1961 when as noted earlier, he joined Freedom Riders on the Illinois Central Railway from New Orleans. Arsenault said of Carmichael:

With his strong views and sharp tongue, he could be an unsettling influence, and his challenge to what he viewed as a misguided faith in Gandhian sacrifice often irritated Lewis and others. [Freedom Riders, p. 311-312, 362]

On June 14, as the marchers approached Grenada, about halfway to Jackson, they walked over crude Klan signs painted on U.S. 51. The news service UPI described the marchers:

This march has become part movement, part circus. Among the 350-odd marchers . . . are about 50 white youths who wear T-shirts and denims, sandals and weird cowboy hats adorned with Freedom buttons . . . . "This is a great assembly of kooks," said a Mississippi Highway patrolman. Most newsmen agreed. [Canaan, p. 483]

They clapped, sang, and danced across the Yalobusha River Bridge into Grenada. They marched along Pearl Street, with Highway Patrol keeping white hotheads away:

Floyd McKissick of CORE tested the meaning of strange new signs that changed the dual public restrooms for both sexes from "white" and "colored" to "No. 1" and "No. 2." Pointing to the Grenada County courthouse, he cried, "We're going over to the toilets marked 'No. 1,' and see if it ain't a little better." Long lines quickly spilled across the lawn unmolested.

Marchers helped 200 African-Americans register to vote. [Canaan, p. 484]

The following day, the march departed from U.S. 51 to follow State Route 7 toward Greenwood, while Dr. King drove to Charleston and Winona for registration rallies. (On the 15th, he left the march to return to Chicago where he was leading efforts to promote open housing.)

By then, Mississippi officials had seen enough. Governor Paul Johnson called the march "a voter registration campaign." He reduced the police protection from 20 cruisers to four and told local jurisdictions to take over. "We aren't going to wetnurse a bunch of showmen all over the country."

In Greenwood, where Carmichael had lived and been jailed in 1964, the marchers planned to camp on the grounds of Stone Street Negro School, but police questioned their authority. After arguing with the police, Carmichael was arrested:

In Greenwood, where the morning Commonwealth warned against King as a hate-monger "who can be compared to Josef Stalin and Mao Tze Tung," local officials thought better of dispersing his hordes. They reversed themselves to allow the school campsite, which added jolts of vindication to the mass meeting that night. [SNCC official] Willie Ricks guided Carmichael to the speaker's platform when he made bail, saying most of the locals remembered him fondly. "Drop it now!" [Ricks] urged. "The people are ready."

He was referring to a line of argument Carmichael had been using in private meetings with SNCC leaders:

Carmichael faced an agitated crowd of six hundred. "This is the 27th time I have been arrested," he began, "and I ain't going to jail no more!" He said Negroes should stay home from Vietnam and fight for black power in Greenwood. "We want black power!" he shouted five times, jabbing his forefinger downward in the air. "That's right. That's what we want, black power. We don't have to be ashamed of it. We have stayed here. We have begged the president. We've begged the federal government-that's all we've been doing, begging and begging. It's time we stand up and take over. Every courthouse in Mississippi ought to be burned down tomorrow to get rid of the dirt and the mess. From now on, when they ask you what you want, you know what to tell 'em. What do you want?"

The crowd shouted, "Black Power!" Willie Ricks sprang up to help lead thunderous rounds of call and response: "What do you want?" "Black Power!" [Canaan, 486]

Dr. King returned on June 17 to continue with the march along Route 7, but the new phrase was on the minds of marchers and onlookers. As the marchers approached Belzoni, a reporter asked Carmichael, "What do you mean when you shout black power to these people back here?"

"I mean," Carmichael replied, "that the only way that black people in Mississippi will create an attitude where they will not be shot down like pigs, where they will not be shot down like dogs, is when they get the power where they constitute a majority in counties to institute justice."

"I feel, however," King interjected, "that while believing firmly that power is necessary, that it would be difficult for me to use the phrase black power because of the connotative meaning that it has for many people." Carmichael walked alongside, hands clasped behind his back with beguiling pleasantry. [Canaan, p. 487]

This brief moment on Route 7, with Dr. King trying to redirect the words of his young ally, marked a changing of the guard, as Dr. King's nonviolent philosophy began to fade into the past of the Civil Rights Movement. He would remain active, but Black Power would overtake the movement while he looked for new challenges to match his past successes.

On June 21, Dr. King, Reverend Abernathy, and 20 others left the March Against Fear to participate in a memorial march for Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwermer from Mt. Nebo Baptist Church to the Neshoba County Courthouse in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The three had been murdered while participating in Freedom Summer, a 1964 project to register voters and aid poor residents. After investigating the burning of Mt. Zion Methodist Church, they were arrested by Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price for alleged speeding. After being released that evening, they were driving in their Ford Fairlane station wagon back to their base in Meridian when they were overtaken by two carloads of Klan members who murdered them in brutal fashion on June 21 and buried the bodies.

A national outcry at their disappearance forced the FBI to take a strong hand in locating the three. On June 23, while white leaders tried to diminish the outcry by claiming that the disappearance was a publicity stunt, an FBI agent raced along State Route 19 from Meridian to Philadelphia in response to a tip about the station wagon. He found the burned out vehicle, minus the workers' bodies, in a thicket 80 feet off the highway beyond the bridge over Bogue Chitto Creek. Again in response to a tip, the FBI found the bodies on August 3 buried beneath an earthen dam on a farm 5 miles southwest of Philadelphia. [Canaan, p. 361-366, 434]

(In October 1967, a jury found Price and six codefendants guilty of the murders, while finding seven others not guilty and deadlocking on three of the defendants.)

At the commemoration, Dr. King addressed participants amid jeers from white bystanders. He said, "I want them to know that we are not afraid. If they kill three of us, they will have to kill all of us. I am not afraid of any man, whether he is in Michigan or Mississippi, whether he is in Birmingham or Boston." As the group began the return march, the white bystanders attacked with stones, bottles, clubs, fists, and shouts. The police held them back until some of the marchers began to fight back. That night, white marauders drove through African-American neighborhoods spraying homes with gunfire.

Returning to the March Against Fear, now on U.S. 49, at Yazoo City, Dr. King found that the incident in Philadelphia had revived debate over strategy. Many thought that if they were going to die for the cause, they should go down fighting. Dr. King explained the futility of violence in a society where African-Americans were only about 10 percent of the population. He added:

I am not going to allow anybody to pull me so low as to use the very methods that perpetuated evil throughout our civilization. I'm sick and tired of violence . . . . I'm tired of evil. I'm not going to use violence no matter who says it!

He threatened to leave the March Against Fear if inflammatory rhetoric continued. [Canaan, p. 489]

Given the threat of violence, President Johnson had contacted Governor Johnson, who assured that the marchers would be protected with additional units of the Mississippi Highway Patrol. The President sent a telegram to Dr. King saying Assistant Attorney General Doar would remain with the marchers as they left Yazoo City to walk on State Route 16 to Canton where they would intersect U.S. 51.

By June 23, when Dr. King received the telegram, the marchers were 20 miles from Jackson, their ranks growing as the end came near. They prepared to camp on the grounds of McNeal Elementary School for Negroes. With a permit dispute as a pretext, a Highway Patrol commander used a megaphone to tell the crowd, "You will not be allowed to erect the tents. If you do, you will be removed."

Dr. King addressed the marchers, telling them, "we aren't going to fight any state troopers," but then handed the microphone to Carmichael who incited the crowd. "The time for running has come to an end!" he shouted.

With the crowd cheering his confrontational speech, the patrolmen began shooting tear gas. "Nobody fight back," Dr. King shouted. "We're going to stand our ground." As marchers tried to find cover or get away from the tear gas, the patrolmen charged into the crowd, kicking and clubbing. They impounded the tents and cleared the field, including a dozen unconscious marchers who had not been fast enough to get out of their way. In the onslaught, Carmichael had collapsed.

CBS News correspondent John Hart caught up with Dr. King, who was wiping his eyes as Ricks pulled him to safety. "In light of this, Dr. King," Hart asked, "have you rethought any of the philosophy of nonviolence?" Dr. King again endorsed nonviolence. "How could we be violent in the midst of a police force like that?"

Marchers straggled to a church to review the evening's events. Dr. King addressed them, but his remarks were less assured than usual. He referred to the telegram he had received from the President referring to the Governor's assurances of safety:

"And the very men that tear gassed us tonight," said King, "are the men that we are told will be our protectors." Catching himself, he veered into a strangely subdued reverie: "You know, the one thing I have learned . . . on this march is that it is a shame before almighty God that people earn as little money as the Negro people of Mississippi. You know the story." He spoke of the humbling, bonding effect of seeing faces in desperation so closely. [Canaan, p. 490-491]

While the marchers regrouped on Friday, June 24, Dr. King returned to Philadelphia where he confronted a crowd of 2,000 angry white Mississippians. With Carmichael, McKissick, and Ricks standing by, Dr. King told his supporters that the people who brutalized them thought that would stop them, "But we are right here today standing firm, saying we are gonna have our freedom." The whites yelled and threw eggs and bottles, but Dr. King's supporters escorted him safely to Mt. Nebo Baptist Church.

Leaders wrangled over unpaid bills and the agenda for the next day's rally, but Dr. King and others tired of the battles. "I'm sorry, y'all," he told them. "James Brown is on. I'm gone." He and Carmichael headed to Tougaloo College football field for a freedom concert by the soul star. Singer Harry Belafonte had arranged the concert, with Sammy Davis, Jr., and actor Marlon Brando involved in the festivities. Freedom Rider Jim Peck was there. He tried to reach Dr. King to discuss the ongoing purge of white members from CORE, but could not get through the crowd. Peck managed to get a note to him indicating that "despite the dirt deal I have received from CORE, I am still with The Movement." [Canaan, p. 491-492]

On Sunday, June 26, 15,000 marchers assembled in Tougaloo for the 8-mile march into Jackson. They made it safely to the State Capitol:

The closing rally gathered at the "rear" plaza of the state capitol, because Highway Patrol officers in gas masks, backed by National Guard with bayoneted M-1 rifles, sternly blocked the southern front where Mississippi governors traditionally took office near a goddess statue to Confederate womanhood.

The closing speeches, according to Branch, were "disjointed" and "wilted in the heat." He said:

James Meredith, healed enough to make cantankerous public comments about the reshaped march ("The whole damn thing smells to me"), mis-introduced "Michael" Carmichael, who called upon black soldiers to resist "mercenary" service in Vietnam and declared, "Number one, we have to stop being ashamed of being black."

Dr. King, confronting the end of a march that he considered a mistake, spoke in part on the parable in Luke 16:19-31 about the rich man Dives who took his rewards in his lifetime while failing to notice the poor man Lazarus who received his in the afterlife. Dr. King used this parable to illustrate the need for America, the richest Nation in the world, to bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. [Testament, p, 274] He also improvised on his I Have a Dream theme ("that one day the empty stomachs of Mississippi will be filled, that the idle industries of Appalachia will be revitalized"). [Canaan, p. 493]

The reporters watching the finale, with its recap of the Dream speech, could see that Dr. King was fading as a leader. They had been drawn to the last day of the Meredith march by Dr. King's name, but his remarks seemed tired compared with the presence of the new leader, Stokely Carmichael, and his revolutionary new rallying cry, "Black Power!"

As if to emphasize Dr. King's falling status, the White House took no action on his complaints about police abuses during the march. The President, according to a deputy press secretary, had "no specific reaction" to the abuses.

The march that James Meredith had begun without planning or clear purpose ended without achieving any goal except its conclusion. But it had elevated Stokely Carmichael to a national spotlight along with the phrase Black Power that some African-American leaders, including Carmichael, would use as a rallying cry for the violence that Dr. King had opposed his whole life.

Updated: 10/17/2013
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