Fifty years ago, the March Against Fear began when one black man set out to walk from Memphis to Jackson to encourage blacks from city to city to register and vote.
On June 5, 1966, James Meredith, the first black to integrate the University of Mississippi, sought to prove that a black man can fearlessly walk the highways of Mississippi. On the second day of the march, Meredith was shot three times by Aubrey Norvell in Hernando.
“I remember watching the news where the civil rights leaders had gone to visit Meredith in the hospital in Memphis and the press indicated that they would continue his walk,” says Dr. Leslie B. McLemore, veteran of the civil rights movement in Mississippi.
Activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Floyd McKissick of the Congress of Racial Equality, Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, representing the major national civil rights organizations at the time, joined Mississippians and continued to march.
“If we’re talking about a March Against Fear, you’d think people would become afraid after the shooting of Meredith. But I think this was the impetus for people to actually continue the march for him,” says Dr. Daphne Chamberlain, assistant professor of history at Tougaloo College.
Throughout the 19-day journey, marchers were threatened by members of the Ku Klux Klan. On June 23, 1966, in Canton, the march took a violent turn.
Flonzie Brown-Wright, then a member of CORE and a civil rights activist in Canton, received a call from King days before the marchers would arrive.
Brown-Wright recalls King saying, “I’ve been told that if I wanted to get something done in Canton, I’d have to call you. I’m wondering if you could provide food and housing for 3,000 people?”
Community businesses and churches worked together to provide for the incoming marchers. Brown-Wright personally escorted King around Canton and introduced him at the rally that took place on the steps of the city’s courthouse.
Marchers slept in homes, churches, gymnasiums, on porches, in backyards, on swings and some camped under rented circus tents, explains Brown-Wright. The issue became pitching a tent on the grounds of an elementary school following the rally.
After a speech given by Carmichael, which further validated the phrase “black power” coined by Willie Ricks in Greenwood, highway patrolmen and city police officers rushed the crowd with riot guns and tear gas.
“We were familiar with violence, but because we had so many people at the rally in Canton that night, the atmosphere magnified the tear gassing,” says Brown-Wright.
“But once we understood the vision of why we needed to be a part of this movement, nothing including tear gassing, beatings, shootings, killings were going to stop us,” says Brown-Wright.
“God honored me to acknowledge that I am his prophet and chosen to deliver his message to his chosen people,” says Meredith.
He joined marchers from across the nation in the final stage from Canton to Jackson, finishing the journey he started as one man. The night before the march to the Capitol, thousands joined on the lawn of Tougaloo College with celebrities such as actors Burt Lancaster and Lorne Green and singer James Brown raving the crowd with his song I’m Black and I’m Proud.
When the media covering the march reported Carmichael’s use of the phrase “black power” in Canton, it brought a new dimension to the civil rights movement internationally. Black power would soon be defined by hair, with popular music and in clothing across the world. Chamberlain defined the phrase then as a call for black people to develop a sense of pride and courage so that they could change the complexion of politics in the state.
In 1960, an estimated 95% of blacks in the state were not registered to vote. The Department of Justice later estimated that between 2,500 and 3,000 black Mississippians were registered to vote as a result of the March Against Fear. Those involved in the civil rights movement say as many as 4,000 people registered.
“It was a jubilant time. We celebrated that long journey from the Delta until now being seven miles from the Capitol,” says Brown-Wright. “None of us knew we were making history. Our forefathers couldn’t do it. So why not us for our children to come?” Brown-Wright continues her activism because of the vow she made to King during the March Against Fear.
Fifty years later, Meredith’s objective is still current. “It’s unprecedented that the man who started this is still alive and is still pushing for human rights and inter-generational dialogue,” says McLemore.