Memphis Theological Seminary Student Robert Lee Long contributes a regular guest column to the Daily Memphian. We’ve shared one story below, about the Civil Rights Movement activist James Meredith. More of Long’s stories can be found at this link.
On a blistering stretch of pavement some 17 miles south of Memphis, the future of the struggle for civil rights in America was at a crossroads.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and an emerging young warrior against white supremacy, Stokely Carmichael, were engaged in a heated argument, so much so that the veins in Dr. King’s neck became engorged as well as the veins which popped out on his forehead, or so an eyewitness to the exchange, an African American minister, the Rev. Andrew Miller, shared with me recently.
The date was June of 1966. James Meredith, the Air Force veteran who broke the color barrier at lily-white Ole Miss, had been shot several days before, just south of the DeSoto County seat of Hernando, Mississippi, and King had come to Hernando to continue Meredith’s “Walk Against Fear,” which King and the movement re-coined as the “March Against Fear.”
The march, designed to enlist African American citizens to register to vote, would be peaceful, insisted King, who was inspired by the nonviolent movement Gandhi had used to overthrow British rule in India.
Carmichael, young and brash and sick of the slow pace to achieve true equality for people of color, argued that meaningful and substantial change should be brought about by any means necessary.
It was on that march where the phrase “Black Power” would first be invoked and would give rise to the movement of the same name.
Clearly, King and Carmichael had differing views on how to bring about change. After all, the pace and progress of civil rights for people of color had taken 400 years and obstacles were created at almost every turn, Carmichael argued.
King, a minister, based his approach on peaceful means rather than violence, saying “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Even Meredith, who later shared with me his view that King co-opted his march, had a different take on the struggle. Meredith, very much a lone wolf and the independent sort, saw himself as set apart from others in the movement, even to his own later detriment.
But King had consulted with Meredith in his segregated Memphis hospital room about the future strategy to continue Meredith’s once solitary “walk.”
There was a consensus that Meredith’s walk must continue, and that fear would not stop his vision to walk from Memphis to Mississippi’s state capital of Jackson.
All along the way, people from all walks of life and all races came out to witness, in effect, history in the making.
James Meredith is a friend of mine. I first met him in my native Jackson when I was 17. I had been assigned to write a paper at Ole Miss on the 20th anniversary of the “Meredith Crisis,” as it was referred to then. In Mississippi, everything is a “crisis” when race is concerned.
I also interviewed Mississippi’s segregationist governor, Ross R. Barnett, but that is a story I will share at another time.
Four years ago, I, Meredith and others from Mississippi were invited to take part in a series of college speaking engagements about progress our state had made in the area of civil rights. We spoke at colleges and universities across Idaho and Washington State about that progress or lack thereof. It was especially pertinent to Idaho, a region with an ever-growing segment of Aryan Nations followers.
Most in the audience were amazed that James Meredith, the civil rights legend, was still alive. I can attest that my friend is very much alive, spirited and has something to say.
Equally amazing to those among the audiences we encountered was that Meredith – who is forever frozen in time in those old black-and-white photos and newsreels, being escorted to classes on Ole Miss’ pastoral, leafy campus by an armed phalanx of federal marshals – identifies as a conservative with a lower-case “c.” Conservative perhaps only in his deep devotion to his faith, personal philosophy and credo, which he owes greatly to Thoreau and Emerson along with Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois.
Yes, Meredith worked for a time on the staff of former segregated firebrand Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a time which Meredith, characteristically, described as eavesdropping on the enemy.
The fact is this fascinating living civil rights legend simply refuses to be defined by any historian or journalist.
He is a free spirit. His sense of right and wrong is in concert with the Holy Scriptures rather than any civil rights protest manual.
That isn’t to say that one approach is better than the other in obtaining justice, peace and harmony in America.
It just means that the Black Lives Matter movement, the earnest and evolving groundswell of public consciousness for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the continued civil unrest in this nation, is at a crossroads.
It is a crossroads not unlike the one that Dr. King and Stokely Carmichael faced on that sweltering piece of Mississippi asphalt more than a half-century ago.
City Hall protesters and activists in Memphis and elsewhere must take the time and effort to have a vigorous debate on the future of race relations in this country.
Appeals can be made to white moderates and progressives to join in the cause as King did, mostly to deaf ears. Nonetheless, he reached out to individuals who see the struggle as one that not only ends in racial justice for people of color but liberates whites and others from the shackles of bigotry and hate. It is a struggle, therefore, that we all share.
History is a tapestry woven together by multicolored threads. If one thread unravels, the whole thing falls apart.
Where is Betsy Ross when you need her?