“If a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he is not fit to live.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As the sun sets upon the presidency of the first black President, Barack Hussein Obama, and the emergence of a powerful life-affirming banner, Black Lives Matter (BLM). It was June 5, 1966 that the last great march of the civil rights era took place, the Meredith March Against Fear, which highlighted the deep fissures in the movement politically, generationally, and organizationally. Let’s examine the anatomy of the march and its lasting and troubled legacy.
Blood on Highway 51
On October 1, 1962, James Howard Meredith became the first black student to attend the previously segregated University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), marking another great victory for the civil rights movement. James Meredith a former enlisted man in the air force, a defiant race man who walked to his beat politically and morally. Meredith had a contentious and combative relationship with the traditional civil rights leadership and organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ( NAACP) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). For years, Meredith hinted at a march from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi to provide a new type of leadership and counter balance the doctrine of non-violence and subservience to white supremacy.
Following the legalistic victories and encouraging developments under President Lyndon B. Johnson – the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the march from Selma to Montgomery – the Civil Rights movement was facing a defining moment as the United States was escalating its military operations in Vietnam while, at the same time, Johnson introduced the Civil Rights Bill to Congress in 1966. The great society and anti-poverty programs couldn’t quell the civil unrest in some urban centers like Harlem and Watts, and a growing militant segment of black youth. This political and cultural radicalization was epitomized by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) under the leadership of newly elected chairperson and Howard University student, Stokely Carmichael, and Floyd McKissick of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
On June 5, 1966, Meredith set out to begin his lone sojourn; a no-no within the highly organized and choreographed civil rights movement. Meredith would be accompanied by 4 or 5 others in the scorching sun and into the deep south to restore black manhood and respect. The state of Mississippi has a bloody, violent history rooted in slavery and its 1861 Southern secession from the Union. After the end of the radical Reconstruction Era, it was the site of some of the most horrific events faced by the black working class and poor under Jim and Jane Crow: the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955; the assassination of NAACP organizer Medgar Evers in 1963; and the murder of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney in 1964.
On June 6, Meredith faced impending danger from the white racists standing alongside the highway jeering and cursing as black people stood proudly in Meredith’s March against Fear. Like a thunderbolt, several shots pierced the air and hit Meredith directly. Once again blood was spilled in the Magnolia state of notorious hate.
The Big Six in Mississippi
As news of Meredith’s shooting and possible death spread like wildfire across the country, the new national director of CORE, Floyd McKissick, asserted the importance of continuing the march as Meredith lay in a hospital bed. Leading civil rights leaders like Dr. King and organizations like SNCC agreed to resume the journey despite differences from NAACP and the National Urban League. Historically, the Civil Rights movement’s campaigns of desegregation and voting rights had a clear and direct mission that would force the national government to intervene and pass groundbreaking legislation to end Jim and Jane Crow. The March against Fear didn’t have a stated goal or mission, and this made the march a defining moment for the movement and its organizations.
The only civil rights organization that had any organizing roots in Mississippi was SNCC. SNCC played a very crucial role in the battles to desegregate the Mississippi Democratic Party, and they helped to co-found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) that challenged the the selected Mississippi Democratic Party delegates at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. At this convention, President Johnson and Democratic Party leadership refused to recognize Fannie Lou Hamer and the other MFDP delegates. As Cleveland Seller, program director for SNCC, would explain, “We left Atlantic City with the knowledge that the movement had turned into something else. After Atlantic City, our struggle was not for civil rights, but for liberation.” (Hassan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt, p.56)
The work of SNCC and local activists in Lowndes County combined black power politics, grassroots organizing, political education, and the construction of an independent black working-class organization, the LCFO – the original “Black Panther Party.” The LCFO and the Lowndes County Freedom Party (LCFP) put forward an alternative – organizationally, programmatically, and ideologically – to the traditional civil rights organizations’ reformist approach, while challenging the Democratic Party in the county.
The March Against Fear had the ingredients of a great debate about the direction of the movement, with the rise of black nationalist ideas, rejection of white liberal involvement, the relevance of non-violent civil disobedience tactics, and reformist politics in the face of an enormous crisis facing the Johnson administration. The debate would be recorded and filmed as Dr. King and Stokely Carmichael marching along the highway engaged in a friendly, but tense, back and forth about the tactic of non-violence and the beloved community in the face of white racist terrorism.
What awaited the marchers in Mississippi was a concrete wall of hate, callous indifference, and terror punctuated by the white political and economic establishment in the Democratic party, the Citizens’ Council, which was founded after the 1954 Brown vs. Education decision and boasted over 100,000 members throughout Mississippi and the South. Terror organizations like the Americans for the Preservation of the White Race (APWR) and the dastardly Ku Klux Klan rounded out the reality facing marchers. The hatred and social control of black workers and poor under Jim and Jane Crow weren’t confined to race, but ideas and organizing as well. The system of Jim and Jane Crow violently opposed labor union organizing, communists, and black and white solidarity campaigns.
The reality of black life in Mississippi stamped the urgency and symbolic nature of the March Against Fear as many were living through deep levels of poverty, displacement, and structural racism. In many ways, it fit in perfectly with Dr. King’s Chicago project, which highlighted poverty and housing discrimination in the urban north. Dr. King was tying the threads of racism, poverty, and capitalism.
A new political paradigm emerged for SNCC as Stokely Carmichael and young people were inspired by figures like Malcolm X, Robert F. Williams, Deacons for Defense, anticolonialism struggles in the so-called third world, and a diasporic racial consciousness. The dashed dreams and hopes of post-world War II economic prosperity and democracy for black youth and workers were too much to bear. The long hot summers of law enforcement terrorism, endemic poverty, and betrayal of reformism and liberalism went up in flames as multiple cities burned to decry the consistent criminal governmental neglect at both the federal and city levels. The time bomb that shined a light on the dubious political motives of the liberal establishment was Assistant Secretary of Labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “The Negro Family: A Case for National Action,” a report that placed the blame for poverty and ineptitude on the disintegration of the black family and absence of the black father in the household.
The banner and rallying cry of Black Power was articulated in every urban center before it was detonated in Mississippi during the March Against Fear. Black Power caused a significate debate and split within the movement as well as the presence of the Deacons for Defense, a black clandestine armed self- defense organization comprising of black veterans of the military and union activists founded in Louisiana.
The March on its Final Leg
The March against Fear would conclude on June 26, 1966, with a healed James Meredith. A march that set in motion the next stage of the black freedom movement as the coalition politics which defined the civil rights movement would collapse under the weight of political, ideological, and organizational differences, and historical events like the War in Vietnam. The marchers would face the brutal reality of state violence unleashed by the Mississippi Highway Patrol and indifference by President Johnson to the March as the 1966 Civil Rights bill failed in Congress.
The march did achieve significant gains particularly in the context of Mississippi politics. As author Aram Goudsouzian states, “Black people defied Jim Crow’s culture of intimidation by marching. Moreover, 4,077 African Americans registered to vote in the counties along the route. Federal examiners registered 1,422, and county clerks performed the rest. Approximately 1,200 registered in Grenada County, where a large crowd had already attended the first meeting of the Grenada County Movement.” (Aram Goudsouzian, Down To The Crossroads Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear, p.246)
The rise and prominence of the black power era would usher in a significant phase in the movement and a violent response by American capitalism under the Counter Intelligence Progam (Cointelpro), which sought to prevent the development of a unified radical movement and leadership. Cointelpro developed under the guidance of FBI chief, J.Edgar Hoover, and was a continuation of the Palmer raids of the early 1900s and the McCarthy witch-hunts of the late 40s and early 50s to neutralize the movements of resistance against U.S. capital at home and abroad.
The Lessons For Today
The March Against Fear reminds us of the stark reality of the ever present need to challenge racism, white supremacy, and capitalism. In the 50 years since the March, we have witnessed the evisceration of the traditional organizations of the black freedom movement; our leaders co-opted, publicly assassinated or imprisoned as the system of profit and destruction continues. The Black Lives Matter banner is going through a critical phase of development and debate as the forces of corporate America and the liberal establishment attempt to co-opt and corral this nascent movement by criminalizing grassroots BLM activists daily. The BLM banner is soaked in identity politics, which I firmly believe is the first phase of one’s political awakening under a system of degradation and alienation. But, as black power became a response to the failings of American capitalism and democracy by rejecting reformism and white liberalism, a political and organizational mistake was made refusing and alienating good and dedicated activists who were ‘white casted’ out to organize in their “communities.” In the face of a disjointed working class struggle and consciousness today against capitalism and racism, those within the BLM banner would be politically inclined to follow suit as black power activists did many years ago with a view engaging in this struggle by organizing black folks exclusively. We must challenge all forms of co-optation, sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia in our movement. Only through honest and forthright political discussion and debate on those points can our movement move forward and develop coherent ideas, program, demands, and strategy to challenge capitalism and racism.
The final years of Dr.King’s political work – the Chicago project, Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam, Poor People’s Campaign, and Memphis sanitation workers strike – provide a historical framework on how to take our struggle forward within 21st century political, economic, and social conditions. Dr. King at the end of his life influenced by events began to challenge the contours of the empire at home and abroad.
The Meredith March Against Fear stands as a powerful lesson for activists today as we aim to dismantle the edifice of capitalism and racism.
Eljeer Hawkins is a community and anti-war activist who was born and raised in Harlem, New York. He has been a member of Socialist Alternative/CWI for 21 years. Eljeer is a former shop steward with Teamsters local 851 and former member of SEIU 1199, and is currently a non-union healthcare worker in New York City. He regularly contributes to Socialist Alternative Newspaper and socialistworld.net on race, criminal justice, and the historic black freedom movement. Eljeer has lectured at Harvard University, Hunter College, Oberlin College, and the University of Toronto. Eljeer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at http://www.greatblackspeakers.com/author/eljeerhawkins/.