On Sunday, June 4, 1966, James Meredith had just stepped off U.S. Highway 51 to begin a 220-mile trek through Mississippi. His purpose, he told the handful of reporters there, was “to challenge the all-pervasive overriding fear” still dominant among many Black Mississippians when they attempted to register to vote.
He, more than many, knew about fear and danger. In 1962, Meredith had become the first Black person to enroll in the University of Mississippi. Mob violence and murder greeted his enrollment.
Once again, Meredith was met with violence. Just south of Hernando, on the second day of his solitary march, a white man by the name of Aubrey James Norvell stood along the roadside and raised his shotgun, then fired three loads of buckshot at him. Several pellets struck Meredith in the head, neck, and body while horrified onlookers watched.
Almost immediately, civil rights leaders from different organizations rushed to Meredith’s bedside at a Memphis hospital with plans to continue the “March Against Fear” while he recuperated. Martin Luther King and CORE national director, Floyd McKissick, met with SNCC’s Cleveland Sellers, Stanley Wise, and newly-elected SNCC chairman, Stokely Carmichael, who stressed that the march was an opportunity “to organize in communities along the march route.” SNCC wanted the march to focus attention on local voter registration efforts by bringing marchers and reporters to Mississippi towns where most Black people were still unregistered as voters. They also insisted that marchers use civil disobedience in communities where they encountered resistance.
Rev. Martin Luther King was the march’s most visible figure. Black people in Mississippi and throughout the South idolized King and trusted his leadership. King, for his part, was aware of a new anger among young Black people in SNCC and elsewhere, and one could detect in his speeches during the march, attempts to reflect the new racial mood without abandoning the ideals of nonviolence and brotherhood.
Though respecting King, SNCC participants sought opportunities to convey the idea that beyond getting more Black people registered to vote, a more radical approach to change was now necessary. It was within this context that SNCC’s Willie Ricks and Carmichael shouted out “Black Power”–a shortened version of “black power for black people.” SNCC organizers had been using the phrase in Alabama.
This shout-out generated more controversy than SNCC anticipated and dominated news analysis of the march. It also thrust Carmichael onto the national stage. But more than the slogan, black power described the march. Mississippi activists wanted the Meredith March “to deliver some concrete results for Mississippi black people” by registering new voters and providing political education through mass rallies.
Eventually march leaders decided to craft a “manifesto,” calling on President Johnson to “actively enforce existing federal laws to protect the rights of all Americans.” They also requested that he send the federal registrars to all 600 counties in the Deep South and propose “an adequate budget” to deal with Black rural and urban poverty. They went on to urge Johnson to strengthen the 1966 Civil Rights Bill by accelerating the integration of Southern juries and law enforcement agencies. Representatives of various civil rights organizations operating in Mississippi, like the MFDP, Delta Ministry, and state NAACP, endorsed both the march and the manifesto with the exception of Charles Evers, claiming the document was “too critical of President Johnson.”
The day after Meredith was shot, Mississippi held its primary elections. As a result of the Voting Rights Act, almost 140,000 Black people were now registered. Yet only one-fourth of those registered voted in the primary. Some attributed the low Black turnout to fear that followed the Meredith shooting.
So march leaders decided that instead of following Meredith’s original route straight down Highway 51, the march would turn westward into the heart of the Delta. Teams of organizers split off from the main group traveling towards the surrounding counties and used the march as a catalyst to encourage Black people to register to vote. The march received its greatest reception in Grenada, a small town of 10,000 people halfway between Memphis and Jackson.
But it was not in the Delta that the marchers met the greatest resistance. In Canton, Mississippi–a center of CORE organizing efforts–local police officers ordered them to leave when they tried to pitch their overnight tents on the grounds of a Black elementary school. They then put on their gas masks and while the crowd stood silently, lawmen fired off many canisters of tear gas and waded into the marchers swinging their billy clubs. As one journalist noted, they “came stomping in behind the gas, gun-butting and kicking the men, women, and children. They were not arresting, they were punishing.”
This failed to halt the march, and when it reached Jackson, Mississippi on June 26, the participants, now numbering 15,000, made it the largest civil rights march in Mississippi history. James Meredith had rejoined the march the day before.
Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (New York: Scribner, 2003).
Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (New York: Vintage Books, 1992).
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 207-209.
David C. Carter, The Music Has Gone Out of the Movement: Civil Rights and the Johnson Administration, 1965-1968 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 211-212.
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
Faith S. Holsaert, et al., eds., Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010).
Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).