By Shanderia K. Posey
EditorMartin Luther King Jr. and James Meredith (top photo) walk side-by-side during the 1966 March Against Fear in Jackson. The photo is included in the “James Meredith: Am I Or Am I Not a Citizen” exhibition at the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center. The photo is from Bob Fitch Photography Archives and Stanford University Libraries. COURTESY USE FROM SMITH ROBERTSON MUSEUM
On June 5, 1966, James Meredith began a 220-mile solo walk from Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson in protest of a system of white supremacy in Mississippi and to encourage African Americans to register to vote.
On the second day of his self described Walk Against Fear while in Hernando, Meredith was shot by a sniper who was bent on ending the walk and Meredith’s life.
When word spread across the nation of the ordeal, national civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael and several others came together to continue Meredith’s efforts and the March Against Fear was born. As a result of the march, about 4,000 African Americans registered to vote.
Events taking place this week in Canton and in Jackson at Tougaloo College, the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center as well as the state Capitol will commemorate the March Against Fear 50 years later.
The locations of the events are particularly significant since the 1966 march went through Canton, stopped at Tougaloo and then ended at the state Capitol on June 26.
John Brown, 66, of Canton was a teenager and participant in the 1966 march. At age 15, he was a member of the NAACP’s youth chapter and eager to get involved especially after watching countless national news reports of the march.
“I was like all the other teenagers at that time. I just wanted to be a part of the march and hear from Dr. King. That was a big day for us,” Brown said. “We knew we were bringing about change, but we didn’t know how much danger we were in. We were saying to white supremacists that your way of life was coming to an end.”
Flonzie Brown Wright, 73, of Canton was the branch manager of Canton’s NAACP at the time. King called her before coming to Canton seeking her assistance in ensuring marchers would be fed and housed during their stay in the town. She introduced King on courthouse steps in Canton before he addressed the marchers.
“We did not realize 50 years ago we were really making the kind of history that is being celebrated now,” said Wright, who will stand on the same courthouse steps June 23, in commemoration of the 1966 events.
Brown recalls marching in Canton and attempting to help set up tents on the campus of McNeal Elementary School so that marchers could sleep and rest. According to Wright, the marchers had a permit to assemble at the school but not to set up tents. She said Carmichael, who was encouraging Black Power during the march, jumped off the back of a truck and suddenly began unrolling tents so the marchers could rest. When others joined in attempting to set up the tents, Highway Patrol officers who encircled the marchers and were standing on top of the school, began tear-gassing the marchers.
Some with minor injuries were treated at Madison General Hospital, but the majority of marchers, even those with serious injuries, were treated at Tougaloo College the next day, Wright said. Besides being treated, the thousands of marchers who went to Tougaloo College were fed, took showers, and slept in the gymnasium of Brownlee Hall. Tougaloo offered a place of rest after leaving the violent evening in Canton.
Brown remembers seeing performances at Tougaloo by national entertainers such as James Brown, Dick Gregory, Sammy Davis Jr. and Burt Lancaster – all of whom had come to support the marchers’ efforts.
When the march ended at the state Capitol, John Brown was there, too. He also heard Meredith’s remarks to the thousands who marched to the Capitol. Despite Meredith’s injuries, after a brief hospital stay he was able to to rejoin the march.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years. When I look at all the changes that have taken place … it was worth it,” Brown said.
All the events for the week are free and open to the public.
Activities in Canton will take place from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 23. A Mississippi Freedom Trail Marker will be unveiled at noon at the Canton Courthouse. At 6 p.m. Meredith is scheduled to speak at a program at Mt. Zion M.B. Church, 305 N. West St.
Activities at Tougaloo are set from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 25. At 10 a.m. a ceremony to honor all 1966 marchers will take place at Woodworth Chapel.
While many marchers from 1966 are slated to attend, organizers are still encouraging others to join in the celebration.
At 12:30 p.m. a luncheon at Holmes Hall with musical entertainment and a special video presentation showing photos from the 1966 Tougaloo events are planned. Registration is required for the luncheon. An author’s roundtable is set for 2:30 p.m. and an intergenerational cultural presentation is set for 4:15 p.m. Books and T-shirts will be available for purchase throughout the day and a voter registration drive is planned.
From 2-4 p.m. June 26 the viewing of the “James Meredith: Am I Or Am I Not a Citizen” will be available at the Smith Robertson Museum, 528 Bloom St. in Jackson. The exhibit covers the life and legacy of Meredith.
At 4 p.m. the Walk for Good and Right will take place as attendees leave the museum and walk to the state Capitol to hear from Meredith.
Several sponsors have come together to commemorate the 1966 march including Freedom House Canton Inc., Canton Convention and Visitors Bureau and Film Office, Canton Branch NAACP, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Vicky McNeil, Mississippi Humanities Council, Rep Edward Blackmon Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer Institute at COFO at Jackson State University, Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center, Women for Progress, the James Meredith Institute for Citizenship and Responsible Action, Tougaloo College and City of Jackson. Nissan is the corporate sponsor.
Pamela Junior, who works for the city of Jackson, is helping to coordinate the June 26 events at the museum and Capitol.
She said the events will serve as a reminder of the past to some and educate others of the history.
“Some of our children have no idea (about the march) and some adults,” she said. “We have to honor our own because these people are still fighting. We are still going through some of the same things. This is history. We aren’t protesting at all. We are honoring.”
Shanderia K. Posey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.