The March Against Fear, also known as the Meredith March, coursed from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, in June of 1966. The trek began as the solo endeavor of James Meredith, but it was ultimately taken up by major civil rights organizations, activists from around the country, and thousands of black Mississippians. The March Against Fear is most famous for Stokely Carmichael’s unveiling of the slogan “Black Power.” This demonstration showcased an important transition in the national civil rights movement. It further highlighted the triumphs and tensions of black politics in Mississippi.
James Meredith had achieved international prominence for his courage while integrating the University of Mississippi in 1962. In 1966 he was a student at Columbia Law School in New York City. On June 5 he started walking south down Highway 51 from the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. He stated two goals: to encourage black voter registration and to challenge white intimidation. A quirky individualist with a belief in his own divine destiny, Meredith also hoped that his walk would kickstart a run for political office in Mississippi.
The next day, just south of Hernando, a white man named Aubrey Norvell emerged from a gully and fired his shotgun three times. He wounded Meredith with bird shot pellets in the back, neck, and shoulder. The shooting spurred an outcry. A photograph of the writhing Meredith appeared on the front page of newspapers around the country. Politicians expressed their outrage. Among others, Martin Luther King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) vowed to continue Meredith’s march. A single man’s walk had become a massive civil rights demonstration.
By June 7 major civil rights leaders had congregated in Memphis. In mass meetings at churches and in closed-door discussions at the Lorraine Motel, they debated about the nature of the march. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Whitney Young of the National Urban League sought a racially integrated and nonviolent march that would serve as a lobbying tool for the Civil Rights Bill of 1966. But leaders of the more militant, grassroots organizations—such as Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Floyd McKissick of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)—wanted a march with a focus on black voter registrations and a strong black identity, as well as armed protection from the Deacons for Defense and Justice. The NAACP and Urban League withdrew from official participation, leaving King and SCLC as the key moderating force.
Over the next three weeks, the march moved through Mississippi. Despite the logistical challenges of a traveling mass protest, African Americans kept staking claims to citizenship. The activists staged voter registration rallies outside courthouses. In Batesville, the new registrants included El Fondren, a 106-year-old man who had been born a slave. In Grenada, a town notorious for violent racial intimidation, the marchers rallied around the statue of a Confederate soldier, brandishing their defiance of white supremacy. They registered hundreds of voters and launched a local freedom movement.
The march’s sponsors included Mississippi organizations such as the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the Delta Ministry, and the Madison County Project. Prominent figures of the Mississippi movement—including Fannie Lou Hamer, Charles Evers, Flonzie Goodloe, and Lawrence Guyot—played crucial organizing roles.
Departing from Meredith’s path down Highway 51, the march detoured into the Mississippi Delta. On June 16, it reached Greenwood, where SNCC had a long history of grassroots organizing. Carmichael provoked his own arrest while trying to erect the march’s tents near a black elementary school. When he emerged from jail, a rally was occurring in Broad Street Park, in the heart of Greenwood’s black district. SNCC organizers, such as Willie Ricks, had primed the crowd. When Carmichael asked, “What do we want?,” the audience yelled back, “Black Power!”
“Black Power” quickly emerged as a point of national debate. The mainstream press interpreted the slogan as violent and vengeful, while to many African Americans the phrase conveyed desires for black political autonomy, cultural pride, and the right to self-defense. On the march, activists launched competing chants of “Freedom Now” and “Black Power.” Martin Luther King did not use the slogan, which he considered a repudiation of nonviolence and racial brotherhood. Still, he worked in creative tension with activists such as Carmichael. Whatever their political distinctions, they shared the larger goals of black freedom.
Throughout Mississippi, whites heckled the marchers and brandished Confederate flags. During the final week, on June 22, a mob of local whites attacked the contingent of marchers who took a side trip to Philadelphia, Mississippi, to observe the second anniversary of the murders of three civil rights workers. Two days later, the marchers planted their tents on the grounds of another black school, this time in Canton. The Mississippi Highway Patrol attacked them with tear gas and rifle butts. In the grotesque aftermath, dozens of people required medical attention, while the militancy of frustrated activists intensified.
The March Against Fear ended on June 26 with the largest civil rights demonstration in Mississippi history, as fifteen thousand people marched through Jackson and congregated at the Capitol. A weakened James Meredith won the loudest cheers. The march had evolved in ways that Meredith never imagined or desired, but it accomplished his stated goals. Over four thousand African Americans along the route registered to vote, while many more defied white supremacy by joining the march. This final great march of the civil rights movement had christened the slogan of Black Power. To many black Mississippians, it was also a moment of inspiration.
- Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–1968 (2006)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1995)
- Aram Goudsouzian, Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear (2014)
- Peniel Joseph, Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (2006)