by Leonard Gill
If you watched The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross, a documentary series shown last fall on PBS, perhaps you remember it.
"We're here in the heart of the black community in Greenwood, in the deep heart of Mississippi," Aram Goudsouzian says to the program's host, Henry Louis Gates Jr., as they walk in Greenwood's Broad Street Historical Park.
"The tensions within the march are starting to manifest themselves," Goudsouzian says, just as the voice of Stokely Carmichael is about to interrupt him. "Twilight is coming. This park is filled with the Meredith marchers. Stokely Carmichael gets up to give a speech."
["We've begged the federal government. That's all we've been doing. Begging. Begging. It's time we stand up and take over. Take over."]
"He talks about black aspirations," Goudsouzian says of Carmichael. "He talks about how black is beautiful. And he talks about how black people need to control their own communities."
["Every courthouse in Mississippi ought to be burned down tomorrow …"]
"So when he 'drops' the slogan — when he starts to say, 'What do we want? Black power ...'"
["We want black power. We want black power."]
"… and starts urging on the crowd, the next thing you know he's got this massive response."
["Black power!" "What do you want?" "Black power!"]
"That's a turning point in African-American history. It was certainly a turning point in the civil rights movement."
"I saw it that night on TV," Gates says to Goudsouzian.
"With my mother and my father, yeah."
"What did it feel like?"
"Oh, it was electric, man. It was … I got gooseflesh. You knew that … it was like the top of your head was about to come off."
"Activists had expressed a lot of these ideas already …"
"Not in my living room. I'd never heard it before. I was, like, wow. It was like a nuclear bomb going off."
That slogan, "black power," wasn't all that went off during the civil rights march that Goudsouzian and Gates were discussing. On June 6, 1966, James Meredith — the man behind the "March Against Fear" from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi — was shot outside Hernando on Highway 51. Aubrey James Norvell of Memphis fired the gun, which hit Meredith with dozens of pellets of bird shot, not bullets. Meredith, wounded, was taken back to a Memphis hospital. National civil rights leaders, meanwhile, gathered at the Lorraine Motel to argue the aims of the march, which continued over the next three weeks and 220 miles. You can read of it, practically every moment of it, in Aram Goudsouzian's valuable new book, Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
But part of the appeal of this story for me is that it's relatively self-contained. The march took place over the course of three weeks, but it allows you to talk about so many aspects of the civil rights movement. The personalities give you so many different perspectives. It basically collects every major figure in the movement.
James Meredith being one of them. He was the focus of national attention when he integrated the University of Mississippi years earlier. But he's also been a figure hard for historians to estimate as a civil rights leader.
To some degree, he's an impossible man to explain, because he's so full of contradictions. He purposely likes to mask himself. He was my first interview for this book, and he started out by telling me, "James Meredith ain't nothing but a trickster."
I do think there are consistent elements to his ideology that date back to Ole Miss and continue when people thought he'd gone off the deep end — supporting Jesse Helms and David Duke. But the march is more central to explaining Meredith than the Ole Miss crisis. Ole Miss was the first step. The march was more about Meredith's vision of what he thought his place in the U.S. was. His tactics were a strange amalgamation: top-down, with Meredith at the center of things but also rousing up people at the grass roots. If there's one word that best describes him, it's "independent."
Was he suspicious of your motives in writing this book? Was he supportive?
Neither. His stance was more: "I'll talk to you. You can write whatever you want." I wouldn't say he was negative. He was happy to talk to me for about an hour.
Since interviewing him, I wrote an article for a journal. Then Meredith wrote another memoir, where he quotes my description of him from the article in a somewhat positive way. From other people, I've heard that he says I "got" him in a way that other historians haven't. I don't know if that's true or not. It's what other people told me, but it made me happy to hear.
Anything in the course of your research that altered your view or understanding of the civil rights movement?
Historians are forcing people to think differently about civil rights history and about Martin Luther King — that it doesn't just center around King. The history is more than the classic tale: Montgomery to Memphis. But that wasn't yet filtering into a narrative history reaching a broader audience. What I tried to do here is a traditional story. It's in the framework of the old civil rights history. But it incorporates the viewpoints of the new, broader history.
Mississippi also gave King a spiritual connection to people. Old women wanted to touch him just to say they'd touched him. His stature among poor, black people in Mississippi — that's central to the march's mission and appeal. It didn't start something new in King, but it accentuated that aspect of his ideology: how the movement had to address these broader issues of poverty.
People have painted the march as a sort of step in King's evolution, leading toward Memphis. And I wouldn't say I was surprised to find anything new about King in researching this book. But I did find myself becoming more impressed by how King was uniting these different strands of the civil rights movement, how he was trying to appeal to people's best instincts while also acknowledging the real roots of black power. He was continually in the political center of the march, wrestling with these issues all the time, in the very graceful way he often did.
He had a close but frustrating relationship with Stokely Carmichael, who was provoking and challenging. That was part of Carmichael's ideology. The defiant stance was who he was. There was no such easy way for King.
On the march, King also, as you write, witnessed firsthand a new level of hatred — palpable hatred — and threat of physical violence.
In Philadelphia, Mississippi, the mob scene there — death had never seemed such a real possibility. King didn't have police protection. This was a place that had shown that Klansmen would kill civil rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
What do you make of Aubrey James Norvell and his reason for shooting Meredith? Decades later, what can we conclude?
There are two mysteries I have not solved: One, the guy who shot Meredith, Aubrey James Norvell. He lives in Bartlett, in the same house he was living in when he shot Meredith. I tried to interview him several times. The first time, he was polite and just hung up the phone. He politely shuts everybody down. His motive in shooting Meredith — it's fascinating, because it just disappears as a story. Norvell plea-bargains, spends a couple years in jail, end of story. Why he did what he did still remains unknown to a degree.
And that's another part of this story: how everybody defined themselves in terms of the shooting, even the people in the march, who thought that Norvell was another racist cracker who was out to kill civil rights workers. But white Southerners were saying the civil rights movement must have hired this guy just to wound Meredith, because that would create a crisis and keep things rolling along. Everybody thought Norvell was against them.
The other mystery to this story is the identity of Informant X. [An individual who spied on civil rights leaders and reported activities to Mississippi's segregationist Sovereignty Commission.] I have some educated guesses who Informant X was, but I would never say them publicly. I have no proof.
At the time of the Meredith march, the press did not give it the level of attention earlier civil rights marches had received. And the federal government, under Lyndon Johnson, did not step in to provide protection.
A lot of the press coverage was very good. Some of it was surface coverage. At the time, there was a fascination with black militancy, and with the Meredith march, it was on a public stage in the South and in the context of a nonviolent demonstration. People boiled that new direction — black militancy — down to those terms, because the press was focusing on the fact that this was a new development. But journalists didn't do enough to explain what black power meant: the genuine frustration of many black Americans, why it would be articulated with this slogan "black power."
Just as important from a historian's standpoint is the inattention of the federal government. Not that the government was doing something actively against the march. But ignoring it was essentially its main action. The Meredith march didn't become part of a presidential political narrative in the same way that Selma or Birmingham did.
You've also written on Sidney Poitier and Bill Russell. How did you arrive at your interest in American black history?
I came at African-American history in a way that's different from how a lot of non-African-Americans do. Others do it almost from an activist frame of mind. I was more interested in popular culture: telling the story of race in America as a way of telling a broader story about American democracy and who we are as a nation.
Sidney Poitier was a mirror for popular attitudes toward race. And Bill Russell, like James Meredith, was an independent person. He refused to be confined to one ideological box. In some ways, he was liberal. In other ways, more radical — and doing it all while helping launch the modern NBA.
What pulled me to the Meredith story was being here — getting this job at the University of Memphis, teaching courses. My graduate students have helped me to read from different perspectives. That's when I began to ask myself: How can I contribute to the discussion? •
Aram Goudsouzian will be doing just that — contributing to the discussion — when he delivers a lecture on Down to the Crossroads at Rhodes College as part of the school's "Communities in Conversation" series. The lecture is on Thursday, February 13th, inside Blount Auditorium in Buckman Hall at 6 p.m. Book signing to follow.
On March 1st, Goudsouzian will join Ta-Nehisi Coates and others as part of Rhodes' conference "From Civil War to Civil Rights: Race, Region and the Making of Public Memory." Coates will deliver the keynote address inside the McCallum Ballroom in the Bryan Campus Life Center on February 28th at 5:30 p.m. For more on the conference, see Rhodes' website.
The Booksellers at Laurelwood will also be hosting Goudsouzian for a book signing and discussion on February 24th at 6 p.m.