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Posted Tuesday June 6, 2006 07:00 AM EDT

A Shooting—And the Civil Rights Movement Changes Course

James Meredith, second from right, on June 27, 1966, after rejoining the march.
James Meredith, second from right, on June 27, 1966, after rejoining the march.

“Hit the dirt!” The cry came 40 years ago today, at 4:15 p.m. on June 6, 1966, just before three shotgun blasts exploded from the bushes along Highway 51 near Hernando, Mississippi. Two of the rounds found their target: James Meredith, a 32-year-old black law student who had the day before embarked on a protest march from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi. Forty years ago today, as Meredith fell to his knees on the ground, the civil rights movement found itself at a turning point.

In 1962, Meredith had been the first black student to attend Ole Miss, another in a line of desegregation victories stretching back to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. But now the unity of those early years was dissolving. The next three weeks would show the world just how much.

Four years had passed since Meredith had applied to transfer to the all-white University of Mississippi at Oxford. When the university rejected him despite his high grades, a federal court ruled that he could not be denied admission based on the color of his skin. Even so, the governor of Mississippi took it upon himself to travel to the campus in person that September to keep him from registering. President John F. Kennedy had to order in 500 federal marshals and 5,000 army troops to disperse a racist mob that gathered outside Meredith’s dorm. A riot on September 30 killed two bystanders and injured 168 marshals before the army overwhelmed the outraged Mississippians. Meredith, protected by armed guards, endured a year of threats and harassment before graduating in August 1963.

Now, in 1966, Meredith was attending Columbia Law School in New York on scholarship, but he remembered the terror he had felt in Oxford. He decided to conquer his fear by marching through Mississippi. He hoped his example would help Mississippi’s 450,000 disenfranchised blacks confront their own anxieties and register to vote: “If I can do it, maybe they can, too.” An iconoclast and a loner, he chose not to invite any civil rights groups to join him. “I didn’t want a crowd of people to go into rural Mississippi and become a burden upon the Negroes in the area,” he explained. “This is crop-planting time.”

Unarmed, accompanied only by six friends, and carrying a Bible and an ebony cane, he set out from Memphis June 5 on his March Against Fear. Just three years after the assassination of Medgar Evers and two since the assassination of Malcolm X, Meredith believed fate would protect him on the highways of Mississippi. “I had always felt that I could stop a mob with the uplift of a hand,” he said later. “Because of my ‘divine responsibility’ to advance human civilization, I could not die.”

He had walked just 28 miles when, the very next afternoon, a sniper emerged from the bushes just inside the Mississippi state line. “James Meredith!” he yelled. “I only want James Meredith!” Meredith’s friends scattered, shouting “Look out, Jim, he’s got a gun!” and “Hit the dirt!” Meredith stood frozen as 60 birdshot pellets sprayed into his neck, legs, head, and right side. He collapsed to his knees and tried to crawl across the highway before another blast hit him. “Oh, my God,” he groaned. “Is anyone going to help me?”

Fortunately, state troopers and FBI men had joined him on his second day, and they chased the gunman into the woods. They quickly returned with Aubrey James Norvell, a 40-year-old unemployed Klansman. Uncuffed and smoking a pipe, he freely confessed as police hustled him into a squad car. He would go on to serve 18 months of a five-year sentence for the shooting.

Although the Associated Press mistakenly reported him dead, Meredith suffered only superficial wounds. Recovering in a Memphis hospital, he seemed to rethink his outlook. He swore never again to march unarmed, at which a friend quipped, “That’s not in keeping with the nonviolent philosophy, Mr. Meredith.” “Who the hell ever said I was nonviolent?” he answered. “I spent eight years in the military and the rest of my life in Mississippi.”

His apparent turnaround coincided with an identical incipient shift in the civil rights movement, a shift Meredith’s shooting would soon bring to national attention. The leaders of five civil rights organizations—Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Floyd McKissick of the Congress of Racial Equality, Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Whitney Young of the Urban League, and Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—rushed to Meredith’s bed, asking permission to carry on the march in his name. He assented, and on June 7, 20 marchers set out to finish his 220-mile journey.

At first, as they strolled down northern Mississippi’s Highway 51 singing “We Shall Overcome,” the marchers met with grudging civility from white people along the way. The new governor, though as racist as his predecessor, had warned his constituents to play nice, lest they alienate Northern industry. As peaceful as it appeared, though, behind the scenes the march was hampered by a different problem, one that seems to plague all maturing social movements: conflicting ideology.

The march brought together more civil-rights leaders than any event since the 1965 Montgomery-to-Selma march, but as the men walked by day and debated at night, the rifts in the movement widened too much to hide. McKissick believed King’s doctrine of nonviolence was fast becoming a pointless hindrance, particularly in such violent country. He suggested arming the marchers for their own protection; King argued that that would invite attacks. Carmichael, a black nationalist, objected to letting whites join the demonstration, a view seconded by a growing faction in the ranks. “This should be an all-black march,” said one marcher. “We don’t need any more white phonies and liberals invading our movement.” Wilkins, a moderate who hoped the march would lend support to President Lyndon Johnson’s new civil rights bill, abandoned the march when Carmichael produced a manifesto written to “put President Johnson on the spot.” Young, convinced King couldn’t rein in the firebrands, joined Wilkins on a red-eye back to New York.

At first the younger leaders deferred to King, realizing that if he left, the press would too. But soon enough their internal disagreements erupted into the open. Two words set off the dispute: black power. As the marchers neared the Mississippi delta, white spectators grew more and more belligerent. On June 16, police in Greenwood arrested Carmichael at a rally. When they released him that evening, he yelled to a crowd of 3,000 blacks outside the jail, “The only way we’re going to stop them white men from whupping us is to take over. We been saying freedom for six years—and we ain’t got nothing. What we gonna start saying now is ‘Black Power!’”

The slogan made King nervous. “It is absolutely necessary for the Negro to gain power,” he said later in an interview, “but the term black power is unfortunate because it tends to give the impression of black nationalism. We must never seek power exclusively for the Negro but the sharing of power with the white people.” The nonviolence movement already had a slogan, “Freedom Now,” that to King’s mind didn’t connote bloodshed or separatism or inflame whites quite so much. He eventually persuaded Carmichael to use “Freedom Now” for the duration of the march, but it was a Band-Aid that could not mend the schism between the two men who just a few years earlier had been partners in nonviolence, integration, and coalition.

That night one of the marchers encouraged a crowd at the Greenwood courthouse to “Get that vote and pin that badge on a black chest. Get that vote. . . . Whip that policeman across the head.” “He means with the vote,” King clarified. In front of the crowd, Carmichael cut in, “They know what he means.”

Headlines about the public dispute between King and Carmichael upstaged news about the march itself just as things turned ugly on the road. On June 23, the now 3,000 demonstrators were gassed and beaten when they pitched their tents on a schoolhouse lawn. The next day King and Ralph Abernathy lead 300 marchers to Philadelphia, Mississippi, to hold a memorial service for the three civil rights workers murdered there in 1964. The sheriff—who a week earlier had been ordered to stand trial in connection with the murders—barred them from going up the courthouse steps. King and Abernathy decided to pray on the sidewalk. “I believe in my heart that the murderers are somewhere around me at this moment,” King whispered to Abernathy as they knelt down. “You damn right,” the sheriff said. “They’re right behind you.”

When a jeering crowd started hurling bottles, rocks, and cherry bombs, Carmichael shouted back, “The people that are gathered around us represent America in its truest form. They represent a sick and resisting society that sits in the United Nations and gives lip service to democracy.” King answered, “We are going to build right here a society based on brotherhood and understanding,” at which one of the crowd shrieked, “Go to hell.” Later that night, King admitted he had been convinced they would all be killed. “Brother,” he said. “I sure did not want to close my eyes when we prayed.”

Frightening though those two days were, they brought the march a publicity jolt. Just a day out of Jackson, the demonstrators were joined by Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis, Jr., the comedian Dick Gregory, and a recovered James Meredith. Meredith had originally refused to rejoin his own march—”There have been some shenanigans going on that I don’t like” was his only explanation—but on June 25 he led the column into the state capital. In the end, the march accomplished what he wanted. The demonstrators registered between 2,500 and 3,000 black Mississippians in 18 days. Nevertheless, a 15,000-strong crowd that gathered for a rally in Jackson June 26 epitomized the now-overt conflict in the movement. “Black power!” one section chanted. “Freedom now!” another yelled in reply.

Plurality of ideas is virtually inevitable in any social campaign, of course, and that’s not necessarily bad. As the fight for equality gains momentum, the fighters are bound to find different paths to the same goal—or even to different goals. Black America is not now, and has never been, one monolithic entity, a fact personified by no one better than Meredith himself. An outspoken Republican since the 1970s, Meredith fought against sanctions for South Africa and establishing Martin Luther King’s birthday as a holiday. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Jackson and for Congress before joining Senator Jesse Helms’s staff in 1989. That’s right: The man who integrated Ole Miss worked under the onetime segregationist who opposed nearly every civil rights bill during his time in Congress. The move confounded many African-Americans, but Meredith explained that it was just a way to work the system from the inside.

Besides, despite his battles for black votes and access to education, he had never embraced the civil rights movement. “Nothing could be more insulting to me than the concept of civil rights,” he once said. “It means perpetual second-class citizenship for me and my kind.”

Christine Gibson is a former editor at American Heritage magazine.

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