On June 26th, 2016, around 200 people in Jackson, Mississippi, participated in the “Walk for Good and Right”. It was the last day and event in a 3-day event that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the James Meredith “March against Fear” in June 1966. I’m particularly looking at the last event in a 3-day event.
James Meredith was a civil rights activist known for being the first African-American student admitted in the University of Mississippi. The media calls him the “first black to integrate the University”. In 1966, four years after he was admitted into the school, he decided to embark on a “March Against Fear” from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. For Meredith, the march was a demonstration against the culture of racism and fear in Mississippi, and a way to encourage African Americans to register to vote. What began as a small-scale march (he only invited a few black men) grew into a movement involving more than 20,000 people, including notable civil rights leaders from various groups, like Martin Luther King Jr (SCLC), Stokely Carmichael (SNCC), Roy Wilkins (NAACP). But it was most of all Meredith getting shot in Hernando, Mississippi, on the second day of his march, that inspired the eventual scale and legacy of the march. Meredith later returned from the hospital to join the march, and they registered over 4,000 African-Americans to vote in various counties.
I find this commemorative event an interesting site of memory for the 1966 “March against Fear”, because the organisers and participants in 2016 somewhat re-create the journey that the participants took during the original march in 1966. Hence, this commemoration makes certain places material sites of memory, and redefines their connections from partial to collective memories along the journey. The walk officially began at the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Centre, which was also holding an exhibit on Meredith, “Am I or Am I Not a Citizen?” that the participants were encouraged to visit. Then, the participants (around 200) walked through downtown Jackson to the Mississippi State Capitol, where Meredith was the featured speaker.
In the following video, we can see that this commemorative march takes a much calmer and more official tone as compared to the violence and chaos of the 1966 march. The presence of police cars protecting the marchers signifies the progress towards more official and peaceful forms of civil rights protest. (The video unfortunately cannot be embedded, so please click on the link below to view it!)
The name of this commemoration also suggests a possible retrospective nominalisation. It radically changes the rebellious tone of “March against Fear” into a more peaceful and neutral “Walk for Good and Right”. Instead of an outright “march” in the name that asserts the participants’ resistance and rebellion, the “walk” last year suggests an effort to underline a more peaceful tone. Also, the “for” in the name instead of “against” suggests more unity, organisation toward certain goals, and a non-violent approach to protest. This difference reminds me of the disagreements between civil rights leaders in the 1960s, like those between the SNCC and Dr Martin Luther King Jr. about the violence of their activism. The phrase “black power” gained popularity during the 1966 “March against Fear” (Stokely Carmichael used the phrase in his speech after he was released from jail for a rally that was part of the March) but the popular meaning encouraged the civil rights movement to deviate from the non-violent tactics of Dr King, towards the more militant defiance led by Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X (Diouf and Woodard, 12). Yet, I would argue that the militant definition of black power heightens the emotional intensity of the civil rights movement. The 1966 march and Meredith’s shooting had defined the black power movement paradoxically by the emotions of fear and panic. This emotional emphasis on fear also surrounded the Rainbow Coalition. In his essay, David Johnson Thornton argues that the Jack Thornell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Meredith crying in pain on the road had made the shooting and its emotional fear a central image of the march and the black power movement. The photograph’s circulation in various newspapers had prompted civil rights leaders such as Dr. King, Stokely Carmichael and Roy Wilkins to band together and resume Meredith’s march. In a similar way, Jimmie Lee Jackson’s murder was also another violent act that inspired unity for the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery, another landmark event in black power history.
However, the “Walk for Good and Right” interestingly did not walk past the site in Hernando where Meredith was shot. This choice suggests to me that this commemorative event selects to emphasise non-violent civil rights activism as representative of Meredith’s “March against Fear”. Also, the event uses the site of the state capitol and its memory of the largest civil rights demonstration in Mississippi history, attended by approximately 15,000 individuals. The concluding site of the 1966 march thus became also the concluding site of the 2016 march. The state capitol site commemorates both the rare unity of various civil rights leaders to continue the march, and Meredith’s resilience to finish his original march after being shot. Hence, the choice to honour Meredith seems to emphasise the emotional memory of unity and resilience, over helplessness and fear. To me, the commemorative march represents a non-violent and unifying (even with state officials) power.
The following photograph by Bob Fitch captures the large and passionate participation from the African-American community for the 1966 March Against Fear in front of the state capitol building.
As the following video shows, Meredith used most of his speech to speak about his religious faith and to lead the audience in singing several gospel songs (like “This Little Light of Mine”). He thus recreated the traditional rally (the 1966 rally at the state capitol also included speeches and singing) and reiterated the agitation in 2016. Ultimately, I feel like this focus on honouring Meredith allows him to benefit most from the commemorations. He certainly developed his individual memory and reputation as not just a civil rights leader, but a hero with a legacy that was honoured. Throughout the 3-day event series, Meredith also sold and signed his books, which suggests that he used both the historical and commemorative memories to gain some monetary profit.
The Mississippi Today reported that other civil rights veterans active during 1966 also attended and shared their memories at the end of this commemoration. Flonzie Brown Wright shared about speaking at the state capitol fifty years ago. This commemoration encouraged ordinary people from the public, religious leaders, civil rights veterans and some state leaders to congregate. Their sharing of memories also locates the commemoration in the processual memory of the March against Fear, leading into the larger processual memory of black power and civil rights. Events from the previous two days also brought these people together for panels that educated young African-Americans about the intergenerational movements for black civil rights.
On the promotional banner made for the commemorative walk (the first photograph on the top of my post), we can see that the event had multiple sponsorships. The James Meredith Institute for Citizenship and Responsible Action, the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center, and the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement sponsored the event. Nissan was the corporate sponsor the whole commemorative event series over the three days. As you can see in the video above, the marchers held up the promotional banners of the walk that feature the sponsors. The sponsorships from the museum and Nissan suggest the commercial use of the “March against Fear” memory for corporate gain. The participation of the museum also adds to the official tone of this event, giving it state legitimisation and much more ordered organisation than the 1966 march had.
Compared to the massive crowd in the 1966 rally, the 2016 commemorations did not draw a very large crowd. News sources say that around 200 people participated, but their photos and videos do not show even that many. The commemorations also only attracted small local newspapers and broadcast channels to report about the event, in contrast to the media attention for the 1966 rally. Thus, the commemorations did not become a public or national memory on a large scale. I could not find a lot of information about the “Walk for Good and Right”. Without media coverage to archive the event, I feel like the commemorative march does not have much opportunity to develop in public and social memory.
However, the commemorative march does serve as a rallying point to educate and agitate youths. Civil rights leaders have referenced this commemorative march as a symbol of the Meredith March’s legacy and unity in the African-American community. Aram Goudsouzian, University of Memphis history department chair, mentioned the “Walk for Good and Right” during a panel in the university, on March 2017. Hence, the commemoration served as an educational and activist tool to illustrate how African-Americans today should carry on the legacy of early civil rights leaders like Meredith during his 1966 march.
Edit (April 17):
It seems that Nissan’s sponsorship of the “Walk for Good and Right” may have been a pre-emptive attempt to repair its bad reputation for civil rights abuses. According to the United Automobile Workers (UAW) labour union, Nissan has long been facing criticism for mistreating its African-American workers at its manufacturing plant in Canton, Mississippi. Canton was the site of the violent clash between marchers and the state police during the 1966 March Against Fear. Hence, Nissan could use its sponsorship of the commemoration of a major civil rights event as a marketing tool that expresses Nissan’s support of civil rights. This commemorative march now becomes a (rare) positive memory in Nissan’s history with civil rights. As the workers at Nissan are still recently organising protests at the plant, I believe they might view Nissan’s sponsorship of the commemoration as hypocrisy, which might then damage the peaceful memory of the walk.
Diouf, Sylviane A., Khalil Gibran Muhammad, and Komozi Woodward. Black Power 50. The New Press, 2016.
Fitch, Bob. Massive crowd gathers in front of Jackson state capitol building. 1966. Stanford University Libraries, California. The Bob Fitch Photography Archive, https://purl.stanford.edu/yq589zt0871 Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.
Helsel, Amber. “Walking from Memphis: James Meredith’s Bloody ‘March Against Fear’ 50 Years Later.” Jackson Free Press, 23 Jun. 2016, http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2016/jun/23/commemorating-50th-anniversary-march-against-fear/ Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.
“James Meredith “Walk for Good and Right” June 26, 2016.” YouTube, uploaded by Meredith Coleman McGee, 28 June 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F21Yo45EUnY
Norwood, Ashley F.G. “Meredith and marchers rally for good and right.” Mississippi Today, 27 Jun. 2016, https://mississippitoday.org/2016/06/27/meredith-and-marchers-rally-for-good-and-right/ Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.
Posey, Shanderia K. “March Against Fear events inspire, educate.” The Mississippi Link, 30 Jun. 2016, http://themississippilink.com/2016/06/30/march-against-fear-events-inspire-educate/ Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.
Steinberg, Sasha. “‘March Against Fear’ participants encourage MSU students to overcome fear, serve others.” Mississippi State University, 2 Mar. 2017, http://www.msstate.edu/newsroom/article/2017/03/%E2%80%98march-against-fear%E2%80%99-participants-encourage-msu-students-overcome-fear/ Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.
Stewart, Charles J. “The evolution of a revolution: Stokely Carmichael and the rhetoric of black power.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 83.4 (1997): 429-446.
Thornton, Davi Johnson. “The Rhetoric of Civil Rights Photographs: James Meredith’s March Against Fear.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 16.3 (2013): 457-487.
WJTV Staff. “People march to remember 1966 “Walk Against Fear.”” WJTV, Jackson, Mississippi, 26 Jun. 2016, http://wjtv.com/2016/06/26/people-march-to-remember-1966-walk-against-fear/ Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.