By Marc Kelley
SYndicated by: Montana News
On June 5, 1966, a young Black man named James Meredith, set out on what he called, a "walk." His intention was to cover the 220 mile journey across Mississippi, and illustrate, how we all as individuals, can stand against, what many considered to be, overwhelming fear. By his own words, Meredith explains, it was never his intention to"protest"; but rather, to exercise his right, as an American Citizen, to use the publicly funded, highways and byways, to wage his war, against fear. Meredith, had learned the lessons and benefits of standing against oppression in 1962, when he became the first Black person, to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Rather than joining the more popular Black Nationalist movement led by Stokely Carmichael or Dr. Martin Luther Kings, non-violent Civil Disobedience movement, Meredith set out on his walk as an individual, exercising his individual rights.
Meredith never considered or promoted his actions a "protest"; and as a result, he garnered only slight public and media attention. On the second day of his solitary "walk against fear", Meredith passed by a handful of reporters and law enforcement officials, when suddenly, a man began shouting " I just want James Meredith" and began firing his 12 gauge shotgun. Three rounds, from the would be assassins shotgun struck Meredith in the head, neck, back and legs knocking him to the ground. In a strange twist of fate, a twenty-six year old, AP photographer named Jack Thornell, had been assigned to capture some photos of Meredith as he passed through the Mississippi town of Hernando. Unbeknownst to Thornell, this moment in time would propel his work into the national spotlight, forever changing not only his career, but his life as well. Fortunately for Meredith, the rounds from the 12 gauge, contained only birdshot, and with the smell of gunpowder still in the air, Aubry James Norvell, the shooter, was arrested by a DeSoto County Sheriff. Norvell, an un-employed, hardware store clerk, became the first White man to be arrested in Mississippi for shooting a Black man. Pleading guilty to the shooting of Meredith, Norvell was sentenced to five years at the Mississippi State Prison, known as The Parchman Farm.
While the shooting of James Meredith is far less known to many people, this senseless act of violence would serve to fracture a deep divide, in the philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement. As James Meredith recuperated from his wounds, a gathering of the Civil Rights leaders; Dr. Martin Luther King, Stokley Carmichael and Floyd McKissick served to highlight the differing ideologies and tactics of these men. As he always had, Dr. King called for "peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience"; in contrast, Carmichael and McKissick who would go on on to found the radical, Black Power Movement and giving rise to the Black Panther Party.
Agreeing to put their ideological differences aside, the three civil rights leaders organized and resumed the march to Jackson, the Capital of Mississippi. For nearly three weeks, what was now called the "Meredith March", they moved through Mississippi. Aided and protected by armed Federal registrars, supporters of the Civil Rights Movement, registered thousands of African American's, as legal voters in the State of Mississippi. On the final day of the march, James Meredith, continued and finished his walk. Speaking with a deep understanding of the social issues of the day, Meredith is quoted as saying he was inspired by people on both sides of the color divide. Rather than pointing fingers, committing violence or further speaking in divisive terms, Meredith said " You can't forget that Whites were as unfree as any Blacks, White Supremacy was official and legal, enforced by judges and by the law…a White that failed to acknowledge and carry out the mandate of white supremacy was subject to the same persecution as any Black."
James Meredith would continue his life and continue to rise above violence and hatred. Graduating from Columbia law school, Meredith would twice run for Congress and be defeated on both attempts. Perhaps ahead of his time, Meredith's voice of reason and understanding, were not welcomed by the establishment elites. Today, at the age of 85, James Meredith lives in Jackson, Mississippi, the father to five children and Grandfather to another five, he continues to speak out on what he see's as our society's, "breakdown of moral character", by encouraging people to live by the Ten Commandments.
Inspired by Dr. King's concept of “somebodiness” which nurtures a sense of worth and dignity, Meredith teaches, if we see ourselves as a compassionate people, we must be inclusive, to ensure that everyone feels like they are somebody. Somebody, who is just as worthy as the next person, regardless of their faith, the color of their skin, their chosen religion or their personal lifestyle choices. We are all in this world together, and the forces of hate, disrespect and intolerance, will only assure us of our own destruction.
Some may say, this is an over-simplistic view, of the complex time in which we live. That White people, are simply the product of "white privilege" and therefore should keep their mouths shut, because they do not understand, the concepts of racism and social injustice. To these critics, the response should be….educate me, tell me how we can level the playing field for all Americans. Share your ideas, your dreams and your plans for a better life. It seems so elementary, we all could benefit by stopping and thinking about the sacrifices made by people like James Meredith and Dr. King. If we can only set aside our differences long enough to consider the concept of loving one another for what we have common, as opposed to hating one another for our differences; we just may, once again, glimpse the ideals of these GREAT men, who taught love and tolerance in a time, much like today, when very little love or tolerance existed.