Monday, March 10, 2014

"Down to the Crossroads" by Aram Goudsouzian (2014)

Author Aram Goudsouzian explores the march which changed the direction of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Up until the “March Against Fear” in Mississippi in 1966, African-Americans were patiently protesting, in a non-violent fashion, the injustices of the past 100 years since the end of the Civil War and slavery.

But when a lone white man shot and wounded James Meredith; the first African-American to enter the University of Mississippi in 1962, he set off a chain reaction which brought everyone under the umbrella of the Civil Rights Movement to descend on Mississippi in a show of unity. At the time some whites even accused the “movement” of having orchestrated the shooting to drum up national support. I’m not kidding. They actually said that; even as far away as New York.

James Meredith had begun what was essentially a one man march from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi when he was shot on the 2nd day, just after entering Mississippi. The assailant merely stood in the road waiting for him and announced that he was looking for James Meredith and didn't want any trouble with anyone else. When Meredith stepped forward and identified himself, he was shot.

The whole spectacle was bizarre. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but the iconic photograph of Mr. Meredith being shot does not do justice to what had just happened. Meredith, being trailed by the media and the State Police, was walking along in broad daylight when he was shot by a man who did not even try to get away after the shooting. His only concern was to ask if Meredith was dead. He was visibly disappointed when he was informed that Meredith was still alive. I have never seen such hatred, either before this incident, or since.

In the town of Greenwood the police station boasted a plague dedicated to “Tiger” the police dog who had taken a bite out of several demonstrators in 1963. The animal was a local celebrity.

The main point of this book is to chronicle the change that the attempted assassin’s bullet had upon the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. Within hours of the shooting, members from every sect of the Movement came forward to lend a hand in completing the March which Mr. Meredith had begun. This was also the march which brought the Vietnam War to the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. With African-Americans dying in disproportionate numbers in that conflict, they had a big stake. As remarked by Vincent Young, a bus driver from Brooklyn, “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger.”

Joined by Martin Luther King and his troupe, the march also attracted Stokely Carmichael and his group, SNCC. This was the birth of the Black Power movement; within just a few days that slogan would become a household word. And, who you were and where you lived would come to inform the meaning of those words.

To the marchers in Mississippi it meant getting the vote and respect; to the people living in the ghettos it meant exactly what it said; Black Power. They would begin to exert economic power in their neighborhoods, buying from African-American merchants only. This kind of puzzled white people because to them it represented nothing short of the discrimination which African-Americans were fighting against themselves.

Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael were not the bitter rivals that history would have us believe. The older man saw in Carmichael something of himself 10 years earlier during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. His only real concern was that the rhetoric of Black Power would do harm to everything which had been accomplished up until that point. For Carmichael’s part, he didn’t want to distance himself too far from King, since doing so would mean losing the support of the press, which was solidly behind the older man.

Local Mississippians lamented the march as the work of outsiders coming to foment trouble. This ignores the fact that people had to come from all over the country precisely because the locals were afraid to march. They stood to lose their jobs, their homes, and even their lives. The African-American was so cowed by fear that in the town of Grenada the local blacks turned in anyone who even spoke of civil rights, ensuring their own continued inequality. Can you even imagine being that “beat down” in spirit? I can’t. Can you imagine doing that to someone else? (Fill in your own response here.)

During the march a local man named Ben Chester White was shot and killed by 3 local men whom he knew well. They called themselves the Cottonmouth Gang, and simply went by his house and asked him to help them look for their dog. He came willingly, as he had always obeyed white men without question. They drove him to a nearby bridge and shot him with 2 shotguns multiple times, disposing of his tattered corpse in the river.

Mr. Goudsouzian has left no stone unturned in this riveting portrait of the march itself, as well as the movement as a whole. He carefully chronicles the changes which were taking place in the movement at the time, as African-Americans began to act on their unwillingness to wait patiently any longer for something that was theirs to begin with.

The March against Fear was a pivotal moment in a time filled with moments which would all add up to a big change in America as regards Civil Rights. Although almost 50 years have gone by since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the job is not done. Even as I write this; in a country with an African-American President; there are still people who want to roll back that historic law, along with all of the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement in all of its diverse forms.

From the NAACP to SNCC and even the Black Panthers Party, all of these groups have contributed to change. Without any one of them in the mix it is doubtful that the Movement would have remained cohesive after 1968, when Martin Luther King was murdered. It’s important to remember that. Diversity within the Movement is precisely what saved it in the long run.

One of the most ironic moments in the book occurs when Mississippi Highway Patrolman Fred Ogg remarks; at the end of a long day; “I’m just about overcome.” 

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