Meredith looks back on 50 years

Published 6:00 am Sunday, April 24, 2016

North Mississippi Rural Legal Services continued its year-long celebration of its Golden Anniversary Friday with the second of three special events planned this year.

NMRLS hosted the Historic Litigation Conference at the Robert C. Khayat Law Building at the University of Mississippi. The conference brought together some of Mississippi’s most noteworthy community leaders, government officials and attorneys to discuss litigation over the last five decades that has made a positive difference in the lives of Mississippians.

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Among the notable guest speakers was civil rights icon James Meredith, the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962. Meredith is also celebrating a milestone. The same year NMRLS was founded, Meredith initiated his famous walk from Memphis to Jackson that along the way became known as the Meredith March Against Fear.

On June 6, 1966, Meredith decided he would walk from the Peabody Hotel in Memphis to Jackson, roughly 220 miles, as a solitary protest to counter continued racism in the Mississippi Delta following the passage of civil rights legislation, as well as to encourage blacks to register to vote.

Meredith had no intention of his walk becoming a major organization event and only invited a few black men to join him. As Meredith and his small group passed through Hernando, he was shot by James Aubrey Norvell and was hospitalized.

“When I got shot, Dr. (Martin Luther) King and all of these other leaders continued the effort,” Meredith said Friday prior to appearing at the NMRLS event. “I was conducting a walk, which is the right of a citizen to walk on public streets. They needed a name for it and came up with the Meredith March Against Fear because they were in the protest business. At that point, it was the biggest thing Dr. King had ever been involved in.”

Rallying together

The shooting of Meredith rallied the major civil rights organizations at the time and the walk grew into a march through the Mississippi Delta. Along the way, they registered about 4,000 black voters.

In Greenwood, Stokely Carmichael’s angry speech gave rise to the term “Black Power” and King attracted multitudes of crowds. By the time the march reached Jackson, an estimated 15,000 people entered the state capital, making it the largest civil rights march in Mississippi history.

Meredith rejoined the march on June 25 after a brief stay in the hospital and the next day walked on the front line next to King as the march entered Jackson.

Many believe the march served as a catalyst for future civil rights movements in Mississippi and the South.

Meredith intends to bring awareness of the historical events that took place 50 years ago.

“This has been hidden from reality, but that’s going to change this year,” Meredith said. “I plan to give the people who participated the chance to tell their story, which they have not been able to do; not even to their grandchildren.”

In July, Meredith plans to give a series of speeches at every library in Hinds County.

“I would say that 98 percent of the black population in Mississippi has never even heard of the Meredith March Against Fear,” Meredith said. “Folks are shocked when I tell them I was shot back then. But believe you me, I’m just thrilled to be alive and to still be here.”