The Meredith March Against Fear is often treated as the last great civil rights achievement. James Meredith, who in 1962 successfully integrated the University of Mississippi, set out from Memphis with the plan of walking to Jackson, Mississippi, along Highway 51. Just outside Hernando, Mississippi, less than a day into his walk, Meredith was shot in the back, arm, and head. In the wake of his shooting, the big six civil rights organizations decided to continue Meredith’s march. With little pre-planning and even less agreement, the leaders met in Memphis and began the march that would introduce Black Power to the country. In Down to the Crossroads, Aram Goudsouzian elevates the Meredith march alongside the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965 and the March on Washington in 1963.
Goudsouzian uses the days of the march to divide his text, following the leaders through Mississippi and exploring the competing strains of civil rights activism. He weaves biographical details into the retelling of the march’s events, focusing much of his narrative on the lives and leadership styles of James Meredith, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, Floyd McKissick, and Roy Wilkins. At its best points, Down to the Crossroads explores the ways these leaders, who each sought expanded rights and freedoms for African Americans, worked through their philosophical differences during the march. Goudsouzian adds the voices of march participants, newspaper accounts, and government documents to create a rich narrative of those hot days in June 1966. He introduces us to men and women who risked their lives and jobs to walk with Dr. King and who shouted Black Power with Stokely Carmichael. They walked “to overcome fear, pass legislation, advance their own ambitions, achieve racial brotherhood, and/or realize black consciousness” (p. 104). He also uncovers the under-told stories of local leaders in places like Sunflower and Benton, Mississippi, but the book focuses mainly on the well-known [End Page 145] leaders of the big six civil rights organizations.
Goudsouzian argues that the March Against Fear was the crossroads of the civil rights movement and “presented choices with enduring consequences” (p. 137). Stokely Carmichael’s choice to invoke Black Power after his arrest and release in Greenwood resulted in the biggest consequence, according to Goudsouzian. This is an old argument and the author relies on Clayborne Carson’s In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s and white accounts of the march to make it. Moreover, Goudsouzian does not contend with the long civil rights movement historiography or any recent works on the emergence of Black Power. Instead, he focuses on Carmichael’s personality and the “explosion” of the term after Greenwood. Black Power is a straw-man throughout Down to the Crossroads. The focus on the leadership and the use of white newspapers is also disappointing, considering the significant amount of oral histories of local marchers and organizers collected by the author. Goudsouzian’s use of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission files and the FBI reports on the march provide insight into political leaders’ thoughts, but lack some nuance, especially when used to explain the thinking of leaders like Carmichael.
Down to the Crossroads is engaging and a nice text for an undergraduate classroom. It captures the uncertainty of the 1966 march, highlights the complex planning and forced compromises the leadership undertook to make the march successful, and provides the first scholarly account of James Meredith’s March Against Fear. Although heavily focused on the leadership, Goudsouzian successfully explores the challenges facing civil rights organizers after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and does so in a highly readable and easily digested fashion. [End Page 146]
AMANDA L. HIGGINS earned her PhD from the University of Kentucky in 2013. Her dissertation, “Instruments of Righteousness: The Intersections of Black Power and Anti–Vietnam War Activism, 1964–1972,” argues that Black Power advocates used anti–Vietnam War organizing to advance their domestic and international activism and...