A defining moment: standing up for others' rights
SEDONA, ARIZ. — One weekend 40 years ago changed my life. I had grown up white, middle class, a responsible achiever with a strong sense of justice and caring, a pacifist and a peacemaker – not a challenger. This changed in late June 1966 when I happened to watch on the evening news the beating of men, women, and children inside tents that had been erected for what is now known as the Meredith March.
James Meredith was at that time a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement. His enrollment at the University of Mississippi in 1962 as its first black student had sparked riots and the intervention of federal troops. Later, as a Columbia University law student, Mr. Meredith and a few companions planned a March Against Fear from Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., to encourage African-Americans to register and vote. He was ambushed and wounded on Highway 51 in Mississippi. The next day, leaders of civil rights groups announced that they would resume his march later in the month.
At the time, I was living in a white Chicago suburb with my husband and two children. The only African-Americans most encountered in our neighborhood were service people. This was not the world I wanted my children to know, which is why I took them to a preschool in another town that wasn't all white. I became active in civil rights: a member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and the social action committee at my church, doing restaurant and housing discrimination testing. We had black friends.
But seeing the violent acts on TV was a different defining moment for me. I had an urgent need to stand up for what I saw as basic human rights, to put myself on the front lines.
So on a hot June evening in Chicago, June 24, 1966, I boarded a little yellow school bus with three other friends for the 750-mile trip to Jackson, Miss. We rode southward singing, "We Shall Overcome."
My daughter Becca, who was 12 years old at the time, had sent me off with these words: "I'll just die if anything happens to you." Her concern was real – a Detroit woman working for civil rights had recently been killed.
Our first stop in Jackson was Pratt Memorial Church where we filled out forms listing the names of relatives to be notified in case of an emergency. Sobering. The church women served us chicken dinners, barely edible in the intense heat.
We later waited along Highway 51 to join the other marchers. First came the sound of approaching feet and voices and then there in the distance came the moving figures led by civil rights leaders. In the middle of the first row walked Martin Luther King Jr., with his arm around his wife, Coretta. We fell in line and walked in the heat to Tougaloo College to prepare for the next day.
After a rally with celebrity supporters in the gym, my friends and I laid down our bedrolls on the campus lawn. The designated sleeping area in the gym was stifling and pungent with unwashed bodies. After a long wait the next morning under a large shade tree (where we practiced furling and unfurling flags we never used), the march got under way.
My friend Dottie and I got separated from our group soon after the march began. We pledged togetherness. We needed it as we marched through white neighborhoods where we were greeted with sneers and angry shouts and comments. Reaching the black neighborhoods, we were applauded, cheered, and given water. Exhausted and sweltering, our destination, the Jackson Courthouse, seemed nowhere in sight. We sank to a curb in a shady spot, unable to go farther. A black man approached us saying that he would get his car and drive us to the rally. We collapsed into his air-conditioned back seat.
(We were told later that the march had been 17 miles, much longer than originally planned. We had been directed through black communities, recruiting blacks to increase the number of marchers.)
National Guardsmen and Mississippi Highway Patrolmen surrounded the capitol, rifles at their sides. Across the street were angry whites, acting out, jeering, and throwing their fists in the air. It felt as if they were directed at me. We, the marchers and the civil rights leaders, were caught in the middle. The paper reported that altogether the crowd numbered 15,000.
Two black men approached Dottie and me. They would stick by us, one said. "If there's a riot, you will be prime targets." We were dirty, disheveled, sunburned, and wore huge yellow Meredith March pins on our sun hats. But stick by us they did.
The list of speakers at the rally that day reads like a page from an American history book: Floyd McKissick of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), James Meredith (recovered from his wounds), Dr. King and Stokely Carmichael of the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). This was the moment Mr. Carmichael first grabbed the attention of the American mainstream with his message of Black Power – a direct affront to King's emphasis on black and white cooperation.
After the rally, we walked past angry state police and taunting whites and did not stop until we arrived at the black neighborhood to find relief at Stevens Restaurant. The waitress served us iced water and bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches. It was the best meal I had ever tasted.
On the long bus ride home I had time to reflect and begin analyzing the results of the weekend: My white brothers and sisters had been my enemy, as I had been theirs. I had actually been afraid, as never before. And I had felt hated as never before. My black brothers and sisters had been my protectors; generous, concerned, and loving. When I had entered the black neighborhoods, I could breathe a sigh of relief. I was safe. How strange this seems, 40 years later, to think of a time when blacks and whites marching together was a risky thing.
Home with my family, I nursed swollen legs for days, but my heart and my inner being never returned from Jackson. I was forever changed. The US Department of Justice later estimated that 2,500 to 3,000 black Mississippians were registered to vote during the James Meredith March. Reward enough.
Two months after the march, I began my 20-year teaching career in a segregated black school in a nearby Chicago suburb. I learned a lot, and I continue to stand up.
• Janie Dick is a retired schoolteacher and freelance writer.