this June 25, 2016 photo, activists walk through downtown
Jackson, Miss., to the state Capitol, as part of a 50th
commemoration of James Meredith's march from Memphis to
Jackson to encourage black people to overcome fear of
violence and to encourage them to register to vote.
A half-century ago, thousands joined a march across
Mississippi to challenge a system that condoned violence against
black people and suppressed their rights issues still
reverberating in today's national debates about police violence.
The March Against
Fear in the summer of 1966 helped many find a voice to protest the
injustices of the day, setting an example for contemporary
movements such as Black Lives Matter.
The link between
past and present was on the minds of participants in the march 50
years ago who recently told their stories to The Associated Press.
They say recent
deadly encounters involving police show that Americans need to
engage in honest dialogue about race even if it's
uncomfortable for some people to acknowledge that black lives have
long been devalued. They also lamented what they see as a lack of
progress on many fronts.
nothing has changed," says James Meredith, who launched the
march. "That is not completely true. What has changed the
so-called civil rights movement is completely at an end. It is
over.... That's why we have the crisis we have in the nation
declined to discuss specifics of the recent violence which has
included fatal shootings of black men by police and deadly attacks
on officers he and his contemporaries say much work still
needs to be done.
The march started
as a one-man journey by Meredith, four years after he integrated
the University of Mississippi amid violent backlash. In June 1966,
he wanted to show that a black man could walk through Mississippi
without fear. He set out to walk more than 200 miles from Memphis,
Tennessee, to the Mississippi capital of Jackson.
But one day in, a
white man shot and wounded Meredith. Activists including the Rev.
Martin Luther King took up his cause and eventually rallied
thousands of marchers.
Now 83, Meredith
wants the black community to embrace education and mentorship as
ways to "pay God back."
is what the March Against Fear was about," he says.
"Citizenship. Not only rights and privileges are part of
citizenship. Duty and responsibility are an equal part, and that's
the part the black race has failed to pay any attention to."
this June 23, 1966 file photo, Mississippi Highway Patrolmen
and Canton Police officers wearing gas masks, foreground,
advance after firing tear gas into one of the Meredith
marchers' tents in Canton, Miss. The action took place in a
schoolyard which the civil rights demonstrators chose as a
campsite after being turned away earlier.
is blunt in her assessment of America.
"I see this
country as a violent country.... We shirk talking about it,"
says Freelon-Foster, who was 15 when the marchers passed through
her hometown of Grenada.
She says their
courage gave locals the confidence to challenge segregation.
something up for my elders," Freelon-Foster says.
She and other
black students integrated Grenada schools the following fall, and
they were beaten by white men wielding baseball bats and tree
later, in 2004, Freelon-Foster was elected mayor of Grenada a
post she held for one year.
She says police
aren't bad people, but many can't relate to the communities they
this June 25, 2016 photo, Rev. Ed King, a former chaplain at
Tougaloo College, sits in Woodworth Chapel at the liberal
arts school in Jackson, Miss. King, who participated in the
1966 March Against Fear, was a chaplain at the historically
black private college that was a safe haven for civil rights
activists. He was also active in the Mississippi Freedom
Democratic Party, which challenged the states 1960s white
establishment. King says people still need to continue
challenging injustice. "You have to be able to say, 'As
an American, I have a right to ask these questions, to say
that things aren't perfect,'" King says. "We're
moving into a mood of despair now, and with despair you look
for scapegoats to blame."
BrownWright's own grandson was fatally shot by deputies in Los
Angeles in 1999.
Dion Goodloe, 19,
was home in a wheelchair with a broken leg when officers came to
investigate a report of trouble at a nearby store, says
BrownWright. She was told that her grandson was sitting on his
hands and that officers thought he was hiding a gun. A sheriff's
spokesman said at the time that he had a gun and pointed it at
the reason was, it did not justify them shooting a kid sitting in
a wheelchair who could not walk," she says.
condemns any violence whether by police or against them.
tells us ... you don't have a right to take another person's life.
That works on all sides," BrownWright says.
Back in 1966, she
was an NAACP volunteer in Canton who received a phone call from
King asking if she could provide food and housing for 3,000
marchers. Without hesitation, she said yes. The marchers slept in
homes, on porches and in cars. Some slept in a gymnasium.
King talked about receiving threats, and he exhorted her and
others to "do what you can do to continue the struggle."
The Rev. Ed King
was an anomaly a white chaplain at a historically black
private college that was a safe haven for civil rights activists.
He was also active in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party,
which challenged the state's 1960s white establishment.
After a recent
Tougaloo College commemoration of the march, he said people need
to continue challenging injustice.
"You have to
be able to say, 'As an American, I have a right to ask these
questions, to say that things aren't perfect," King says.
"We're moving into a mood of despair now, and with despair
you look for scapegoats to blame."
He says poverty's
effects are insidious, such as the shortage of books in homes of
children attending the Head Start preschool program. Factors like
that, he says, help perpetuate inequality.
Wendell Paris, a
Baptist minister in Jackson, still sees inequality, with black
people more likely to attend poorly funded schools or be
vulnerable to predatory lending.
violence that's always a concern," he says.
Paris was a
21-year-old student in Alabama when he drove to Mississippi to
join the march. Along the final stretch, it was his job to
persuade black spectators to participate.
was just a day of jubilee for us, because here we were marching
basically with much less fear than we had ever had before,"
Still, he recalls
a tense moment when he encountered an officer. It was less than
two years after the Bloody Sunday march in Alabama where police
attacked civil rights marchers.
time I ever looked a policeman face-to-face was on that Meredith
march," Paris recalled. "I looked him straight in the
eyes and said, 'You've got to be careful today how you treat us,
because we're not taking this foolishness that we've been taking
Frank Figgers was
16 when he and several friends joined thousands of others in
Jackson the final day of the march. He says he didn't listen to
the speeches because he was so caught up in seeing black and white
people together, standing up to Highway Patrol officers who
surrounded the Capitol as if protecting a fortress: "It was
something energizing about the crowd."
He says the work
of the civil rights movement remains unfinished, with poorly
funded public schools and weak labor unions in much of the South.
He sees today's
Black Lives Matter activists displaying the same kind of righteous
energy that young people had 50 years ago: "It is a
blossoming now of stuff that was planted then."