On a sweltering Sunday afternoon in late July, two men set out from Memphis with singularity of purpose. One began his journey in the ornate lobby of the Peabody Hotel, stepping out into the Memphis sun amid a flurry of media flash and scribble; the other’s fanfare was limited to the quiet click of the front door latch behind him. Both men wore open-collared, cotton shirts and dark sunglasses. One was black. One was white. One carried a Bible. The other, a gun.
James Meredith was no stranger to the Civil Rights movement. In 1962 he had made national headlines as the first black student to enroll in the University of Mississippi. Now, four years later, he struck out from the Peabody to begin his “second assault” on the state, this time, a solitary, 220-mile march from Memphis, through the thick of rural Mississippi, and into Jackson to take a stand against the culture of fear and intimidation that still reigned uncontested throughout the South.
Aubrey James Norvel, on the other hand, had lived a relatively unremarkable life. Born in Forrest City, Arkansas, to a middle-class family, he had worked in his father’s hardware store until it closed and remained unemployed thereafter. He had no affiliation with any white supremacy groups, had no history of mental health issues, and didn’t drink. His neighbors described him as a quiet and soft-spoken man. So it came as a surprise when, on the second day of Meredith’s march, Norvel emerged from the roadside scrabble with a shotgun in his hands.
“I only want James Meredith,” he said. The ersatz police escort stood still and pale, their mouths bobbing silently in protest. Norvel leveled his gaze, steadied his gun, and fired.
Far away from the Mississippi backroad where James Meredith’s life slowly seeped into the roadside dust, the Civil Rights movement was also fading fast. Out of what had once been a united front, a number of increasingly disparate sects had emerged: those who preferred a political path, those who rode the rising tide of black nationalism, and those who held strong to the promise of nonviolent protest. Each group was convinced that their approach was the key to reaching equal rights for black America, but their opposing viewpoints had split their efforts, weakened their impact, and left them vulnerable to criticism. When James Meredith, a fiercely independent and vocal proponent of his own ambiguous ideologies, had refused to take up the banner of any presiding groups, he had been all but abandoned. The NAACP, CORE, SCLC , and SNCC had all left him to pursue his anomic whims—like a 225-mile march across Mississippi—alone.
As a result, Meredith’s crusade had begun with limited fanfare. He departed with only a group of four companions: a minister, a record company executive, a shopkeeper, and a volunteer publicist. The Memphis daily paper hadn’t even bothered to send a representative to cover the event. The shots that rang out against the Mississippi morning, however, changed everything. Whereas the disparate sects of the Civil Rights movement found little common ground when it came to tactical ideology, they could all agree that Meredith’s fate was untenable, and one by one, they arrived in Mississippi to complete Meredith’s stalled mission.
Titans of the Civil Rights movement—Wilkins, McKissic, Carmichael, and King—put aside their differences to rally around Meredith’s cause, and their united front inspired thousands of black Mississippians, previously crippled by the open threat of violence, to move beyond their fear and join the march. By the time the campaign reached completion three weeks later, the march was 1500 strong, the state of Mississippi had 4000 newly registered black voters, and, miraculously, James Meredith had recovered enough from his wounds to march them all into Jackson.
It has been the unfortunate fate of many an ambition to collapse under the belief that one man can make little impact on his own. Few events in history have so thoroughly disproved this theory as the March Against Fear. Each man set out with his own independent purpose—Meredith to unravel the binds of fear, King to stand as a stoic pillar of resistance, Carmichael to raise a battle cry, and Norvel to embark on a lone mission to end Meredith’s march—yet without the others’ autonomy, none of the rest would have met with success.
Had Meredith not forged his own way, he might have never marched. Had any of the Civil Rights leaders joined the march from the beginning, Meredith may never have been shot. And had Norvel not stepped out of the roadside bramble with a gun, the campaign to end fear might never have inspired thousands of blacks across the state of Mississippi to throw off the yoke of fear and let their voices be heard, clear, strong, and powerful.
Though none of them might have known it at the time, each man who pulled independently at his own strand was playing an invaluable role in building a web much larger than himself, and it was only when all of their solitary missions met that they would hang, suspended, in a single moment of glory.
SEE MARCH AGAINST FEAR PHOTOS HERE