James Meredith returned to the limelight in Mississippi on June 5, 1966, marching on foot from Memphis to Jackson, to support the effort for black voter registration.
But just one day after beginning his march, Meredith was shot down in a hail of shotgun blasts, by a white attacker. He would go on to recuperate and rejoin the march, taken up in his absence by Civil Rights Movement leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael.
For Oxford residents, the overarching Meredith story resides in the area’s collective history, one that has been heard and felt time and again. Historian Aram Goudsouzian’s new book, “Down to the Crossroads,” tells the march story in a modern way, through the many voices that pulled the movement in different directions.
“If you read this book, you would get a taste of the larger tensions and successes in the Civil Rights Movement,” Goudsouzian said. “This is a local history, in places like Hernando, and Greenwood and Grenada, that shaped a huge international story.”
The traditional story originally told by journalists combined the story of King, flashpoints and nonviolent demonstrations, with black power as the shadowy boogey man. Goudsouzian’s tale blends the old and new styles of teaching civil rights: his writing takes this classic tale, and interweaves the genuine aspirations for rights as a facet of black power, along with local Mississippi stories, and the role of women and children in the movement.
The local narrative takes its shape and unfolds much like a television drama: King’s escape from a mob, a federal government that turned a blind eye, and the first public utterance by Stokely Carmichael of “Black Power.”
In many ways, this was a very different march than that envisioned by Meredith when he set out. After integrating Ole Miss and spending a few years elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad, he was making moves to enter Mississippi politics.
“He sees the march as a springboard to a political career in Mississippi,“ he said. “He’s writing to people, and thinks that walking through Mississippi will connect him to local leaders.”
Meredith, like many of the author’s favorite subjects, is ideologically complex. He’s one of those real-life characters who fail to fit a mold, an individualist. He was staunchly conservative in many ways, Goudsouzian said, but unintentionally helped create a vehicle for the beginnings of the black power movement.
“He occupies this very strange place in the conscious of Mississippi in many ways,” he said, referring to Meredith at the time of the march.
“He‘s still the ‘most hated man in Mississippi,’ at least among whites. And he’s a man who’s very admired among African-Americans for his courage.”
Interviewing Meredith was a way to understand the man himself, and his fierce magnetism then shaped how the author wrote his story.
Goudsouzian is in his first year as chair of the University of Memphis history department, having taught there for 10 years. He has written four books, with much of his previous writing concerning sports, and major African-American figures in sports and popular culture.
Down to the Crossroads, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is available now. His new work has been lauded as a must-read by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Harvard University. Goudsouzian was a guest on a PBS documentary last fall, The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross, hosted by Gates.
Goudsouzian will sign books at 5 p.m. Tuesday, at Off Square Books, following a short lecture.
– Gretchen Stone, associate editor, HottyToddy.com, email@example.com
Author Expert on Meredith Signs Book Today in Oxford
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