Monday, March 3, 2003
IT WAS JUNE 26, 1966, when the "March Against Fear," a protest walk from Memphis to Jackson organized by James Meredith to repudiate violence against blacks who tried to vote, reached its destination in downtown Jackson. This date has shared importance for me because it also happens to be my birthday, so I feel content knowing that on that day tens of thousands of marchers waited to hear from some of the Civil Rights Movement's most influential leaders here in Jackson. Along with Meredith, this list included Martin Luther King Jr. and NAACP leaders Charles Evers and Aaron Henry.
Meredith was shot during the march that had begun in Memphis 21 days earlier. What culminated here was years of effort on the behalf of thousands of Civil Rights activists from across the nation to gain basic rights such as voting for African Americans. As a result, voting registration was boosted and basic rights gained, showing the power of the people to achieve progress.
Many people inside and outside of Jackson take for granted the city's rich civil-rights history. Jackson's civil-rights legacy is so abundant and flourishing that it is impossible to highlight the Movement into a short tour—but the Jackson Civil Rights Tour has drawn up a roadmap to that history with 55 stops. I set out on this tour recently and found a good skeleton to follow to gain a foundation in the importance of civil rights in Jackson. This combination of churches, homes, Masonic Temples, businesses, schools, museums, bus stations, parks, and government buildings provide the public with the details of the struggle and vast accomplishments of civil rights workers. This tour has the power to awaken a spirit of responsibility to carry on the legacy of justice-seeking for any oppressed individual or group.
Here are some highlights of my tour.
Site No. 2: State Capitol, 400 High Street—As I exited my car, I was welcomed by complete silence. I doubt this was the sound in the air 37 years ago. On these same grounds nearly 20,000 people stood listening to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael give the protesters enough energy to take back a sense of power to their homes and communities. For this Saturday afternoon, the most energy here is that of a branch falling from beneath a squirrel's paws to the parking-lot pavement below.
Site No. 3: First Baptist Church 430 North President Street—It seems unbelievable that any human would ever be denied the right to worship the same God as their fellow citizens. The building stands beautiful with tall stained-glass windows that seem to be crafted by the hands of angels. This site, directly across the street from the State Capitol, is where Medgar Evers led the first attempt to integrate this "Holy Temple." It would be 10 more years before any African American would be allowed to worship there.
Site No. 4: Former Jackson Municipal Library, 301 North State Street—Similar to First Baptist, it seems inconceivable that anyone would be denied the right to gain knowledge. Nine African-American students were arrested and jailed for attempting to conduct a "read-in" at this library. Officers said they disturbed the peace. What is ironic is that access to proper knowledge leads to peace. Violence, on the other hand, is rooted in ignorance.
Site No. 6: State Fairgrounds, Jefferson at Amite—Where does one start when reflecting on a locale that should be a place of joy and culture, but instead was used as a tool of injustice? After discovering that former Mayor Allen Thompson announced he would incarcerate thousands of protesting African Americans at the Fairgrounds in livestock cages lined with hog wire, I wondered myself how people feel today as they attend the State Fair. Some older African Americans still choose to boycott the fair, although they don't always reveal why. Some who experienced the incarceration in dirty cages with oppressive heat compared the conditions to what the hulls of the Middle Passage slave ships must have felt like. On May 31, 1963, between 400 to 500 students from ages 11 to 20 were confined to these hog pens. Numerous others would suffer the same consequences for standing up for their rights.
Site No. 7: WLBT-TV, 715 South Jefferson Street—This NBC affiliate denied the African-American community the right to have coverage of the civil rights activity shown on their television sets. The 45 percent of the viewers who were black did not complain. The NAACP and the United Church of Christ led the battle to force the television station to air stories about the brutality of Jim Crow laws and white reaction to black protests.
Site No. 42: Former Home of Jane Schutt, 955 Pecan Boulevard—As I looked at this home, I felt a sense of solace. This site happens to be very close to Jackson State, and it dispels the myth that the KKK only burned crosses in rural areas. Mrs. Schutt, a white civil-rights supporter, decorated the leftover burned cross with Christmas lights. Regardless of the events that occurred in this once white, middle-class neighborhood, a sign in the yard today says, "Proud To Be An American."
Site No. 43: First Jackson Home of James Meredith, 427 Eastview Street—What now appears to be a dump site for neighborhood flower pots and soil bags was once the home of one of the most prominent figures in the Civil Rights Movement. On the day I visited, three children ran from the backyard chasing their puppy. One of the children had a broken umbrella that allowed every drop of rain in the air to fall onto his face. But as the old, dilapidated building seemed to be lifeless, there was hope with the children, flowerpots and bags of soil. The old Jim Crow system has been eradicated, and in the remains there lies a responsibility to plant new seeds in the younger generations.
Site No. 49: Medgar Evers Home, 2332 Margaret Walker Alexander Drive—Turning onto Margaret Walker Alexander Drive, an indescribable feeling overcame me. As I viewed the driveway where Evers was martyred, my writing hand momentarily locked up. I was captivated by the peace and solitude that was there. Looking into the driveway I was temporarily a time traveler, hearing the gunshots and seeing an African-American man fall before his wife and children. The shots echoed louder and louder until I was able to write again; then my attention immediately went to the house opposite Evers'. There I stood, searching the bushes for the one responsible for the blood-washed driveway. All that was left behind was an empty house with a bright sun reflecting on the rooftop, as if protecting the grounds from any acts of evil as those that occurred on June 12, 1963.
Geoffrey Edwards is a junior at Jackson State University.