Since neither The Washington Post nor the Memphis Commercial Appeal saw fit to publish this piece, I herewith publish it myself. So there!
That Close to Stokely Carmichael:
A Forty-Year March Against Fear
Forty years ago, in the first week of June, in Memphis, Tenn., Stokely Carmichael, then the new head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, was just days from breaking with the non-violent, integrationist philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was cynical about non-violence and distrusted white people. He was days away from advocating “Black Power.”
Forty years ago, in the first week of June, in Memphis, Tenn., I was a silly high school cheerleader.
Somehow, we came together.
Here’s how it went down. On June 6, 1966, James Meredith, the first African-American to enroll in the University of Mississippi, decided to embark on a one-man March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson, Miss. He made it only 30 miles before he was shot by 41-year-old Aubrey James Norvell in Hernando, Miss.
Within a day, civil rights leaders, including King and Carmichael, convened in Memphis. On June 8, they announced that the 220-mile march would resume—in Meredith’s name.
That very day, I was driving my mama’s 1963 white Ford Galaxie downtown to go shopping. I had two girlfriends in the car and the air conditioning and the radio both turned up full blast.
First we were driving along, singing with the radio, and the next minute we were hemmed in on all sides by crowds of angry, frustrated black people gathering just south of downtown Memphis to begin the march. In those first few seconds, I felt a blast of fear that the crowd would start rocking the car and roll it over, as in the Watts riots from a year before. After all, we were white, and they were black.
Then I realized I was face to face with Stokely Carmichael. I knew who he was. I had seen his face on television, like I’d seen black children being firehosed and marchers beaten with bats and chains. This dangerous man was right next to my car and looking down at me. Right at me. And the seed of social conscience that lies dormant in the heart of the most vapid teenager germinated in the heat of that glare.
As inchoate as my feelings were and as foggy as my memory is, I think I realized that Stokely Carmichael was a very angry man but that he had his anger totally under control. I suddenly trusted that no one would or could hurt me that day in Memphis. We were within the corona of Stokely Carmichael’s fortuna, the mantle of fate that falls upon the shoulders of kings and warriors, and therefore we were safe.
And that adolescent appetite for risk suddenly made the situation more exciting than scary. “Wow, man,” I would have said if it had happened a year or so later.
The seed that popped its husk and started to grow that day had been planted a year earlier, in August 1965 with the arrival of the first four black students at my high school. One, Willie Reed, was a football player and quickly found acceptance. But three girls also started school with us that fall. They sat by themselves at the very end of the teachers’ table in the cafeteria. No one spoke to them; no one looked at them. The memory of them sitting there alone has haunted me ever since. Yet I did nothing to help them. Not one thing. Then one day, they were gone.
Just weeks after I saw Stokely Carmichael, my family moved from Memphis to the Chicago suburbs. I spent that year in my family’s basement writing bad poetry and listening to Bob Dylan. In 1967, Carmichael was expelled from SNCC—replaced as director by H. Rapp Brown—and joined the militant Black Panther Party. About the same time, I entered Northwestern University, where a fiery student body president, Ellis Pines, was organizing campus protests and preaching Student Power.
In 1969, Stokely Carmichael moved to Guinea and changed his name to Kwame Ture. He espoused Black Nationalism and pan-Africanism for the rest of his life, along with old-style Marxism.
By then I was marching against the Vietnam War, which had cannibalized all the young men of my generation. On April 30, 1970, with the tap of a pointer on a map, Nixon sent troops into Cambodia. Our president and his cabinet were lying to us, spying on us, throwing us in prison.
Then they started killing us. Four days after Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio shot to death four student protesters. At Northwestern, we joined the national student strike and shut the university down. We ripped up the iron fences edging the campus, used them to block Sheridan Boulevard and lit bonfires behind the barricades. We seceded from the union.
That spring I graduated and moved to New York to write. In the ‘70s things quieted down. Eventually the last helicopter took off from the embassy roof in Saigon, the flames in the inner cities died and soon it was “Morning in America.”
Not long before his death in 1998, Kwame Ture told The Washington Post: “The secret of life is to have no fear; it’s the only way to function. You just wipe it out.”
He was answering a question about how he kept going back out into the streets after each of his dozens of arrests, but I also take from this that our fear dehumanizes us—walls us away from each other. Seeing Stokely Carmichael in Memphis had wiped out some elemental fear of change, of the unknown, of danger, that I’d had before that day.
Forty years later, in June of 2006, I wish that we had a leader whose mantle of courage would fall over us all and keep us safe, but in the meantime, I try to keeping marching against my fears.
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Lyda Phillips is the author Mr. Touchdown, a young-adult novel about the desegregation of a Memphis high school in 1965, and other novels. She lives in Silver Spring, Md., with her husband and son.