By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
I was just 4 years old and 135 miles away when James Meredith broke the color barrier at the University of Mississippi. Obviously, I don’t remember a lot firsthand.
A few years later, though, came one incident I can recall personally.
In June 1966, Meredith started a “March Against Fear” from Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., to encourage blacks to register to vote.
Not far into the trek, some hotheaded idiot wounded him with a shotgun. If the gunman’s intent was to end the march, it had the opposite effect. Meredith was out of commission, but others took up the challenge.
My parents, brother and I lived on U.S. Highway 51 between Pickens and Canton.
Details are hazy, and our house was probably 50 yards from the road, but even at five or six abreast, this crowd would have streamed past my house for several minutes, doubtlessly with traffic backed up on the overloaded two-lane thoroughfare. (I-55 wouldn’t be completed for another 10 years.)
I hadn’t been taught to harbor outright hatred for black people: My parents disapproved of violence, swindling and other abuses of anybody, black or white. Daddy and Mama were generous toward any neighbors they judged to be needy.
Even so, what seemed then a natural assumption of our own racial superiority and the accompanying assumption that segregation was preferable for both races still misshaped both our lives and those of our black neighbors.
As it turned out, Mr. Meredith hadn’t yet rejoined the marchers (he would soon), but I’m sure his presence was felt. I stood on the front porch, realizing even at age 8 that these people were changing my world, and it scared me.
In the late 1990s, James Meredith came to Tupelo to promote literacy among black males.
I reported on the event and was invited to the church where supper was hosted for him afterward.
Mr. Meredith and I ended up sitting across the table from each other. As we broke bread, I told him about watching his supporters marching past my house those many years before and being terrified of his people.
After threats against his life, the Ole Miss riots and his encounter with gunfire, he had had no logical reason not to be just as afraid – “March Against Fear” notwithstanding – of my people.
We laughed because we could.
Because he had survived, and the world had survived with him.
Because a lot of minds had changed some and some minds had changed a lot.
Because a lot of water had flowed under the bridge since those dark days.
And because it flows yet.
Contact Daily Journal Oxford Bureau reporter Errol Castens at errol.castens@ journalinc.com.