Down to the Crossroads
Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear
Some Publisher 2014
When I was a kid in the 1970s, I really didn’t know anything about the “Civil Rights Movement.” I knew who Martin Luther King was, and that he had been assassinated by white racists (I knew quite a few of those). But to me all that was old history. The issue of the day–at least as it concerned African Americans–was something called the “Black Power Movement.” Of Rosa Parks, the Freedom Riders, and the Little Rock Nine I knew nothing. At the forefront of my mind were Stokley Carmichael, Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale. I followed the exploits of the Black Panthers. I read Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. I really understood none of it. I was a suburban white kid in the Midwest. The world these angry men described was foreign to me, but nonetheless fascinating.
At what point did the Civil Rights Movement become the the Black Power Movement? Aram Goudsouzian tries to answer this question in his terrific, readable book Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). Goudsouzian has a sharp eye for ironies, and the story he tells is full of them. James Meredith, the leader of the “march,” didn’t desire or plan a march at all; rather, he wanted to walk across Mississippi and thereby launch his political career. Martin Luther King never intended to take part in the “march” but was compelled to do so after Meredith was shot and his erstwhile political stunt morphed into a national spectacle. Stokely Carmichael was a regional black leader who was, much to his surprise, catapulted into the spotlight by a slogan he could not control–“Black Power.” It’s a fascinating story. Listen in.