Recently, civil rights icon James Meredith was nestled on a couch in a side room of the lobby of the Peabody Hotel – a place with a name that he first associated with a building at the University of Mississippi.
A hotel that, at one time, wouldn’t have lodged him.
But here Meredith was, at the place where he would be honorary Duckmaster and where, 55 years ago, he embarked on a “Walk Against Fear,” to encourage Black people in the South to register to vote.
“I started the walk against fear from the Peabody Hotel because the Peabody Hotel…wow,” he said, as he took a minute to corral memories that, at age 88, tend to stray more than stay.
“To me, the Peabody Hotel represented cotton [Its namesake, financier and philanthropist George Peabody, negotiated cotton sales with England]. Cotton dominated the world economy. Nobody in cotton was bigger than the name Peabody…
“The reason I started my walk against fear at the Peabody was its symbolism. In 1966, Mississippi was still Mississippi, and Memphis was still the northern capital of Mississippi, and the Peabody was the name connected to power and cotton in the South…
“My fight was against all white supremacy.”
It was a fight that Meredith almost didn’t live to talk about.
When he became the first Black student to attend Ole Miss in 1962, U.S. Marshals had to protect him. Thousands tried to block his way, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had to send National Guardsmen to quell the riots that ensued – and led to the deaths of two people.
Then, in 1966, three years after he graduated from the university and a year after the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, Meredith began his walk from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi, to encourage Black people to exercise that right.
He didn’t get far.
A day after he began his walk on June 6, 1966, a sniper shot him, and the attack sent him to the hospital. But Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, such as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chair Stokely Carmichael, picked up where Meredith left off: They continued the march to Jackson and Meredith, after recovering from his wounds, joined them at the end of the month.
Meredith, however, batted away the idea that he was marching. All he was doing, he said, was walking.
“A walk is an exercise of my rights and privileges as a citizen, to walk the highways and byways to get to one place like anyone else,” he said.
“A march is a protest. I’ve never protested, because I felt like I was a citizen, and I was entitled already. I didn’t feel I needed to get my citizenship rights. All I needed to do was figure out how to enjoy them.
“But I didn’t argue with people who wanted to protest. That was their thing. It wasn’t my thing.”
And what is Meredith’s thing today?
For him, it’s completing what he views as the third prong of his life’s work: To get people to look to God to battle violence and to rebuild parts of the society that he believes are broken.
“When I was young, I thought God gave me three missions,” Meredith said. “One was to break the system of white supremacy. That was what Ole Miss was about…
“The next mission was to expose and challenge the pervasive fears that kept white supremacy in operation. It was the way of life, everyone had to stay in their place. That was what the Walk Against Fear was about, to expose it and to challenge it.
“The third mission was a religious revival. A new awakening to the true will of God, and the true teachings of Jesus Christ. That’s difficult, because religion is a very complicated thing. But my belief is that the world is a better place when you are seeking to do God’s will…”
To that end, Meredith is visiting 82 Mississippi counties in 41 days, to talk to law enforcement officials and other leaders about solutions. He’s already visited 10. Meredith added Memphis because of its proximity to Mississippi, and spoke to Memphis Police Chief C.J. Davis.
He pulled out a piece of paper, put on his glasses, and scanned it to see which counties were next on the list.
“I want to change the conversation,” said Meredith, as he peered at the list. He was also pained by what he said was how, in some places, youths are filling prisons almost as fast as they are built; that Black youths are abetting the prison industrial complex, a symbol of the forces of white supremacy that he fought, by caving to criminality and hopelessness.
“It makes me feel as if I haven’t done my job…older people haven’t been teaching enough,” he said.
So, Meredith plans to keep teaching.
Obviously, applying a religious solution to the problems that Meredith wants to fix is, as he said, complicated, as religion always is.
But to see a frail, graying Meredith still using what’s left of his days to help Black people find their way to the life that his sacrifices made possible, the answer is not to lambaste his approach, but to applaud his effort.
It is inspiring to see Meredith, a man whose legs carried him into Ole Miss when thousands of racists tried to keep him out, and whose legs almost took him on a 250-mile walk from Memphis to Jackson before a sniper shot him, relying on a cane to accomplish a similar mission.
Because even though he’s not walking into a hostile university, or along a hostile route, Meredith is still walking. He’s still walking because he still believes one person can make a difference.
Just like he did in 1962.