November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

From Memphis into Mississippi | Ann Bausum on James Meredith’s Historic March

Ann Bausum is no newcomer to teen nonfiction. Her excellence in researching and writing engaging critical works of history for young people is something to be envied. Bausum recently turned her expert eye to civil rights leader James Meredith and his 1966 Walk Against Fear, an event that would transform the nation and ultimately become to be known as the March Against Fear. SLJ caught up with Bausum to discuss this fascinating moment in U.S. and civil rights history, gaining some great insights into her research process, with a few tips for librarians and educators, too.

Also be sure to check out SLJ‘s review of The March Against Fear from our December 2016 issue.

Meredith is such a complex and interesting figure, from his parents’ decision to name him J.H. to avoid racist nicknaming to his military background and time abroad. What brought you to profile him? Was there anything you learned that surprised you?

One book often leads to another, and that was the case with The March Against Fear. While conducting research in Memphis for my book about the final social justice fight in 1968 of Martin Luther King Jr. (Marching to the Mountaintop), I came across a promising archival collection about James Meredith’s 1966 walk from Memphis into Mississippi. I was familiar with the march, having glimpsed it as a child during a family drive through the state, and I became curious, especially about why this march had been largely forgotten even as the previous year’s march from Selma to Montgomery had become so revered. I’m always fascinated by under-told stories, and this one called to me.

Before I started my work, I had not known that marchers were teargassed and beaten when they tried to camp in Canton, MS. Violent reactions to nonviolent civil disobedience are not uncommon, but the scale and intensity of this response helped to fuel my interest in writing the book.

Why did Meredith’s proposal of a single-man walk resonate with so many people?

I’d suggest that it was not the walk per se that resonated so much with others as it was the actions of Aubrey Norvell when he tried to stop James Meredith by shooting him during the second day of his [Meredith’s] journey. Advocates for social justice and nonviolent protest were outraged and horrified. Such an act called out for a response, and, within 24 hours, civil rights movement leaders were organizing the revival of Meredith’s original plan. To do anything less would have allowed an act of violence to thwart the power of nonviolent protest.nf-hsms-bausum-themarchagainstfear

In addition to detailing Meredith and the march overall, you also get into some of the more technical aspects of organizing and/or participating in the physical march, from distributing water to recording the blood type, next of kin, etc. of each marcher. What do you hope readers will gain from these more logistical insights? 

These details help to bring the history alive. They also illustrate the complexity of carrying off a social justice protest. It’s not enough to believe in a cause or show up to march. The strength of a movement depends on the ability of its organizers to sustain the protest. The logistics behind the March Against Fear help to reinforce how remarkable it truly was. No one would have intentionally set out on such a difficult mission—undertaking a journey with hundreds of hikers through hostile, rural territory lasting 22 days—and yet that’s what the shooting of James Meredith mandated. Organizers and volunteers accepted that challenge and completed Meredith’s undertaking, which is one more reason why the endeavor is so historic.

The issue of white fear and how often underestimated it is as a motivating force is a running theme throughout.

I’m a historian, not a sociologist, but I’m fascinated by the way that patterns echo from past to present, including on how we approach the subjects of race and racism. Perhaps, as was the case during the March Against Fear, when the supremacy of one race over another was the organizing principle of a society, one tends to focus on those being oppressed, not the oppressors. Perhaps this omission is akin to the comment Floyd McKissick of CORE made during the March Against Fear. “They don’t call it white power,” he’d said. “They just call it power.” The idea of power being inherently white is akin to the idea that perceived shortcomings, such as fear, would be restricted to the oppressed. The group that’s in charge controls the lens, and those on top tend to be more comfortable focusing on the shortcomings of others rather than on their own.

Much like Congressman Lewis in his “March” trilogy, you’re able to explore the differences in opinion and direction that the leaders of the civil rights movement had among themselves. Do you think it is essential for teens to understand that a group can have different visions but ultimately one goal?

I encourage students to view history with the lens of current events, for, really, that’s exactly what history is except that these events took place in an earlier time. We may turn the chaos of the moment into time lines and chronological narratives, but no one knew how things would turn out, day by day as they occurred, any more than we know that now.

Activists persevered during the civil rights movement, even with their multiple viewpoints on strategy and objectives, by anticipating how best to adapt so they could reach common goals. Even when organizations adapted differently, they could succeed through the critical mass of pursuing simultaneous paths with shared objectives. Multipronged attacks can be very effective even when they seem to be at cross-purposes. I’m thinking of books I’ve written about the fight for women’s voting rights (With Courage and Cloth) or the fight for gay rights (Stonewall). Social revolutions are not neat and tidy. They’re not. We need only look at contemporary headlines from anywhere in the world for a reminder of that reality.

AnnBausumWith so many journalists on-site recording different legs of the march, there must have been a plethora of source material. How did you sort through it all?

I assembled a database of news stories written by national, regional, and local reporters then cross-referenced them for specific details about each day’s walks. Although there was general overlap, no reporter can see everything; each person has recorded a slice of the scene. Often these perspectives support one another to create a broader overview, not unlike the way individual pieces in a jigsaw puzzle become a full picture. But history is like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces, so we keep digging to try to fill in the gaps. I layered in eyewitness accounts from historical interviews, the assessments of scholars, artifacts found during archival research, and a mile-by-mile retracing of the historic route.

I put a lot of weight on archival photos when I research, too, and I had the good fortune to tap into three remarkable collections of images for this project. I reviewed thousands of photographs, either onsite (in Memphis) or online (with collections in California and Alabama), not just in search of illustrations for the book but in an effort to learn more about the walk. Sometimes I discovered details that had been omitted from written accounts (such as the appearance of marchers and spectators); at other times this photographic record offered visual confirmation of written descriptions (for example, by sharing moments from the attack in Canton or of the marches through Philadelphia, MS).

These archives are so remarkable that last summer I wove key images into a visual narrative to mark the walk’s 50th anniversary using social media (see this Storify compilation of my daily on-this-day tweets).

There are a number of parallels between events that took place during the march and recent happenings. How can librarians use The March Against Fear to start conversations on racism and social justice?

History offers us the opportunity to examine themes from the past that may have contemporary echoes, but, since we are one step removed from the action, we can study them with cooler heads. Then, having looked at that earlier instance, we may be able to extrapolate and examine our own world with greater insight and clarity. I encourage educators and readers to build bridges to the past and then survey the present from that base of knowledge. Readers may take individual lessons away with them—just like news reporters who captured their own vantage points of events during the March Against Fear—but those collective lessons can foster greater understanding and respect between us all.

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Della Farrell About Della Farrell

Della Farrell is an Assistant Editor at School Library Journal and Editor of Series Made Simple

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