James H. Meredith, who had integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962 at considerable cost in blood and temper, consumed three weeks of my time during the summer of 1966. I was not bored.
Meredith set out in Memphis intending to walk 12 miles south into his home state and on to Jackson to prove that he could do it. He might have intended to walk all the way to the Gulf Coast, but with Meredith you never knew what was in his mind. He dared anybody to stop him. A white man with a shotgun took him up on it and shot him down on the second day out. Didn't hurt him much, but he spent a couple of days in a Memphis hospital having pellets removed from his back. The assailant, Aubrey James Norvell, of a Memphis suburb, confessed and was sentenced to five years in prison. It was just as well that he confessed. Twenty or 30 people saw him do it, including police officers who did not lift a hand to stop him.
I was not one of those witnesses. I missed the shooting because I was with three or four thirsty reporters and photographers drinking soda pop in a country store a few hundred yards back down the road. We didn't know anything had happened until we saw people running down the highway. We all jumped in my rental car and sped to the scene.
When the wires flashed the news of the Meredith shooting, my boss, Claude Sitton, the national editor [of the New York TImes], rushed to the wire-photo machine to scan the pictures coming in. (An AP photographer won a Pulitzer for his photo of Meredith lying on the pavement with his assailant visible in the bushes.) Claude was looking for me in the picture. "Where's Roy Reed!?" he demanded.
I didn't know I was in trouble. It took me about an hour to find a roadside phone and call Claude. During that lapse, the Associated Press had moved an erroneous story from Memphis saying Meredith had been killed. Claude's first question when he heard my voice was not where in the hell I had been but was Meredith alive or dead. I assured him that Meredith was alive. How did I know? Because when I got to him he was lying in the road talking and didn't seem to be seriously hurt.
"Hold on!" Claude said. He turned away to pass the information to his assistants. The Times radio station, WQXR, quickly broadcast the story that Meredith had not been killed. My bacon was saved. I won a publisher's award that month for my two-word report on the telephone: "He's alive."
Back at the scene, I was able to put together a decent enough story in time for our first edition. I was pumping a month's worth of adrenaline by suppertime. I have no idea where I stayed that night or whether I slept in a bed.
On the second day, I managed what I thought was a scoop. I made my way by stealth into Meredith's hospital room after a friendly nurse carried a note to him. He told me, among other things, that his main regret was not having a gun when he headed into Mississippi.
I noticed several other people in the room during the interview. I took them to be nurses and doctors. But one of them walked out with me and identified himself, a little hesitantly, as Bill Kovach of the Nashville Tennessean. When he had seen me leave the knot of reporters at the front door and head upstairs, he figured something was up, and he followed. Would I mind if he used what he had overheard from my interview? What could I say? We both got a story out of it, and Bill went on to high positions at several places including the New York Times. The cunning rascal retired as one of the most distinguished curators in the history of the Nieman Fellows program at Harvard.
Meredith flew home to New York after two days in the hospital. Several civil rights leaders took up his march and carried it on to Jackson. There were notable detours.
One day Martin Luther King and other activists detoured to Philadelphia and marched to the courthouse, where they were blocked at the steps. King stood face to face with Cecil Price, a sheriff's deputy who had helped lynch three civil rights activists in 1964. Behind King were several hundred Negro and white civil rights protesters. Behind Price were a dozen lawmen with pistols on their belts.
Many years later, I was told of a few details about the 1964 lynching that had never been made public. They interested me because of an Arkansas connection. I interviewed Floyd Thomas of El Dorado, a retired FBI agent, for an oral history at the University of Arkansas. I learned that he had spent the summer of 1964 helping search for the bodies of the three murdered men. He told me about a tip by an old Indian from the Choctaw reservation. The man flagged down Thomas and another agent and told them where to find the burned car that had been used by the victims. It was not more than 20 feet from a busy highway, but hidden in a thicket.
Thomas and the other agent speculated that the men had burned to death and that the Klansmen who had killed them had removed the remains and scattered them in the woods. But they found no evidence of that, and the search for the bodies went on.
He said he had learned that the killings were accidental. His account went like this: the Klan's intention was to take the three men to the woods and give them a severe beating and turn them loose. But one of the Klansmen fired his pistol by mistake as he was using it to pistol-whip one of the victims, and the bullet killed one of the others. That left the Klansmen no alternative, as they saw it, except to kill all three.
After the dam holding the bodies had been located, Thomas was part of the crew that dug deep into it to find the corpses. The crew first inserted steel rods into the earth with an augur. When they withdrew the rods, they smelled the rotting flesh.
"A rotten human body smell is different than anything else. It can be a raccoon or anything else, but a human being body, it just smells different. At about three o'clock, we got down to the three bodies lying there. Two white people lying face down with their faces to the west, and the black guy was on the right of them. He was lying face up with his head to the east and his face turned to the south. That's a Ku Klux Klan ritual burial situation."
Before the bodies were removed, the FBI called in local lawmen to witness the removal. Cecil Price was among them. He never showed any reaction, Thomas said — never acknowledging by word or expression that he knew anything about the lynching, even though, we learned later, he had been the deputy who had delivered the hapless victims into the hands of their murderers. At the dam, he grabbed a shovel and went to work with the FBI men, just doing what any good citizen would do.
I remarked to the old federal man that Price had served time in the pen for violating the activists' civil rights and somewhere along the line had got religion and repented. Thomas said, with what I took to be sarcasm, "Oh, all of them do."
On the day of the protest march in Philadelphia, two years after the killings, the protesters on the way to the courthouse had been terrorized by several white people in cars lurching toward them. A television cameraman was jerked out of the way of a pickup as it sped toward him.
I stood a few feet behind King at the courthouse. All the cliches applied: heavy air; tension you could cut with a knife. I remember thinking, This is the day he will die.
King understood that there was no time to linger and give a long speech. He just offered a short prayer, mentioning pointedly that some of the men who had killed Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were probably nearby. "I believe in my heart," King said, "that the murderers are somewhere around me at this moment." Price stood expressionless.
King went on, "I want them to know that we are not afraid. If they kill three of us, they will have to kill all of us."
And then this: "I am not afraid of any man. Whether he is in Mississippi or Michigan, whether he is in Birmingham or Boston. I am not afraid of any man."
Suddenly we heard a gunshot, then another, and another. People screamed and ran. I looked at Price and the other armed men. None of them had taken a gun out of a holster. I looked up toward a second-story building, searching for a gunman. I saw no one. Then a more alert newsman solved the mystery. What we heard was not gunfire. Some fool, probably a Kluxer with what he regarded as a sense of humor, had thrown cherry bombs onto the pavement in the middle of the crowd.
King and his handlers left very quickly. He was hustled into a waiting car. The followers ran, pursued by yelling white men. The marchers were accompanied by a pickup truck in case of an emergency. Panic-stricken young people piled onto the pickup bed as it crept through the throng. A white girl tried to board but was caught by two or three local men. Friends on the pickup grabbed her arms and pulled as the white men held on to her feet. For a long time she was suspended above the ground, moving through the air in slow motion until her captors finally lost their grip and she was hauled across the tailgate and into the truck.
The local whites were not finished. They attacked the marchers with fists and clubs for several blocks, and young black men fought back. One white guy with a five-foot wooden club was separated from his group and soundly thrashed.
The marchers finally got to the black neighborhood. That evening a band of whites drove through and attacked the Philadelphia headquarters of the Freedom Democratic Party with gunfire. The black occupants fired back and shot one of the assailants in the head and neck with buckshot. He was not hurt seriously, more's the pity.
Half a dozen of us covered the gun battle by phone from a motel room in Yazoo City, about 75 miles away at the edge of the Mississippi Delta. Our designated man on the phone had called the headquarters and was talking to Ralph Featherstone, field secretary of SNCC, while the battle was going on. Featherstone at one point asked our man to hold the line while he went to a window and fired back at some men who were shooting at the house from a blue car at the curb. Our man relayed information to the rest of us as he got it and we made notes.
When the gunfire ended, we went to our own rooms, updated our stories, and phoned them to our papers, wire services and TV networks. It was an inconvenient way to cover a story, but inconvenience was a job description for us at that time.
We had rented rooms in Yazoo City because we needed lodging near the next day's march. We did not seriously look for rooms in Philadelphia. Even if there had been vacancies, which was doubtful, none of us relished the idea of spending the night there. We had heard the stories from reporters like Claude Sitton and Karl Fleming about being accosted on the sidewalks by white thugs looking for outside agitators and visiting newsmen.
During the tumult and violence after the demonstrators had fled from the courthouse, several of us reporters melted into the angry white crowd. We resorted to the tactic of pretending to have nothing to do with it all. I chose to become a shoe salesman. I had noticed a shoe store nearby, and that seemed to offer a believable identity. I kept my hands in my pockets and my notebook out of sight and just watched and listened as I drifted along, keeping the action in view.
Many of us carried what we called the Claude Sitton memorial notebook. That was a standard stenographer's pad that had been cut off several inches from the bottom. The remainder fit nicely into a hip pocket. Claude had persuaded a supply store in Atlanta to devise the notebook some years earlier, and there had been a steady market for them.
The march resumed a day after the Philadelphia detour, and we fought heat, flies, and boredom. There were diversions. A cardboard box appeared on the back of a flatbed truck that had been rented by news organizations for the convenience of photographers and TV cameramen. The driver opened the box after it had sat there several days. A copperhead snake, understandably irritated at being cooped up so long, leapt out, scattering journalists as it hurried away.
The Meredith march ended with a noisy rally in Jackson. It had provided two weeks of news, but it had done more. First, it proved that Meredith had grown too optimistic living in New York. It still was not safe for a black man to assert himself boldly across the landscape of Mississippi. Second, the march launched a new rallying cry, one that proved to be a turning point in the civil rights movement.
It happened at Greenwood, one of the overnight stops. Stokely Carmichael took the platform in a bad mood. He had just been released from jail, one more time.
"This is the 27th time I have been arrested," he said. "I ain't going to jail no more. The only way we gonna stop them white men from whupping us is to take over." Then he said it was time for the movement to drop its slogan of the past six years, "Freedom Now," and adopt a new and more demanding one: "Black Power!"
The crowd instantly took up the cry and made it ring through the church sanctuary: "Black Power!" The scene was broadcast on television screens across America that evening. The new slogan spread throughout the movement wherever younger black people gathered. It also threatened to divide the leadership for a time. Older leaders shrank from it and thought it was intentionally provocative to white people who might be sympathetic. But the young activists reveled in the consternation it caused.
I had a personal encounter with Black Power later that summer. I was at home in Atlanta one night when I got word that a riot had broken out on Boulevard Street a couple of miles south. The night before, in another neighborhood, a Negro youth had been killed and a white policeman wounded in an eruption of racial violence. I drove to the scene on Boulevard, parked on a side street, and walked toward the sound of the commotion. I could see a sizable crowd of what seemed to be young black men making its way down the street toward me. They were shouting, cursing, and smashing shop windows as they came.
I was standing in front of a row of stores with one or two other people when Andy Young joined us. We suddenly realized that while we talked, the mob — that's what it was — had come closer. It was no more than half a block away and moving steadily. Andy turned to a young black woman and asked, "Do you have a car?" She said she did. He said, "Put Mr. Reed in it and get him out of here." She and I walked fast to her car, and she drove me to mine. I moved it two or three blocks away where I could still see and hear.
I spoke to [fellow reporter] Jack Nelson later, and he told me he had been watching from another point on the street and had almost been trapped. He outran half a dozen guys down a side street and jumped into his car. Jim Giltmier, a white television reporter for WSB in Atlanta — an acquaintance of mine from Arkansas, where he had worked as a newspaper reporter — was covering the disturbance farther down Boulevard Street. Somebody hit him with a brick and knocked him unconscious. He was hospitalized for some time, and when he came out he wore a steel plate in his skull.
I remembered a conversation I'd had a day or two earlier with a SNCC activist named Willie Ricks. Emotions were running high in Atlanta's black neighborhoods. Just hours before I saw Willie, I had been jostled in a crowd of black youngsters in another part of town. A girl had spat on me.
I had known Willie for some time as an enthusiastic functionary in SNCC. He had worked in almost every state in the Deep South and had made a name as a reliable organizer and crowd warmer. He and I knew each other well enough to call each other by our first names. That did not mean we were friends. He was about 15 years my junior, and I would have felt silly calling him Mr. Ricks. On his side, he was not about to demean himself by using a courtesy title on any white man during that era. No one was more firmly anti-establishmentarian than an angry black kid during the 1960s. Aside from that, all of us involved in the civil rights story on both sides had fallen into the first-name habit simply as a means of easing communication.
Willie had spotted me sitting in my car during the break in the action, and he got in and sat down. He seemed to need rest as much as I did. We chatted for a while, not about the weather but in a rather offhanded way about what had been happening in the streets. Then he started speaking philosophically. There was going to be a revolution in this country, he told me. In fact, it was already under way. It was going to become more widespread, and it was going to end in the deaths of a lot of white people. He turned toward me so that he could look into my eyes. He said, "I have to tell you that when the revolution gets here, if I ever see you in the sights of my gun, I'll pull the trigger." He said it in an even voice, matter-of-factly. I don't remember how I responded. I made no attempt to pass it off as a joke. Willie was serious.
My friend Andy Young went on to be a U.S. congressman and mayor of Atlanta. I lost track of Willie. I learned long after our encounter in Atlanta that Stokely Carmichael had been mistakenly credited with coining the slogan "Black Power" that night in Greenwood. Willie Ricks was the first to try out the new slogan. He had used it in front of a crowd in some little town where no national reporters were present. But other SNCC people were there. They saw the reaction that Willie got and knew that a new psychological warfare weapon had been discovered.
I Googled Willie a generation later and found some photos. He apparently went on stirring up people on two or three continents after the glory days of the Southern movement. In one photo taken in 2009, he is wearing a colorful African robe. His hair and beard are white, and he is wearing specs. He looks like a cranky old grandfather.
Stokely Carmichael declared in Greenwood that he had been arrested 27 times and he would not go to jail again. He was mistaken. Two months later, he landed in jail in Atlanta charged with inciting a riot. He refused to make bail.
Whether he incited a riot in Atlanta turned on a fine legal point. There was no doubt that he incited people. So did every other activist of any talent at all. But he and the others never told a crowd, "You all go out there and have a riot!" If the crowd got worked up because of his fiery rhetoric — well, that was not his problem.
Over the course of those few days in Atlanta — "The city too busy to hate" — we white reporters were left with no safe place to stop and catch our breath. Black neighborhoods, once our sanctuary, were now off limits. People occasionally asked me in later years whether covering the troubles in Northern Ireland was more dangerous than covering civil rights in the South. No, I had to tell them. In Northern Ireland, we just lay in bed and listened to the bombs exploding in pubs around town. Having to avoid the pubs was a small inconvenience, but we lived with it.
More important, the Atlanta troubles widened a gap between the nonviolent activists led by King and the Black Power advocates, who eventually coalesced into the Black Panther Party. Stokely Carmichael was its "prime minister." The Panthers spread across the nation while King and his followers expanded their influence into Northern cities, all beyond my purview. Stokely Carmichael eventually changed his name and moved to Africa. He died in 1998.
There was one more act of racial violence that I dealt with that fall before leaving it all behind for the peaceful precincts of Washington, D.C. In Wetumpka, Ala., a black citizen named James Earl Motley, 27, was beaten to death by a sheriff's deputy. He had mouthed off to the deputy during an early-morning traffic stop. Motley was a passenger in the car and had refused to get into the sheriff's car. His body was removed from the local jail later in the morning. An autopsy performed that night found that he had died of "multiple skull fractures." He had no known connection to the civil rights movement.
The local authorities refused to charge the deputy. When a federal prosecutor put the deputy on trial and charged him with depriving Motley of his civil rights, the jury acquitted him. Apparently, the jurors chose to believe the deputy's story that the man had not died of the blows administered by the deputy with his slapjack — blows that had left the back seat of Motley's friend's car covered with blood — but from injuries sustained when he fell against a fence post on the walk from the sheriff 's car to the jail.