march against fear 1966

Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Meredith and Floyd B. McKissick lead a march in Mississippi in 1966. (Bob Fitch photography archive/Stanford University Libraries)

Hooks Institute Producing Documentary on James Meredith's 1966 March Against Fear

Film to explore pivotal yet often overlooked moment in Civil Rights Movement

Oct. 5, 2023 —The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, committed to preserving and sharing the untold stories of Civil Rights heroes through documentaries, will produce a new work that shines a light on a pivotal moment in U.S. history: the James Meredith March Against Fear of 1966. This documentary will explore the enduring impact of this historic march on the Civil Rights Movement and American society.

The first Black man to enroll at the University of Mississippi, Meredith embarked on a solo journey from Memphis to Jackson, Miss., in 1966. His mission was to draw attention to the persistent racism and voter discrimination that plagued the American South by proving that a lone African American man could walk through Mississippi without harm. 

But his quest was almost over before it even began when a white man by the name of James Norvell shot and injured Meredith shortly after he entered Mississippi. This act of violence ignited a spark that would lead to the last great march in the Civil Rights Movement.

Prominent civil rights activists and organizations—including Stokely Carmichael's Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Dr. Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Floyd McKissick's Congress for Racial Equality (CORE)—rallied in Meredith's honor. The march swelled to include approximately 15,000 participants, making it the largest march in Mississippi's history. During a pivotal rally, Carmichael famously first proclaimed the term "Black Power," advocating for self-determination and Black pride within the Civil Rights Movement.

In addition to a September 2023 interview with Meredith, interviews with civil rights historians and other activists from the era explore the historical context and continuing relevance of Meredith's March Against Fear of 1966. 

Dr. Aram Goudsouzian, Bizot Family Professor of History at the University of Memphis and author of "Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear," serves as the principal historical consultant for the documentary, bringing invaluable expertise to the project. 

"Researching and writing 'Down to the Crossroads' was my greatest privilege as a historian," said Goudsouzian. "I'm honored that the Hooks Institute is bringing this story to the screen."  

One person profoundly affected by the demonstration was John Riley who, as a child, witnessed Meredith walking down Highway 51 on day one of his march less than five miles from the spot where he was shot. 

“Not quite eight years old, I had only a slight sense of the gravity of the moment when my father, an Ole Miss alumnus, spoke to Meredith for several minutes at the edge of our lawn. The next day, my recognition of the seriousness of the cause grew,” Riley recounted. “I recall asking my mother after Meredith had been shot and driven back to a Memphis hospital if all the black people who did marches like this would be killed some day. It is a question that doesn’t sound so innocent in hindsight.”

Riley has generously provided the initial funding for this documentary. Over the past six years, he has supported film and book projects depicting key figures in Memphis history such as Ernest Withers and Robert Johnson. Meredith’s March Against Fear in early June 1966 remains a catalyst for Riley’s commitment to preserving the history of those times.

The Hooks Institute strongly encourages anyone who participated in or witnessed this watershed moment in Civil Rights history to contact John Riley at johnriley0731@gmail.com.

This documentary is the third feature-length film produced by the Hooks Institute following the success of “Duty of the Hour” in 2016, an exploration of the life and times of Benjamin L. Hooks. WKNO-TV in Memphis and KCET in Los Angeles, the country's second-largest public television station, both aired “Duty of the Hour.” In April 2022, the Hooks Institute premiered its documentary "Facing Down Storms: Memphis and the Making of Ida B. Wells,” exploring how Wells advanced the cause for civil rights in Memphis during the late 1800s, leading to her international campaign against lynching. Plans are underway for national distribution of the Wells documentary. 

About the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute

The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change is a University of Memphis interdisciplinary center whose mission is teaching, studying, and promoting civil rights and social change. Through various programs, including community outreach, faculty research initiatives, community service projects, thought-provoking documentaries, media, conferences and lectures, the Hooks Institute catalyzes local and national civil and human rights scholarship.  


John Riley at johnriley0731@gmail.com

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