“Turn this Town Out”: Stokely Carmichael, Black Power, and the March against Fear

Today’s blog was written by Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Supervisory Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

The March against Fear that took place in June 1966, is considered the last great march against racism of the 1960s Civil Rights era in the South. Participants of this march included the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). After activist James Meredith was shot in the leg on day two, these organizations continued where he had to leave off. During this march from Memphis, TN to Jackson, MS, the evolving ideologies of these organizations clashed, thus marking a shift from an era of mostly passive/nonviolent action to more active and direct protest. Additional details on the Meredith March are discussed by Jamie White, former National Declassification Center (NDC) employee, in his February 5, 2014 blog, “James Meredith and his March against Fear.”

RG 65 Classification 44 (Civil Unrest) Headquarters Case Files, (National Archives Identifier 2329984) contains correspondence, memorandums, photographs, newspaper clippings, reports, transcripts, and telegrams relating to violations of civil rights laws. Case file #44-33352, Mississippi (1966) Meredith March, Stokely Carmichael consists of investigative documentation regarding the March against Fear. Several of the reports and statements in this case file refers to the actions that occurred on June 16, 1966 in Greenwood, Mississippi.

During the march, Stokely Carmichael, who was the current Chairman of SNCC, used his rhetoric and passion to alter the direction of the Civil Rights movements towards a black power agenda. Carmichael, a 24-year old, recent graduate from Howard University became active with SNCC in 1961. He participated in voter registration in the South and spent time at Parchman State Prison Farm in Mississippi for attempting to integrate passenger trains. In 1965, Carmichael assisted black Alabamians with their voter registration efforts and was exposed to the techniques and ideologies of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO). The LCFO used the black panther as its symbol, members openly carried guns, and they believed in “black power for black people.” The LCFO, along with SNCC ran its candidates against the all-white democrat party members in Alabama elections.

FBI Case File 44-33352_Page_23

On June 16, 1966, marchers began to set-up camp on the grounds of the Stone Street Elementary School in Greenwood, Mississippi. There was some confusion as to whether or not the marchers had permission to set up tents on the public school’s grounds. Local white officials confronted the marchers and told them they were not allowed on the school’s property. Carmichael, Robert Smith, and Bruce Bains continued to pitch tents and threaten to have marchers “turn this town out” if arrested. The three men were arrested and charged with trespassing.

Carmichael was released from jail several hours later. He immediately went to address the 1,500 marchers at a nearby rally. Fellow SNCC member Willie Ricks, who had been prepping marchers all day, encouraged Carmichael to use the slogan “Black Power” during the speech. Ricks and Carmichael had become familiar with the phrase black power by watching its use with the LCFO, and defined it as a call for black political and economic power. And on the night of June 16, 1966, Carmichael proclaimed to the crowd, “We been saying freedom for six years and we ain’t got nothin. What we got to start saying now is Black Power! We want Black Power.”

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of when Carmichael and other marchers shifted the Civil Rights agenda from freedom now to Black Power. Many African Americans began to embraced the notions of black self-empowerment, political power, and economic independence. At the conclusion of this march, SCLC began protesting against economic inequality and the Vietnam War, SNCC’s new leadership focused on black power and Pan-Africanism, and CORE moved towards economic empowerment and black power.


[SAVE-THE-DATE. October 2016, The Say It Loud! Employee Affinity Group along with the National Archives Foundation will be hosting a multi-generational panel discussion on Black Power titled “Revolutionary Movements: Then and Now –  Black Power and Black Lives Matter” at the National Archives at Washington, D. C. Stay tuned for more details.]

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