By WILLIAM JOHNSON
Author and a former president of Alliance Quebec
Thursday, November 6, 2008
The miracle has happened. The United States has fulfilled at last the long-delayed founding promise of 1776 in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."
The unalienable right of liberty for all was achieved only at the price of a civil war and hundreds of thousands of deaths in battle. Equality was longer in coming. I witnessed the last throes of desegregation.
In 1966, the black man who had desegregated the University of Mississippi, James Meredith, decided to march from Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., in what he called a "march against fear." He wanted to inspire Mississippi's blacks to overcome their fear of lynching, dare to sit at the front of the bus and dare to vote in elections.
At Ole Miss, he'd been protected day and night by federal marshals. But now he set off unprotected on June 5, 1966, with a few companions. The next day, at Hernando, just inside Mississippi, a sniper with a shotgun hit him in the back with birdshot. Mr. Meredith, wounded, was taken to hospital.
I was travelling with my wife and three-year-old son when I caught the news in a bar in Selma, Ala. Though a Canadian, I felt personally involved. I had been a student at the University of California at Berkeley for three years. My son was born there. We immediately drove to Hernando in our VW van to join any protest. In fact, the leaders of the civil-rights movement, Martin Luther King and others, gathered in Memphis and then headed to Hernando to take up the march where Mr. Meredith had fallen.
So we marched through Mississippi, singing freedom songs. "And before I'll be a slave/ I'll be buried in my grave/ And go home to my Lord and be free." The first night, our family was put up in a black family's home in the ghetto of Hernando, along with a black university professor who had come from California to join the protest. He had been born and raised in Mississippi. The next morning, at breakfast, he told us: "I woke up at 4 o'clock thinking, if they're going to bomb the house, it will be now." That was my introduction to black life in Mississippi.
Local black communities and some white sympathizers gave us food. Our family slept in our van, which was equipped as a camper. But most slept in huge tents while guards patrolled the outskirts. Dr. King would be spirited away at night to a motel in Memphis - the same Lorraine Motel where, two years later, he would be assassinated. But Stokely Carmichael, head of the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee, and other radical leaders would be roaming around in the dark, talking, discussing, urging the new slogan of "Black Power" - competing with Dr. King's "Freedom Now."
During the day, some of us with vehicles would go out in the cotton fields to urge black workers to register to vote. In my VW, I would then pick them up after work and drive them to the registration bureau. There was a pervasive sense of fear whenever we were away from the main body of the march. All it would take was one cracker.
In Canton, Mississippi state troopers ordered everyone to vacate the big park where the tents had been pitched. When we refused, they fired tear gas, then charged, swinging their batons and hitting everyone they could reach. About 50 people were sent to hospital.
On June 26, the marchers arrived in Mississippi. The day before, Mr. Meredith, released from hospital, joined the march, the speeches, the freedom songs of defiance, notably We Shall Overcome. I felt I had taken part in history.
In the United States, anyone with the slightest trace of black pigmentation is considered to be black, with all that has implied. On Tuesday, a black man was elected America's president, the most powerful person in the world. Today, we can all sing, "We have overcome."