Monday, February 3, 2014

Aram Goudsouzian's "Down to the Crossroads"

Aram Goudsouzian is chair of the history department at the University of Memphis. He earned his B.A. from Colby College and his Ph.D. from Purdue University. He is the author of King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, The Hurricane of 1938, and Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon.

Goudsouzian applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear, and reported the following:
While marching past cotton fields in the Mississippi heat, Coby Smith realized that he needed a toilet. He had swallowed a salt tablet that morning to fight off dehydration, and it was making his stomach churn.

The brash young activist was near the head of the column on the Meredith March Against Fear. He had been walking near civil rights leaders and a puttering truck filled with reporters and television cameramen. He slowly drifted back, letting a few hundred marchers past him, and warily eyed the grim-faced Mississippi Highway Patrolmen who were reluctantly protecting this mass demonstration for black freedom. Once behind the patrol cars, he was vulnerable to attacks by the nasty whites who had been constantly heckling the marchers. Before hurrying back to safety, he slipped into the cotton patch and relieved himself.

Page 99 of Down to the Crossroads profiles Smith. He was a bit character in this huge national and international story, but he embodied the forces that were transforming the civil rights movement by June of 1966. The march featured just about every major figure in the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, and involved such dramatic instances as the shooting of James Meredith and a tear gas attack by the Highway Patrol. Most famously, Stokely Carmichael unveiled the new battle cry of “Black Power.”

Smith’s story about his upset stomach is silly and embarrassing, yes, but it was part of his rite of passage. The march converted him into a militant activist. He admired King but came to revere Carmichael. He marched over 200 miles, much of it through lonely and difficult stretches, and ended among thousands of jubilant blacks in downtown Jackson, part of the largest civil rights demonstration in Mississippi history.

Down to the Crossroads tells a big tale about a critical turning point in American history. But while interviewing its participants, I realized that it was also a story about people. Interspersed throughout this narrative are the plights and dramas of “ordinary” marchers, who kept describing how this mass demonstration shaped so many lives. Coby Smith’s tale, which starts on page 99, is one great example.
Visit Aram Goudsouzian's website and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue