In June of 1966, James Meredith, who had broken the color barrier at the University of Mississippi, was shot by a lone gunman as he led a March Against Fear through Mississippi.
As a young reporter for the Mutual Broadcasting System, I was redirected from an assignment at the Kennedy Space Center, to report on the shooting and the march. I flew into Memphis where I saw Dr. Martin Luther King who, along with other civil rights leaders, vowed to continue the march that Meredith had started.
This was the second time I had met Dr. King and had the opportunity to speak to him one-on-one. The previous encounter was two years earlier when I interviewed him after he learned he was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He was an engaging man who knew how to articulate his words. When he spoke, people listened. His demeanor was powerful but compassionate.
Though I didn’t expect him to remember me from our previous meeting, he greeted me as though he had. We spoke exclusively for about five minutes. I recently found the reel-to-reel audio tape on a dusty shelf and as I listened to it, it rekindled memories of my assignment in Mississippi and my interview with Martin Luther King. Reacting to the shooting of Meredith, he told me, “This shooting convinced me that we still have a reign of terror in the South and we have a cancerous disease that must be dealt with in a very serious manner.” He talked about the “jostling winds of violence” that he said “many levels of society must take responsibility for because we have tolerated violence and we have created an atmosphere for it. Political demagogues and others have created the climate for this kind of thing to happen.”
Days later during a break in the march, Dr. King and I sat on a dirt embankment along Highway 51 and chatted over cold cans of soda. I’ll never forget asking him why he risked his life to lead the movement. His words were simple, but eloquent, “For the children, for the children,” he said.