For four days between Aug. 20 and 24, 1969, Lance Watson (alias Sweet Willie Wine), the leader of Memphis Black Power group the Invaders, led a walk against fear across Arkansas. The walk became an iconic episode in the state’s civil rights history and the stuff of local folklore. The protest inspired an award-winning long-form poem by Arkansas native C.D. Wright, “One with Others,” in 2010, a testimony to how long it has lingered in the collective memory.
Born and raised in Memphis, Watson joined the U.S. Army at 17. After receiving a discharge, he fell into a life of crime, which led to two stretches in jail. Upon release, Watson became involved in the civil rights and Black Power movement. He was in Memphis when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, close enough to the Lorraine Motel to hear the gunshot. Later that year, Watson joined the Invaders in organizing a caravan of protesters on a journey to Washington, D.C., as part of the Poor People’s Campaign, run by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Watson and the Invaders ran security at Resurrection City, an encampment constructed on the National Mall as part of the campaign.
Watson’s walk against fear in Arkansas grew out of his engagement with local civil rights struggles in Forrest City, led by Rev. James F. Cooley and factory worker Cato Brooks Jr. Cooley and Brooks were campaigning for swifter school desegregation and more job opportunities for blacks. After escalating conflict, Cooley threatened to hold a “poor people’s march” across Arkansas to pressure the white community to implement changes. This brought the intervention of Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller at the request of local white leaders who felt the proposed march would lead to violence. Rockefeller established a committee to investigate. The investigation, which opened a dialogue between the black and white communities, came up with an agreement on a number of action points to improve race relations. Satisfied with the agreement, Cooley and Brooks agreed to postpone the march for 30 days to see what changes would be made.
Within hours of Cooley and Brooks announcing the postponement of their poor people’s march, Watson announced that he would undertake a “walk against fear” from West Memphis to Little Rock. Watson and the Invaders had been working with Cooley and Brooks since April 1969. Although refraining from criticizing the two local leaders directly, Watson insisted that the momentum of recent demonstrations should be continued. Watson’s walk echoed an earlier protest by James Meredith, who integrated Ole Miss in 1962. In 1966, Meredith set off on a one-man “march against fear” across rural Mississippi from Memphis to Jackson. Soon after setting off, Meredith was shot and wounded. Major national civil rights organizations took up the cause and completed the journey. The event is best remembered for Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairman Stokely Carmichael’s popularizing the slogan of “black power” that quickly became the clarion call for a new black youth movement.
Watson, who had just turned 31, and was married with two children, began his 135-mile walk to Little Rock along U.S. Highway 70 on Wednesday, Aug. 20, starting in West Memphis at 8:07 a.m. Watson was joined by three fellow Invaders and two young Forrest City residents. Five Arkansas State Police cars and a dozen reporters and photographers accompanied them. At a press conference in front of West Memphis City Hall, Watson told reporters, “We’re going to see if black people can walk in Arkansas.” The walk was “to keep people from thinking there’s been a sellout” in Forrest City and also a memorial to a “black brother,” 19-year-old Lee Williams, who had been shot, run over and killed in Benton the previous Sunday.
Following a morning rain shower, the temperature swiftly rose into the mid-90s. Five miles outside West Memphis, eight blacks from Earle and Parkin joined the walk for about 10 miles, while others participated at various points along the way. The walk attracted curiosity from other blacks and whites who “watched silently from country stores, sharecropper shacks, front porches and the roadside.” The walkers gave Black Power clenched-fist salutes to black drivers who passed by, which were frequently returned through car windows. At 7 p.m. the walkers reached Forrest City. National guardsmen had been deployed there to prevent any trouble from occurring.
Further down U.S. Hwy. 70, in Hazen, white citizens had spent the day readying for the arrival of Watson. Mayor Jerry J. Screeton, a former state senator, led the resistance. As Arkansas Gazette reporter Matilda Tuohey described the scene: “At every entrance to the city, except the highways, and at the intersection of every city street with Highway 70 were large rice combines and barricades manned by lone men or groups of men, all carrying shotguns and wearing white helmets and hunting vests crammed with bullets.”
On Aug. 21, Watson and 11 people set out from Forrest City. The size of the walking column varied from two to 20 throughout the day as the rain steadily came down. There were several minor incidents along the way, but the walk finished as planned in Brinkley where 50 black residents welcomed the walkers. The group assembled at City Park alongside the downtown Cotton Belt Route railroad tracks. There, “the walkers sat on the grass and ate neckbones and blackeyed peas” and “sipped soft drinks and sang.” Watson told the press that despite his sore feet and aching legs, he intended to walk the full 22 miles the following day to face the barricades in Hazen.
On Aug. 22, Watson and 25 people set off from Brinkley City Park at 8 a.m. As they entered Hazen later that day, 16 uniformed state troopers and five members of the Criminal Investigation Division joined them. The expected conflict did not arise. The previous day, Mayor Screeton had sheepishly withdrawn the armed guard and blockades from the city, claiming that he had “been misled by news accounts of the number that would come through the town on the walk.”
Watson, along with three women from Forrest City, formed the main walking party into Hazen. One woman held a red Bible high in front of her face and recited Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil.” Watson waved the peace “V” sign and gave the Black Power salute. “Now, I see this fear has been broken by the reception we’ve received,” Watson triumphantly told reporters. “This is one of the better things that has happened to Hazen — Hazen itself being challenged.” Meanwhile, Mayor Screeton scowled in the doorway of his Prairie County Bank as the walkers passed right by him. “I came and saw and walked through Hazen,” Watson told the press that night.
On Aug. 23, Watson set off at 9 a.m. from just east of Carlisle. Between four to 50 people joined him along the way at various points. At Galloway, Watson went into a closed 15-minute meeting with Bobby Brown, president of Little Rock’s Black Power group Black United Youth and the younger brother of Minnijean Brown, one of the Little Rock Nine. Brown had arrived with 25 cars containing 50 BUY members, who congregated near the County Merchant Store. Watson and Brown discussed overnight accommodations for walkers in the Little Rock area. More than 30 blacks, handclapping and singing freedom songs, walked into North Little Rock at 6:30 p.m. that evening. “It was beautiful,” said Watson of the walk. “It served its purpose.”
On Aug. 24, Watson and 43 people set off at 10:45 a.m. from outside First American Bank’s Prothro Junction branch on the outskirts of North Little Rock, taking the short 6-mile walk to a rally on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol. The group marched along U.S. Hwy. 70 to Washington Avenue in North Little Rock, across the Main Street Bridge into Little Rock, and then down Main Street to Capitol Avenue before heading west to the Capitol. Watson led the procession. By the time he arrived at the Capitol, there were 150 people walking with him. Another 100 people waited on the Capitol steps. Watson was the star attraction at the rally, which began shortly after 1 p.m. A number of other speakers were present, including Bobby Brown, who said the rally was historic because it was the first time that black people in the city had gathered at the Capitol “without asking permission.” Brown mocked the fact that white people had been terrified at the prospect of a few black people walking across the state.
Although Watson’s walk against fear passed with relatively little incident, once out of the media spotlight he felt the full repercussions of his actions. In Forrest City, the stabbing of a white grocery store owner by an Invader before the march and later allegations of the rape of a white girl had inflamed tensions. On Aug. 26, hundreds of whites began picketing City Hall demanding an end to demonstrations. The crowd attacked Watson, a local newspaper reporter and a local radio announcer. Watson found himself back in Little Rock — this time in the hospital with a broken elbow and various cuts and bruises. Watson pledged to return to Forrest City to hold a “freedom rally” on Sept. 14. Three hundred blacks turned up to the rally, but Watson was absent under threat of arrest.
Soon after, the main protagonists left Forrest City: Cooley took up a teaching position at Shorter College in North Little Rock; Brooks moved to work on civil rights projects in other Arkansas towns; and Watson returned to Memphis. Although the demonstrations won some concessions in Forrest City, racial tensions continued to simmer there. Watson came back to Arkansas periodically over the years to join further protest efforts in the state. Today, Watson — who is now Minister Suhkara A. Yahweh — remains active in community affairs in Memphis.
Watson’s walk against fear is evocative of the demonstrations of the civil rights era and illustrates how their spectacle played an important role in bringing attention to racial injustice. The national press avidly covered events in Arkansas, as did the state’s newspapers. The memory of the walk remains potent 50 years later. Yet, with a white population determined to resist change, local black people in Forrest City found it difficult to make a lasting impact. Though the pressure exerted at the time led to some short-term concessions, the racial hierarchy remained intact. There was still much work to be done.
Looking back today, Watson believes the most important legacy of his walk was “to get the fear out of the mind” of black people and to encourage them to insist on being “treated like a human being.” By demonstrating the capacity of black people to stand up to the white power structure, Watson laid the groundwork for the ongoing struggles that followed.
John A. Kirk is the Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. His ninth book, “The Civil Rights Movement: A Documentary Reader,” will be published later this year by Wiley.