March Against Fear (1969)

aka: Walk Against Fear (1969)

For four days between August 20 and 24, 1969, Lance Watson (alias Sweet Willie Wine), leader of Memphis, Tennessee, black power group the Invaders, led what he called a walk against fear across eastern 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 [a little book of her days], in 2010, a testimony to how long the episode has lingered in the collective memory.

Born and raised in Memphis, Watson joined the U.S. Army at seventeen. 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 movements. He was in Memphis when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968—and 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 DC as part of the Poor People’s Campaign run by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Watson and the Invaders ran security at Resurrection City, an encampment constructed on the National Mall as part of the campaign.

Watson’s walk in Arkansas grew out of his engagement with local civil rights struggles in Forrest City (St. Francis County), led by the Reverend James F. Cooley and factory worker Cato Brooks Jr. Cooley and Brooks were campaigning for swifter school desegregation and more job opportunities for African Americans. After conflicts escalated, Cooley threatened to hold a “poor people’s march” across Arkansas to pressure the white community to implement changes. This brought the intervention of Governor 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 came up with an agreement on a number of action points to improve race relations. Satisfied, Cooley and Brooks agreed to postpone the march for thirty 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 (Crittenden County) to Little Rock (Pulaski County). 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, the man who integrated the University of Mississippi (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 Stokely Carmichael, chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), popularizing the slogan of “black power” that quickly became the clarion call for a new black youth movement.

Watson began his 135-mile walk to Little Rock along Highway 70 on Wednesday, August 20, starting in West Memphis at 8:07 a.m. Three fellow Invaders and two young Forrest City residents joined him. At 7:00 p.m. the walkers reached their first destination of Forrest City. National Guardsmen had been deployed there to prevent any trouble. Farther down Highway 70 in Hazen (Prairie County), white citizens spent the day readying for the arrival of Watson. Mayor Jerry J. Screeton, a former state senator, led the resistance. 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 August 21, Watson and eleven people set out from Forrest City. The size of the walking column varied from two to twenty throughout the day. There were several minor incidents, but the walk finished as planned in Brinkley (Monroe County), where fifty black residents welcomed the walkers. On August 22, Watson and twenty-five people set off from Brinkley City Park at 8:00 a.m. As they entered Hazen later that day, sixteen 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 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.

On August 23, Watson set off at 9:00 a.m. from just east of Carlisle (Lonoke County). Between four and fifty people joined him at various points. More than thirty African Americans, clapping and singing freedom songs, walked into North Little Rock (Pulaski County) at 6:30 that evening. On August 24, Watson and forty-three people set off at 10:45 a.m. from outside First American Bank’s Prothro Junction branch on the outskirts of North Little Rock to the Arkansas State Capitol. Another 100 people joined them on the capitol steps. Watson was the star attraction at a rally that began shortly after 1:00 p.m.

Although Watson’s walk passed with relatively little incident, back in Forrest City the stabbing of a white grocery store owner by an Invader, and the rape of a white girl, inflamed tensions. On August 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 September 14. Three hundred African Americans 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 traveled back to Arkansas periodically over the years to join further protest efforts in the state. Watson—as Minister Suhkara A. Yahweh—remains active in community affairs in Memphis.

For additional information:
Deaderick, Michael R. “Racial Conflict in Forrest City: The Trial and Triumph of Moderation in an Arkansas Delta Town.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 69 (Spring 2010): 1–27.

“‘Invader,’ Head Says He’ll Hold His own March.” Arkansas Gazette, August 20, 1969, p. 1B.

Jordan, Wayne. “Police, Reporters Outnumber Blacks as March Begins.” Arkansas Gazette, August 21, 1969, p. 1B.

Kirk, John. “Walk against Fear: 50 Years Ago, Sweet Willie Wine Took a Stand in the Arkansas Delta.” Arkansas Times, April 2019, pp. 85–86. Online at https://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/sweet-willie-wine-took-a-stand-in-the-arkansas-delta/Content?oid=28987922 (accessed June 19, 2019).

“Sweet Willie’s Small-scale March Attracts Publicity on Large Scale.” Arkansas Gazette, August 22, 1969, p. 1B.

“Watson Agrees to Arrest; Forrest City Rally Quiet.” Arkansas Gazette, September 13, 1969, pp. 1A, 2A.

Woodruff, John. “‘Beautiful,’ Says Wine As Walkers Reach NLR Edge.” Arkansas Gazette, August 24, 1969, p. 2A.

Wright, C. D. One With Others [a little book of her days]. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2010.

John A. Kirk
University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Last Updated: 06/19/2019