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1966 Twenty-five Years Ago

March 2023
1min read

On June 13, by a 5 to 4 majority, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Miranda v. State of Arizona that “the individual is accorded his privilege under the Fifth Amendment” against self-incrimination and that confessions obtained under “custodial interrogation” were invalid if not preceded by a legal warning of the defendant’s rights. “He has a right to remain silent,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for the majority, in language that would soon be echoed by Miranda warnings used nationwide; ”… any statement he does make may be used as evidence against him, and … he has a right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed.”

The decision ended decades of reliance on a vague “voluntariness” test and warned against incommunicado detention and other ways of coercing confessions. Miranda could not guarantee fair play, but it became a minimum standard for police procedure.

Three and a half years after five thousand federal troops had stood guard as he became the first black student at the University of Mississippi, James Meredith on June 5 began a one-man march to encourage black voter registration in the Deep South. He made a conspicuous figure setting out from Memphis, Tennessee, with a carved African walking stick and yellow pith helmet. The trek he planned would take him through two hundred-odd miles of rural Mississippi, past Oxford, where he had attended Ole Miss, past his native Kosciusko, and on to Jackson. Some 450,000 eligible black voters were unregistered in the state, said Meredith, and “if I can do it, maybe they can, too.” On his second day out, as he made his way along U.S. Highway 51, an ambusher near Hernando, Mississippi, shot Meredith in the back. He had walked only twenty-eight miles. The initial Associated Press report pronounced him dead at 6:33 P.M. Radio and television programming across the country was interrupted to give the news of his death. In fact, his wounds were not critical; seventy shotgun pellets scattered across his shoulders, neck, and legs were removed at a nearby hospital. Aubrey James Norvell, an unemployed hardware contractor, confessed to the shooting but was unable to tell police why he had done it.

Civil rights workers continued the march without Meredith until June 26, when he joined them for the final leg of the walk. A crowd of twelve thousand rallied at Jackson to mark the journey’s end.

Meredith had originally planned a lone march because he distrusted civil rights organizations; by the time his registration effort was finished it had turned into a debate over the new concept of “Black Power.” The rally in Jackson gave the term its first national attention. Meredith’s shooting also produced one of the Supreme Court’s important free-speech cases: Street v. New York . Sidney Street heard the mistaken report that Meredith had been shot and presumably killed, took his forty-eight-star flag to a Brooklyn street corner, and burned it, shouting to the crowd that gathered, “If they let that happen to Meredith we don’t need an American flag.” Street was convicted of defacing the American flag; his conviction was overturned by the Court in 1969.

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