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Kirk’s New Book Chapter Explores Sweet Willie Wine’s 1969 Walk Against Fear

Dr. John Kirk
Dr. John Kirk

A University of Arkansas at Little Rock history professor has written a new book chapter that explores how Black activism in Arkansas changed between the Elaine Massacre in 1919 and Sweet Willie Wine’s Walk Against Fear in 1969.

The chapter appears in a new book, “Race, Labor, and Violence in the Delta: Essays to Mark the Centennial of the Elaine Massacre,” which was published in May by the University of Arkansas Press.

During the Walk Against Fear, Lance “Sweet Willie Wine” Watson, the leader of a Memphis Black power group called the Invaders, led a protest walk from West Memphis to Little Rock in August 1969. The walk mirrored a 1966 protest by James Meredith, the man who integrated the University of Mississippi. Meredith was shot and wounded  during his march against fear across rural Mississippi. Watson’s  protest brought much media attention to civil rights in Arkansas.

“Watson said that it demonstrated African Americans could have free movement across Arkansas, that they could take a stand, and that they didn’t need to be afraid,” Kirk said. “The walk has become an iconic piece of Arkansas civil rights history. A lot of those Delta communities still carry the folklore of Sweet Willie Wine from 1969.”

The chapter focuses on how government responses to Black activism changed over the 50 years between the Elaine Massacre and the Walk Against Fear. During the Elaine Massacre, Gov. Charles Brough called in 500 soldiers from Camp Pike to quell what was called an insurrection at the time, but the government response to the Walk Against Fear was quite different.

“One of the interesting things about the march is how it was policed,” Kirk said. “During the Elaine Massacre, the governor mobilized federal troops that some claim only worsened the situation. Watson’s walk against fear was escorted by the police to make sure he wasn’t attacked. The state knew that would bring unwanted media attention. In some ways, the state’s role in policing the event was completely opposite to the Elaine Massacre. Watson even complimented the police for protecting the walkers.”

Unlike the Elaine Massacre, Watson’s walk in Arkansas was highly publicized during the event and brought a lot of media attention to Eastern Arkansas.

“In 1919, rural Arkansas was cut off from the rest of the world,” Kirk said. “In 1969, Watson started his march with a press conference. He knew that it was riskier for people to act against Black activists with the media watching. The state was aware of the potential negative media attention, so they policed those events quite differently. The role of the state in policing civil rights demonstrations is what changed the most between 1919 and 1969.”

Even with police escorts, Watson’s march was not without conflict. In the small town of Hazen, residents blocked off entrances to the town and armed themselves with guns. The anticipated standoff did not occur when the residents found out that only a small number of people would be walking through their town.

“The walk lasted three days, and it was different on each day,” Kirk said. “There were hundreds of walkers by the time it reached Little Rock. The citizens in Hazen barricaded the town and mobilized the gun club. They were prepared to hunker down and fight off what they believed was a horde of Black activists coming through town. It showed the fear that whites still had of Black activism in the Delta.”

Now in his 80s, Watson, who is now known as Minister Suhkara Yahweh, remains an influential figure in Black activism.

“I interviewed him in 2018 in Forrest City,” Kirk said. “Some of the people in the library there talked with him, and he was treated like a celebrity. There is also an award-winning poem that was based on the march. It is a psychologically powerful piece of Arkansas folklore. I wanted to research and investigate it and inscribe it into history on its 50th anniversary.”