The story at last: The chancellor emeritus was indeed a G-man (Part 1)

By Diane Brown, IU Communications Specialist:

The 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches got me thinking about bits and pieces of conversations regarding IUPUI Chancellor Emeritus Gerald L. Bepko  having once been a G-man.

For more than decade I’ve wanted a legitimate opening to question the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law professor about the details, which I knew had something to do with the civil rights movement.

To my surprise and delight, googling his name recently justified requesting an interview for this blog entry.

“What would people find most surprising about you?” a Chicago-Kent College of Law writer had asked Bepko, in a bio posted two years ago when the school designated Bepko as one of 125 “Alumni of Distinction.”

“People would find most surprising that I was an FBI agent for nearly four years, serving my first year in Mississippi at the peak of civil rights activity and the enforcement of new laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 …” the chancellor emeritus replied. “For the following three years I served in New Jersey and New York, where I was nearly killed on an FBI surveillance.”

THEN: FBI Special Agent Gerald L. Bepko, left front, on the last day of the 220-mile Memphis to Jackson, Miss. March Against Fear in June 1966.  (Photo courtesy of Gerald Bepko).

THEN: FBI Special Agent Gerald L. Bepko, left front, on the last day of the 220-mile Memphis to Jackson, Miss. March Against Fear in June 1966. (Photo courtesy of Gerald Bepko).

I had prepared questions about the Selma marches and the civil rights workers whose murders were the basis for the movie “Mississippi Burning.”

Chancellor Bepko politely redirected our conversion.

“The biggest (single) case on which I was involved was the Meredith March in June 1966. I was assigned the day of the shooting and stayed with the march until it ended in Jackson (Miss.) 18 days later,” Bepko said.

He was referring to the march started by James Meredith, who set out June 5, 1966, to walk the 220 miles from Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., on what some say at first was to be a solo civil rights trek.

Meredith, a Mississippi native, had gained national attention four years earlier when he became the first African American to study at Ole Miss. He won that right in a court case with the then future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as his attorney. National guardsmen were called out to quell the violence of those angered by Meredith’s enrollment.

Meredith was in his second year of law school at Columbia University when he started his Memphis-to-Jackson march. According to a 1966 UPI story, Meredith’s goal was to dispel his own fears about living in his native state as well as to urge African Americans to register to vote.

“He wanted to go back to Mississippi and show the people of Mississippi, both white and black, that there was nothing to fear. It was going to be a march against fear,” Bepko said.

Most people understood that to mean that African Americans in Mississippi had nothing to fear when they went to register to vote or to claim any other civil rights because laws were enacted to protect them from the sorts of things that may have happened in Selma, he explained.

“On the second day of his march, he was shot with a shotgun by a deranged hardware store employee from Memphis (Aubrey James Norvell),” Bepko said.

Hospitalized with serious injuries, Meredith encouraged others to take up his cause. People from around the globe responded. From as few as 50 to as many as 400 to 500 people joined the march on a typical day, with the numbers reaching the thousands during the final days.

“All of the civil rights leaders of that era came to the march: Martin Luther King Jr., Hosea Williams from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Floyd McKissick (Congress on Racial Equality), Stokely Carmichael (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) … any other person that was prominent in that era in the civil rights movement was on the march for at least some of the time,” Bepko said.

“For 16 days or so, (the march) had the world’s attention,” said Bepko, who was on duty virtually around the clock during the march, walking almost all the way, and receiving a letter of commendation for that assignment.

Meredith would recuperate and rejoin the march on its final two days.

 

This is the first of a two-part series.  Part 2 will post March 31.

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