By Wiley Henry
MEMPHIS, TN – Forrest City (Arkansas) was once a bastion of racial upheaval. Named for the infamous Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Min. Suhkara A. Yahweh knows the city all too well. On Aug. 26, 1969, an angry white mob tried to beat the life out of him after leading a “Walk Against Fear.”
“I noticed two men…one in a suit and the other with jeans on. One had a knife in his hands,” Yahweh remembers. “Then I noticed two Europeans on the right side of me trying to break off this branch trying to hit me with it. The next thing I knew I had come to myself. I was in the gully.”
Yahweh will get a chance to tell the full story of his “Walk Against Fear” and other relevant issues affecting African Americans then and now when he returns to Forrest City on Aug. 17 to keynote the Civil Rights Commemoration Program at Beth Salem Baptist Church, 835 Garland St. The program will begin at 5 p.m.
The commemoration will also mark the 50th anniversary of Yahweh’s “Walk Against Fear,” a peaceful walk he was leading in 1969 from West Memphis to Little Rock to bring attention to injustice there and racial conflict.
On Aug. 18 at 5 p.m. in Memphis, Yahweh and his friends will celebrate his 81st birthday a day earlier at Booth Park at South Parkway East and Texas Street, which coincides with the third annual B.F. Booth Day. Benjamin Franklin Booth (1858-1941), a slave, teacher, principal and attorney, was a distant relative of Yahweh’s.
The skirmish in Forrest City that led to Yahweh’s beatdown is a constant reminder of an era that mirrors racial conflict today. It is an easy topic for Yahweh – who sacrificed life and limb to change the status quo – when he addresses the audience at Beth Salem.
“Min. Yahweh will talk about the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement in Forrest City, and part of that is the Walk Against Fear,” said Frank Shaw III, a retired educator and president of the St. Francis County Branch NAACP, the program sponsor.
“We will talk about the struggle from 1963 to 1969 when Min. Yahweh came to Forrest City,” said Shaw, also on program to speak. He credits Yahweh for his role in initiating incremental changes that eventually came to Forrest City.
“After Yahweh, jobs and everything opened up,” he said.
Known in 1969 as Lance “Sweet Willie Wine” Watson, a 31-year-old member of The Invaders, a local militant civil rights group, Yahweh was already deep in the throes of the “Movement” when the Rev. Cato Brooks Jr. called on him to come to Forrest City to help picket and boycott white merchants.
Brooks, the Rev. J.F. Cooley and other leaders in Forrest City had been organizing a “poor people’s march” across East Arkansas, but postponed it after meeting with then Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller.
“With them calling off the march…we were looking forward to it. So I couldn’t in good faith be part of the decision,” Yahweh said. “So I said what we’d do…I’ll have a walk against fear.”
The first stage of the “Walk Against Fear” began on Yahweh’s birthday, Aug. 19. He said it took him four days to reach Little Rock. Altogether, he had occupied Forrest City for a total of three months trying to tame the rambunctious city.
So Yahweh has much to talk about at Beth Salem. His stories are endless, vivid, and forever inscribed in the annals of history.
“My fingerprints are all over Memphis, Atlanta, Mississippi, Jackson, Carolina, Washington, D.C.,” he said.
He also left his indelible fingerprint in Forrest City, Ark.