Civil Rights Literature Returns USM Students to the Movement in Hattiesburg

On the Trail of Freedom Summer 1964

Students at the University of Southern Mississippi who enrolled in a “Civil Rights Literature” course might not have initially expected to find themselves on the trail of Freedom Summer on a dreary, fall day. However, once they started down Hwy 59 and exited onto Monroe Road, their first stop was at the home of slain civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer.  On November 5, 2012, Dr. Sherita L. Johnson led her English class throughout Hattiesburg, along the historic route of landmarks that reveals the town’s past and African Americans’ struggles to achieve justice and equality.

The Civil Rights Movement was a pivotal moment in modern American history. News media recorded the tragic incidents and victories that changed our ideas and laws about U.S. citizenship. In 1964, “Freedom Summer” was one of the most significant events that took place in the South. Civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) concentrated on Mississippi to bring attention to the extreme racism and segregated culture in the state. Leading civil rights activists worked to secure voting rights for African Americans and to integrate public facilities throughout the South. For these reasons, Dr. Johnson’s students learned that reading civil rights literature requires an understanding of laws, racial politics, people, places, events, and texts that document a long history of inequality in the United States.

Fortunately for this class, their unofficial tour guide was Mrs. Peggy Jean Connor. She was invited by the professor to surprise her class since they had only been introduced to Mrs. Connor during their study of the archives found in McCain library on campus. Mrs. Connor was State Executive Secretary of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), Treasurer of the COFO-Hattiesburg Project, and an MFDP delegate to the Democratic Party's convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in August, 1964. Her first-hand accounts about the movement were “priceless,” according to one student.

Another memorable stop on the tour was at St. Paul United Methodist Church. Students were greeted by the Pastor Vickie Sizemore-Baldwin and Henry Bethley when they arrived at the church. “I really wanted students to experience the history as much as possible. So stopping at one of the major freedom school sites was planned as the grand finale,” says Dr. Johnson, who is an Associate Professor of English and the Interim Director of USM’s Center for Black Studies. Sitting in the pews and standing downstairs in the basement where freedom classes were held, the USM students realized how important were black churches like St. Paul United Methodist as not just places of worship but also of political action.

Time constraints prevented Dr. Johnson and her class from taking the full Freedom Summer ’64 tour out to Palmer’s Crossing.  Yet, what they learned about Hattiesburg during the Civil Rights Movement has helped the students to gain a greater appreciation for the rights we might take for granted as U.S. citizens today.  Civil rights literature—poetry, fiction, autobiographies, and even speeches—reveals the culture of segregation that inspired writers to create these works. When the students returned to campus, they began thinking about and planning how they could continue on the trail to freedom, recognizing that many others had already cleared the path.