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Released January 12, 2004


HATTIESBURG – The pivotal role of some Hattiesburg churches in the Civil Rights Movement will be featured as part of the “Courage to Act: Freedom Summer in Mississippi” series on Jan. 21 at St. Paul United Methodist Church.

The “Courage to Act” series, which will also be presented June 24, is sponsored by The University of Southern Mississippi Departments of History and Speech Communication, the Fairchild Lecture Fund, the city of Hattiesburg and Forrest County.

Featuring lecturers and former activists, the series explores the social and individual forces that produced the Freedom Summer Movement in Mississippi in1964.

The programs will examine how individuals and groups, disregarding prevailing customs and ignoring life-threatening pressures, organized and promoted events that led to the sustained attack on segregation in Mississippi.

Civil rights scholar Dr. Enrique Rigsby of Texas A&M University will lecture at 4 p.m. at St. Paul, located at 215 E. 5th St. in Hattiesburg. Following a reception, former Freedom Summer activists will hold a roundtable discussion with audience participation.

“This is an opportunity to meet the people involved and learn how it all happened,” said Dr. Charles Tardy, professor and chair of the Southern Miss Department of Speech Communication.

“When you think of all the resistance to change, it still amazes me that people had the courage and strength to overthrow the system. This series is an attempt to figure out how they did that.”

Commemorating the 40th anniversary of Freedom Summer, the program will focus on the role of local black citizens at the grassroots level, who launched a defiant voter registration drive in January of 1964. It will also trace the beginning of the Freedom Summer Movement to its origin on Freedom Day, Jan. 22, 1964. On that historic occasion, thousands of protestors marched in front of the Forrest County Courthouse with pastors and civil rights activists from around the nation, lobbying for black voting rights.

National and international media covered the events of Jan. 22, which were sparked by local officials’ refusal to register black voters at the Forrest County Courthouse. The picketing continued daily at least until the Democratic National Convention in August of ‘64.

By that June, student volunteers from around the nation had converged in Hattiesburg, where they engaged in voter canvassing in the evenings and ran Freedom Schools during the day. At the height of the movement, about 90 mostly white students were staying in the homes of Hattiesburg’s black citizens and working with local activists in these programs. With nearly 700 students enrolled, Hattiesburg’s Freedom School was the largest of its kind in the state.

“Freedom Schools taught black history to kids who weren’t getting that kind of education in school,” said Assistant Professor Curtis Austin, co-director of the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage at Southern Miss. “These schools also taught black people citizenship skills, how to be activists and how to protest for peaceful change.”

The popularity and success of Hattiesburg’s six Freedom Schools surprised some of the activists, who were anxious before they opened, said Dr. Charles Bolton, chair of the Department of History at Southern Miss. “When they set these Freedom Schools up, they had no idea how many would show up. About 600 showed up on the first day, which was much greater than they had anticipated. All of a sudden, they were concerned with not having enough books,” Bolton said.

Dr. Richard Conville, professor of speech communication at Southern Miss, said the achievements of Freedom Summer created pressure to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “Ultimately, the act made people less afraid to go out and vote because it provided them with federal protection,” he said.

Austin said he hopes the “Courage to Act” series strikes a chord with students who benefit today because of the activists’ sacrifices.

“In a democracy, peaceful change comes through voting and education. Younger students are always amazed by their sacrifices, and the more they learn about them, the more they are able to participate in our democracy,” Austin said.

For more information about the “Courage to Act: Freedom Summer in Mississippi” series, contact Dr. Charles Bolton at (601) 266-4575 or Dr. Charles Tardy at (601) 266-4271.


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM