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Released June 28, 2004

By David Tisdale

HATTIESBURG -- Theirs were not the household names of the Civil Rights movement. But even in their anonymity, it was the efforts of local people - in Hattiesburg and in communities across the country - that was the key to securing voting rights for African-Americans and dismantling segregation.

That was the central theme of civil rights historian Dr. John Dittmer's Thursday presentation in the second and final installment of the Fairchild Lecture Series "Courage to Act: Freedom Summer in Mississippi" at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Hattiesburg.

Traditionally, Dittmer said, the spotlight is placed on civil rights era icons Martin Luther King Jr. and Roy Wilkens in discussions about the movement. But he asserts that it was the efforts of ordinary citizens who risked their lives by participating in demonstrations and voter registration drives that ended America's version of apartheid.

"The real work (in the movement) was done by local people," said Dittmer, a professor at DePauw University and author of "Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi." "These people were what made victory possible."

In 1964, approximately 1,000 volunteers descended on Mississippi, many of them college students from the North, to help operate the Freedom Summer Schools and volunteer in the Freedom Summer movement. The state's largest Freedom Summer School operation was in Hattiesburg, and St. Paul's was the site of one of the schools.

The schools provided instruction for black students in a variety of academic subject areas, including African-American history, in an effort to alleviate the drawbacks of the deficient, poorly funded segregated schools they attended during the regular academic year.

Compared to other states, the Freedom Summer movement in Mississippi was unique, Dittmer said, in that its primary focus was on registering black voters. At the time, only 4 percent of African-Americans in Mississippi were registered to vote, as white public officials used a myriad of tactics, including literacy exams, poll taxes and outright intimidation, to undermine the efforts of blacks to participate in elections.

The philosophy of Mississippi's Freedom Summer organizers was that only through securing the right to vote could African-Americans overturn the racist policies that kept them marginalized in society. "If you didn't have the vote, nothing else really mattered," Dittmer said.

Some of those ordinary people who took part in the movement locally returned to Hattiesburg to participate in the program's roundtable discussion following Dittmer's presentation, including Dr. Anthony Harris, Peggy Jean Connor and Curtis Muhammed, formerly Curtis Hayes.

Connor said she was motivated to participate in the movement after the slaying of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers. "I really got involved after his death," she said. "I figured, 'They can't kill all of us.'"

Harris experienced firsthand the intimidation used by white public officials and law enforcement to discourage blacks from taking part in the movement, after he was arrested for picketing in front of the Forrest County Courthouse during a Freedom Day action to support black voter registration.

While riding in the police car to the jail, Harris said the police officer called in (to the dispatcher) and said, "Have the dogs been fed today? They haven't? Well, we've got some fresh meat for them." Struck with fear, Harris immediately remembered the dogs he had seen on television that were used by police to attack Civil Rights demonstrators.

But the large number of volunteers in the Freedom Summer Schools gave Harris the inspiration to pursue the cause of justice, even in the face of danger. "It was exciting, to have so many people believe in what we were trying to do," he said.

Muhammed said fighting for the right to vote was merely an effort to secure a right already granted to blacks through the passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870. "We were trying to secure an agenda…that was already in place," he said, "and it was not until 1965 that it got enforced. It just sat on the books."

African-Americans have become complacent with regard to the hard-won victories of the Civil Rights movement, Muhammed said. He warned that those victories could be lost if the black community is not vigilant. "Freedom is a constant struggle," he said. "If you stop struggling, you're going to lose it."

The "Courage to Act" series was sponsored by The University of Southern Mississippi's departments of history and speech communication, the Fairchild Lecture Fund, the city of Hattiesburg and Forrest County, the Mississippi Humanities Council, the Hattiesburg branch of the NAACP, the Hattiesburg Housing Authority and Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church.


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July 6, 2004 10:23 AM