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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.'"
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.
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.
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."
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."
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