Paul Terrell was a 21-year-old college graduate when he came to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 to help African-Americans register to vote. In the face of state and local governments committed to upholding segregation by any means – including with violence - it was a daunting task.
But like many Americans, young and old, Terrell was inspired to help bring justice to a state considered then one of the most ardent in its opposition to equal rights for blacks. “I knew I wanted to do something useful for the country,” he said of his decision to go to Mississippi.
After being trained in Ohio for voter registration work, Terrrell was assigned to Hattiesburg to help canvass neighborhoods to register black residents to vote. “Everyone got really quiet in the car carrying our group when we reached the (Mississippi) state line,” he said.
Last week, Terrell returned to Mississippi for the first time in 50 years to attend The University of Southern Mississippi’s Freedom Summer Conference June 20-21. The conference included presentations and discussions about the experiences of those who came to the state in June 1964 to help break the stranglehold of segregationist law, popularly known as Jim Crow law, in the state and across the country.
It was while he was in Hattiesburg that the murders of three civil rights murders in Philadelphia, Miss. occurred. “I didn’t get to see much of Hattiesburg when I was here before, except for the neighborhood where I lived for two months,” Terrell said. “It wasn’t safe for us (voter drive workers) to go into town.”
He praised those who opened their homes to him and other Freedom Summer workers, as they worked together to break down racial barriers and gain access to political power for those marginalized through racial segregation. “They put their own lives at risk doing that, yet they did it. They stood up,” Terrell said.
The conference featured many veterans of the civil rights movement who stood up in the face of beatings, arrest, and murder in their pursuit of justice through marches, sit-ins and attempts to register to vote. They recounted their experiences during a series of roundtable discussions and workshops held at the Thad Cochran Center on the university’s Hattiesburg campus.
Panelists included Hattiesburg natives Dr. Anthony Harris, a Southern Miss alumnus and former university administrator who participated in Freedom Summer as a teenager; Irene Williams-Jones, director of the Hattiesburg Public School District’s Harper-Wallin Family Education Center; Stephanie Hoze, executive director of child nutrition for the Hattiesburg Public School District; Hattiesburg city councilwoman Debora Delgado; and Charles McLaurin of Indianola, famed for his work with Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Other guests at the conference included Hattiesburg natives Peggy Jean Connor and Dorie Ladner, considered by many as icons of the movement and Freedom Summer.
Irene Williams-Jones talked about the challenge of being around people like Terrell and other white Freedom Summer workers who “treated us (blacks) like we were real people.” “It was the first time we had been around whites in a capacity that wasn’t ‘yes ma’am, no ma’am,’” she said.
In addition to helping register adults to vote, the Freedom School volunteers taught young children from the black neighborhoods about subjects they weren’t learning about in the “separate but equal” schools they attended. “They would teach us music, algebra, debate, public speaking, things we didn’t get in school. They instilled in us a love for reading. We ate it up,” Williams-Jones said.
“They taught us we could do anything. And I knew this (experience) would impact my life forever.”
Dr. Sherita Johnson, director of the university’s Center for Black Studies and one of the lead organizers of the conference, was inspired by the Freedom Summer participants who came back to Hattiesburg for the conference. “It was also a great opportunity for educators who attended to include what they learned here, including some stories from the movement that we haven’t heard before, in their curriculum focusing on the history of the civil rights movement,” she said.
Dr. Emilye Crosby, a professor of history at State University of New York, Geneseo, served as keynote speaker for the conference. Crosby spent part of her youth growing up in Claiborne County and learned firsthand from local people about their impact on the civil rights movement in the state.
While recognizing the powerful impact that better-known civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. had on the movement, Crosby said it was important to learn the story of those who worked at the local level to bring about change. “Looking at the civil rights movement from the bottom up forces us to reconsider it from a different perspective,” she said. “Without knowing this aspect of the movement, we miss out on knowing the power and potential of ordinary people.”
Now a professor emeritus at his alma mater, the University of California, Berkley, Terrell said he’s impressed at how far Mississippi has come. “After I left that summer, I never really thought of coming back,” he said. “In terms of race relations (the progress) is wonderful to see.”