By Bobs M. Tusa, Ph.D. (Former University Archivist for The University of Southern Mississippi)
Historians regard the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s as one of the three most important periods in the domestic history of the United States, the other two being the Civil War and the Great Depression. For these reasons it is appropriate that historic sites of the Civil Rights Movement in Hattiesburg be so marked in order to honor those who made the history and to educate all of our citizens.
Hattiesburg and Palmer's Crossing (now part of municipal Hattiesburg) were important centers of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, especially during Freedom Summer 1964. Hattiesburg was the largest Freedom Summer site in Mississippi, with over ninety volunteers from out of state, 3,000 local participants, and 650-675 Freedom School students.
The beginning of the efforts of Hattiesburg's African American citizens to obtain full voting rights and economic opportunity can be dated to the return of World War II veterans in the 1940s and to the continuing legal efforts of the Forrest County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A period of international awareness began in the 1960s when national civil rights organizations concentrated their united efforts in Mississippi and other Southern states.
The Movement started in Hattiesburg with the arrival, in March 1962, of two young African Americans from Pike County named Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes. They were staff of the national civil rights organization the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who had come to Hattiesburg to organize a voter registration campaign. They were housed by prominent African American businessman Vernon Dahmer, who would lose his life in 1966 when his home was fire-bombed. Also in the early 1960s Victoria Jackson Gray, a native of Palmer's Crossing who grew up in Hattiesburg, began offering citizenship classes to local African Americans, using as her textbooks the Mississippi voter registration form and the state Constitution.
In 1964, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), which included SNCC, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Mississippi chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), launched the state-wide voter registration drive known as Mississippi Freedom Summer. In Hattiesburg the headquarters of COFO, all of whose staff in Hattiesburg were the college-age men and women of SNCC, the headquarters of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the U.S. Senate campaign headquarters of Victoria Jackson Gray were located at 507 Mobile Street. Nearby the Negro Masonic Lodge at 6th and Mobile Streets housed the Hattiesburg Ministers Union.
Freedom Summer really began with the South's first Freedom Day, January 22, in which hundreds of Forrest County African American residents, supported by out-of-state volunteers including fifty pastors from the National Council of Churches, stood all day in the rain waiting to enter the Forrest County Courthouse in order to attempt to register to vote. Demonstrations continued in front of the Courthouse throughout the Spring.
In July and August 1964, while voter registration activities continued, COFO workers, volunteers, and local residents established Freedom Schools in seven African American churches -- Bentley Chapel United Methodist Church, Morning Star Baptist Church, Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Priest Creek Missionary Baptist Church, St. John's United Methodist Church, St. Paul United Methodist Church, and Truelight Baptist Church. Mass meetings were held at these churches and at St. James Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. Church members opened their homes to the volunteers, housing and feeding them at the risk of violence and economic reprisal.
The Freedom Schools offered classes in subjects like civics and Negro history which were not taught in the black public schools. Palmer's Crossing Freedom School students authored the "Declaration of Independence" that was adopted at the statewide convention of Mississippi Freedom Schools held in Meridian in August 1964 and included in the platform of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that same year. There were so many students enrolled in local Freedom Schools - an estimated 650-675 - that the state Freedom School director, Dr. Staughton Lynd, professor of history at Yale University, called Hattiesburg "the Mecca of the Freedom School world."
Theater and folksingers were also part of Freedom Summer. The Free Southern Theater, a touring repertory company starring among others Denise Nicholas, gave performances twice in Hattiesburg of plays like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Ossie Davis' Purlie Victorious. The Mississippi Caravan of Music, including legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, performed in Hattiesburg in support of African American rights.
Everything was filmed and taped and recorded by representatives of the American and foreign press. The success of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States is attributed by historians directly to the awakening of the conscience of Americans who watched what happened in Mississippi on the nightly television news programs and read about it in their newspapers.
Note: This resource was originally created in 2001.