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By: David Tisdale
A fall 2019 semester class at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) allowed undergraduate and graduate students alike the opportunity to explore the local and statewide history of the civil rights movement through a combination of lectures, class projects and experiential learning in field trips at important civil rights movement sites across the state.
The course, HIS 478/578, examined the black freedom struggle from World War II into the 1970s, covering the broad national history of the civil rights movement in America and in particular Mississippi, considered by many ‘ground zero’ of the freedom struggle for black Americans.
Students in the course went on Saturday trips to Jackson, Hattiesburg, and McComb – cities vitally important to the movement, especially in the 1960s. There, they met activists, visited museums, and made on-site presentations, utilizing primary and secondary sources to learn about the movement and how it has been publicly remembered.
“When scholars think of the civil rights movement, they think of Mississippi,” said course instructor Dr. Rebecca Tuuri, associate professor of history at USM. “Mississippi was the state targeted by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) for voting rights and direct action activism in the 1960s, because it was seen as the most racist state in America.
“Hattiesburg itself was deeply active in the Movement, with as many as one-third of the city’s black population participating in activities in the mid-1960s.”
Because USM sits in one of the most important cities of the civil rights movement, Dr. Tuuri believed it was incumbent that students in the course learn about the movement by traveling to its important sites, hearing from people directly involved in the movement, and speaking with local historians who have kept the memory of civil rights activism alive to the present.
“We’ve been privileged to speak with both Ellie Dahmer (widow of slain Hattiesburg civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer) and Jackie Martin (a participant in the Burgland High School walkout in McComb) about their civil rights experiences. We’ve also learned about those who gave everything for civil rights, including martyrs Herbert Lee, Medgar Evers, Clyde Kennard, Louis Allen, and Vernon Dahmer,” Dr. Tuuri said.
“In reading about local work, visiting these sites, and speaking with those involved in civil rights, many misconceptions have been removed. Now, the students know the civil rights movement was not only led by Martin Luther King, Jr.; that Rosa Parks was a not a tired old lady, but instead a 42-year-old woman with a long personal and familial history of activism; that while the federal government was important to the movement, local people were the reason the movement took place; women were vitally important leaders and organizers in the movement; and finally, the movement in Mississippi was not nonviolent.”
Students in the course completed assignments in which they engaged in creative ways with the sources of the movement. During field trips, students gave presentations on one civil rights activist from each town. They also created their own Freedom School curriculum, informed by the Freedom Schools of 1964 that advocated civic education and voting rights; created a transcript for a Mississippi Moments podcast, using USM’s substantial civil rights oral history collection in the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage; and analyzed materials from white resistance groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Citizens Council, and other groups, to better understand how they fought against racial equality.
Students were also assigned to read former USM instructor of history Dr. William Sturkey’s book Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White, to develop a deeper historical understanding of the important role black communities in the South played in fostering the power and independence necessary to fight against Jim Crow segregation in the 1950s and 1960s.
“In all three field trip sites, we saw Dr. Sturkey’s argument that community institutions under Jim Crow were vital to creating the civil rights movement validated. Black business owners who were independent of white control were key to providing money, goods, and support to the movement. They were usually located on or around a main thoroughfare or street that connected the local black community together.”
In Jackson, that street was Farish Street.; in Hattiesburg, Mobile Street.; and in McComb, Summit Street.; students in the course visited all of them. They also learned about the important role black churches played both before and during the movement and visited and read about many of these, including Hattiesburg’s own “church on the hill,” St. Paul United Methodist Church.
“Hopefully, students in the class now see that many of the same issues from the 1960s are still relevant in our world today,” Dr. Tuuri said. “In order to move past bigotry, hatred, and injustice, we, as a nation, must most past self-congratulatory stories of progress, and have a better understanding of the civil rights movement. To me, this is what education is all about.”
For Tijaha Richardson, a USM senior from Pearl, Mississippi, the class has been “eye opening” and said she benefited from the experiential learning component of the field trips, including meeting with those who were on the front lines risking their lives in pursuit of equality.
“I’ve learned so much more about my own history in this class, and getting the real story about the movement, not one that has been whitewashed,” Richardson said.
Hayley Hasik, a USM doctoral student in history, said the course “turned Hattiesburg, Jackson, and McComb into our classroom.”
“As graduate students, we spend a lot of time reading about historical arguments and learning historiographical debates, and we often become divorced from the historical narrative and the actors of history,” she said. “But in this class, we had the opportunity to walk the streets where marches happened. We stood in the Forrest County Courthouse, where so many African Americans tried to register to vote and were repeatedly denied their constitutional right. We visited the basement of St. Paul United Methodist Church, where a freedom school educated locals about social change during the summer of 1964.
“We met people like Ellie Dahmer and Henry Bethley (a member of St. Paul United Methodist Church) of Hattiesburg, who not only witnessed and participated in various aspects of the movement, but continue to work hard to ensure the history of that period is never forgotten. Hattiesburg has such a rich history and strong connections to the broader civil rights movement, and this course showed how national and local events during that period in our history are deeply connected.”
Dani Kawa of Richmond, Virginia, a graduate student in USM’s dual history/anthropology master’s program, said she never really learned about the civil rights movement in high school, but said that through the class’s assignments, lectures and field trips, she became “amazed by the constant resilience of civil rights activists, especially here in Mississippi.”
“It’s one thing to read about people fighting for equality and justice in a book; it’s another thing completely to listen to someone talk about their experience of standing with their friends and their communities in the face of imminent danger to do so,” Kawa said.
The USM History program is housed in the College of Arts and Sciences’ School of Humanities. For information about the USM History program, visit https://www.usm.edu/humanities/#our-programs-list.