Freedom Summer Times staff reports
Fifty years ago this summer, civil rights volunteers from across the nation descended on Mississippi to bring attention to the racism and segregation that was taking place at the time.
Volunteers worked with local residents to change the racist status quo through public protests, political campaigns and “freedom schools” that offered African-American children lessons lacking in segregated schools. Hattiesburg, Miss., was a primary site for freedom schools.
Families took the volunteers into their homes and risked punishments for aiding the activists. Here are some of the stories of people with Hattiesburg ties who were involved in the events of Freedom Summer in 1964:
Peggy Jean Connor
Connor, 81 of Hattiesburg, was active in the Civil Rights movement since 1963, when Medgar Evers was killed in Jackson after his efforts to overturn segregation at The University of Mississippi. His murder motivated Connor to fight for civil rights because she concluded, “They can’t kill all of us.”
After attending a mass meeting at St. John Methodist Church, where civil rights activists Fannie Lou Hamer spoke, Connor, a 21-year old beautician, decided to join the voter registration movement with the support of her family. Connor later attended a Southern Christian Leadership Conference workshop focused on integrating the national Democratic Party.
Chosen as a delegate for the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party, Connor traveled to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J. The Democratic Party only offered the Freedom party two non-voting seats, which they turned down.
“We were hurting. We went there to win and nothing but win, and we weren’t taking nothing. We weren’t going to let nobody change our mind,” Connor said of the 1964 defeat at the national convention.
Connor went to jail twice during her advocacy for picketing, once in Forrest County and in Hinds County. Going to jail for extended periods of time would seem like a negative experience for most, but it was a triumph for Connor and other advocates.
“It was a good feeling in jail. We sung freedom songs, we prayed and we told stories,” said Connor.
Connor said she was never afraid of anything, even when the three civil rights workers were killed in Neshoba County. Her advice to young African-Americans today is to “wake up” and become active in the community.
-- Deja Harris, Bria Paige and Lauryn Smith
Harris was a child during Freedom Summer, when his family sheltered civil rights activists, Paula Pace and Beth Moore, in their home.
“ (They) were in awe at my family, and my family was in awe with the workers. We were in awe at each other,” said Harris, who is now a professor of education at Mercer University in Atlanta, Ga.
Harris recalled the desegregation of W.I. Thames Junior High School when he was a student there. He said five African-American students initiated that first step, and it was very difficult. “The teachers felt like our capability was low,” Harris said.
He also mentioned the stereotypes that blacks had about whites, such as whites not being able to dance and not liking soul music. When asked on why he wrote his book, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, Harris said, “I needed to tell my story. No one else can tell it.”
Harris gave detailed advice to continue to improve relations between all races that make up the United States.
“We all came over in different boats. Now, we are in the same boat. It is up to us to keep it afloat or let it sink,” he said.
He encouraged young people to push to succeed.
“Do not accept mediocrity. Go beyond what is expected of you,” Harris said.
He also said he is hopeful for race relations in the future.
“I can’t give up. Once I give up hope, I have lost everything,” he said.
-- Raegan Johnson, J.R Moody and Zaria Bonds
Smith was 24 years old and married to a physician when Freedom Summer took place in 1964.
Her family housed many civil rights activists. She solicited food from high schools and colleges by claiming the food would go toward a vacation Bible school but instead provided it to the activists. She also secured bonds for activists who were arrested.
“It’s hard to be a black person and not fight for your rights,” Smith, 74 of Hattiesburg, said.
She recalled the days of segregation in Mississippi and how that experience caused her pain. That prompted her to help the activists because she wanted a different life for herself and other African-Americans.
“You cannot have separate (facilities),” Smith said. “Separate is not equal.”
Smith was very adamant for the cause of civil rights because she was tired of being treated like less than a first-class citizen. She said it’s important to her to talk about the past injustices so they are not repeated.
“If you don’t know where you’ve been, you don’t know where you’re going,” Smith said.
--Kaylee Warren, Jessica Swanson and Jordan Marshall
Students interview Freedom Summer advocates Anthony Harris, Peggy Jean Connor, and Jeanette Smith. Photographs by workshop students.
Peggy Jean Connor, Anthony Harris and Jeanette Smith tell their stories of Freedom Summer in Mississippi