Peggy Jean Connor was a civil rights advocate who agitated for change both in her Mississippi community and across the nation. Born to John Henry and Esther Gould on October 29, 1932, Connor came of age on Mobile Street in Hattiesburg’s historically African American community. As a child she attended Eureka High School, Mississippi’s second modern, brick facility dedicated to educating African American children. Here Connor learned the fundamentals of reading, mathematics, and African American history. In the seventh grade, the school’s curriculum required each student to take a citizenship course. During a lesson on the Fifteenth Amendment, Connor recalled that the teacher challenged each student to go to the clerk’s office on their eighteenth birthday and register to vote. This challenge appears to have laid the foundation for a lifetime of activism.
After graduation from Alcorn Extension at Royal Street High School in Hattiesburg, Connor started a career in the beauty industry that provided the impetus for her to become involved in the civil rights movement. At the age of twenty-one, she assumed ownership of her aunt’s beauty shop. Just as Connor stepped into her role as an entrepreneur, civil rights leaders, including Lawrence Guyot and Bob Moses, began recruiting self-employed women for the movement. They believed that business owners were less likely to succumb to economic intimidation because they could not be fired. Located at 510 Mobile Street, Jean’s Beauty Shop was situated across the street from the local Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) office. Connor’s first contact with the civil rights movement occurred in 1963 when Lawrence Guyot walked into her shop and extended her an invitation to attend a mass meeting at St. John Methodist Church. That night, Fannie Lou Hamer delivered a powerful speech, and Connor decided to return for future meetings. Regular attendance led Victoria Gray Adams to offer Connor an opportunity to join the movement by teaching citizenship classes. In January of 1964, Peggy Jean Connor traveled to Dorchester, Georgia, where she attended a one-week training session sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Upon her return to Hattiesburg, Connor prepared local residents to apply to vote by teaching them how to complete registration forms and how to understand and interpret the constitution for the clerk.
A series of events helped make Connor a local hero and a national treasure. While picketing the Confederate statue located in front of the Forrest County courthouse in February 1964, a group of protesters including Connor, were arrested and held in jail until local residents secured their release using property bonds. Once freed, Connor continued to work tirelessly in her beauty shop and with others devoted to organizing a statewide association dedicated to extending voting rights to all. In April 1964, the efforts of Connor and many others came to fruition in the establishment of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Elected to serve as a precinct chairperson in Hattiesburg, Connor led a team of residents who assisted her in going door to door to register people to vote.
The summer of 1964 was eventful. In June, Connor was an officer for the Hattiesburg chapter of the Council of Federated Organizations, the group largely responsible for coordinating Freedom Summer. From June through August, Connor worked to increase black voter registration while other members established health clinics, Freedom Schools, and community centers. In August, Peggy Jean Connor joined a delegation of MFDP members sent to Atlantic City to challenge the all-white Democratic Party to diversify their representation. Stubborn Democrats refused to consider any requests until Pres. Lyndon Johnson’s administration called for compromise. When Democratic Party leaders offered MFDP delegates only two seats, representatives refused. Their plight attracted the attention of the larger public, and MFDP delegates suffered threats and intimidation from the Ku Klux Klan during the frightening trip home. In 1965 the seasoned civil rights activist lent her name to Connor v. Johnson suit in favor of legislative reapportionment in the state of Mississippi. Although it took fourteen years to return a verdict, the lawsuit was a success.
In 1965 Connor began the process that was instrumental in bringing the Child Development Group of Mississippi, later called Head Start, to the state. She was also an active participant in local lectures and special events at Hattiesburg’s African American Military History Museum and the University of Southern Mississippi.
Unlike many, Connor did not leave Hattiesburg but continued to call the city of her birth home until she passed away in January 2018.
- “Civil Rights Activist Peggy Jean Connor Remembered as a ‘Strong Individual’” Hattiesburg American (January 25, 2018)
- Richard Conville, “An Oral History with Peggy Jean Connor” (2001), McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi
- Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- William Sturkey, Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White (2018)