Curtis Hayes, a native of Summit, Mississippi, was a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi during the 1960s. Hayes also worked with the Forrest County Voters League in Hattiesburg to promote voter registration among the county’s African American population. Hayes and Hollis Watkins were the first students recruited by Bob Moses to join burgeoning SNCC efforts in the McComb area. In late August 1961 Hayes and Watkins staged a sit-in at the Woolworth’s drugstore on Main Street in McComb. After taking a seat at the lunch counter and refusing to move, both men were arrested on charges of breach of the peace.
Hayes and Watkins’s sit-in and arrest served as the catalyst for the McComb movement: only three days later a capacity crowd attended a community meeting to hear James Bevel speak on nonviolent protest. The next day, three black youths, one of them only fifteen, were arrested after attempting to integrate the local Greyhound bus station. Hayes was a key player in the Pike County Nonviolent Movement. Both he and Watkins had spent the beginning of the 1960s working for voting rights in Hattiesburg, with little success. The sit-in movement presented Hayes with an opportunity to become enthusiastic about action after months of frustrating voter registration drives.
After the initial McComb movement Hayes took on a prominent role in SNCC and Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) efforts across the state. As planning began for the Freedom Summer initiative, Hayes originally opposed an expanded role for white activists in the Mississippi movement. According to John Dittmer, Hayes and others “were concerned that the proposed summer project, with its heavy emphasis on untrained volunteers, would divert resources away from SNCC’s primary mission: organizing local communities and developing indigenous leadership.” Freedom Summer planning sessions eventually refocused SNCC efforts on Hayes’s native McComb region.
As SNCC redirected its focus back toward McComb, where the organization had initiated the state’s first voter registration project three years earlier, Hayes became the area’s SNCC project director. He guided divided factions of black leadership to compromise, uniting them under the COFO umbrella. In July 1964 Hayes survived a Klan bombing of the McComb freedom house, although he was knocked unconscious and received glass cuts over his entire upper body. As the movement progressed, Hayes helped to organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s election and trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey. After that experience, however, his “hopes and dreams of being part of the National Democratic party were dead.”
Hayes’s postmovement life follows the pattern of many of his civil rights movement contemporaries. After the disbanding of SNCC and COFO, he traveled north to Chicago, where he organized a citywide school boycott protesting racism and segregated schools. In the early 1970s, he lived underground, hiding from the FBI and changing his name to Curtis Hayes Muhammad. Like scores of other movement veterans, Muhammad then traveled to the revolutionary nations of East and North Africa. He joined the Liberian revolutionary struggle and was arrested, nearly executed by a firing squad, then held prisoner and tortured for five months before he was released in response to efforts of his former civil rights network and Liberian student activists. Muhammad later returned to Liberia to establish an orphanage for abandoned children.
Muhammad’s personal life has been as volatile as his postmovement activism. He has been married several times and has fathered ten children, often raising them as a single parent. He continues to advocate for human rights and social justice both in the United States and around the world.
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (1997)
- Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement website, www.crmvet.org