Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1941 to a black sharecropping family, Dave Dennis knew the constraints of poverty and disfranchisement in the South, and at an early age he began to break down those barriers. As a college student at Dillard University in New Orleans, Dennis became involved in the civil rights movement, participating in lunch counter sit-ins. By November 1960 he had joined the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and had become a Freedom Rider, hoping to desegregate interstate bus travel. A year later, he was hired as a full-time CORE field secretary.
For that first year, Dennis worked in Shreveport and Baton Rouge, organizing other students to participate in boycotts and sit-ins and teaching them about Gandhian nonviolence. Having established himself as a civil rights veteran who had faced white brutality, Dennis moved to Mississippi in June 1962 to work as the only CORE activist in the state.
As field secretary of CORE and assistant program director of the newly revived Council of Federated Organizations, which coordinated activists’ efforts, Dennis struggled to empower local blacks and to develop indigenous black leadership. Along with Robert Moses, who worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and as program director of the Council of Federated Organizations, Dennis established farm and store cooperatives, community centers, and voter registration programs.
The high point of Dennis’s efforts in the state came during the Freedom Summer campaign of 1964, when the state was flooded with young civil rights workers. Stationed in the 4th Congressional District, Dennis and his small staff of CORE workers found their greatest success in Canton, just north of Jackson. Nonetheless, the harassment by white supremacists and the lack of support and protection from the federal government greatly discouraged many activists.
When CORE volunteers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman disappeared during the summer and were later found murdered and buried beneath a dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi, Dennis and many others felt a crushing blow. Delivering the eulogy at Chaney’s funeral in Meridian, Dennis angrily called for retribution, rethinking his nonviolent stance. From then on, he openly supported groups like the Deacons for Defense, which retaliated against white violence.
After the failure of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s efforts to unseat the all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, Dennis and many others dejectedly withdrew from Mississippi. In September 1964 Dennis returned to New Orleans to work as regional program director for CORE but resigned the next year when the organization became entrenched in budget cuts and debates over Black Power.
Dennis went to law school and opened a practice in Lafayette, Louisiana. In 1989 he was reunited with Moses at a conference in Jackson. Moses had left the state not long after Dennis and had gone on to found the Algebra Project in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to teach mathematics to African American students.
In 1992 Dennis closed his law practice and moved with his wife, Mattie Bivins, a civil rights activist whom he had met in Hattiesburg, and their family to Jackson to begin the Delta Algebra Project. As director and CEO of Positive Innovations, Dennis continues to serve as a partner in and manager of the Southern Initiative of the Algebra Project. By 2003 the Algebra Project boasted ten thousand students and three hundred teachers at twenty-eight sites across the country, and in 2006 the organization implemented the Quality Education as a Civil Right program. The Algebra Project continues to affect thousands of students and hundreds of teachers across the country.
- Algebra Project website, www.algebra.org
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942–1968 (1973)