The 1962 arrival in Hattiesburg of Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes marked the beginning of the Hattiesburg civil rights movement. The two volunteers from Pike County were sent by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to organize African Americans attempting to register to vote in Forrest County. At the time one-third of Forrest County’s population was African American, but only about fifty African Americans were registered to vote.
The main obstacle to African American voter registration was the county’s circuit clerk and registrar of voters, Theron Lynd, elected in 1959. Although the Hattiesburg community was more sympathetic to civil rights struggles than were other Mississippi communities, the town remained segregated. Lynd denied African Americans the vote by refusing to answer their questions about the registration form and by selecting the most difficult sections of the Mississippi state constitution for them to interpret, a requirement of the literacy test for registration. In 1960 Lynd refused to open his records to federal government officials, who then filed a lawsuit against him. In 1961 Lynd was found guilty of violating the Civil Rights Act of 1957, but federal district judge Harold E. Cox, an avowed racist, refused to force Lynd to comply with the government’s requests.
In 1962 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overruled Cox and placed an injunction on Lynd to cease his discrimination. Lynd ignored the injunction, but these court decisions encouraged SNCC and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to send Watkins and Hayes to establish Hattiesburg’s voter registration drive.
The Hattiesburg headquarters for SNCC, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), and later the NAACP was located in the African American hotel run by Mrs. Lenon E. Woods: activists called it Freedom House. The Hattiesburg movement consisted primarily of older and younger African Americans, including many activists too young to even apply to vote. Middle-aged African Americans supported these efforts with donations of money, food, and lodging. However, the best-known participants in the movement were African American and white clergymen.
Those activists included Rev. L. P. Ponder of St. John’s Methodist Church in Palmer’s Crossing, a tiny hamlet just outside Hattiesburg. In 1962 Ponder and a group of his parishioners attempted to register to vote at the county courthouse in Hattiesburg. Although none passed the registration test, that group included three important figures in the Hattiesburg movement: Virgie Robinson, the Rev. J. W. Brown, and Victoria Gray Adams. They remained involved in the movement in any way they could, and Robinson even went to jail. Adams, one of the few middle-aged activists and a mother of three, became the manager of the Hattiesburg movement in September 1962, when Watkins and Hayes left to work in the Mississippi Delta. A few of those in the Palmer’s Crossing group, including Brown, were employed as school bus drivers, and all were fired by the next day. However, the involvement of St. John’s Methodist Church inspired many other religious leaders and citizens to join the civil rights movement. An exception was the Rev. R. W. Woullard of Hattiesburg’s largest Baptist church, who opposed the movement. In 1959 Clyde Kennard, a black man, had applied for admission to Mississippi Southern College (now the University of Southern Mississippi), and Woullard had used his influence to help block Kennard’s entrance.
In the summer of 1962 Watkins and Hayes established the Forrest County Voters League. By the end of the summer more than one hundred African Americans had attempted to register to vote, and under pressure from the federal government, Lynd had acknowledged four of those applicants as qualified to vote. When Watkins and Hayes left, Adams addressed organizational disagreements between SNCC and the local NAACP, led by Vernon Dahmer, and the two organizations united their efforts in 1963.
After assuming leadership of the movement, Adams attended a workshop that inspired her to begin citizenship classes around the Hattiesburg area, teaching African Americans to read and write. These classes allowed Adams access to groups of people who hesitated to join the movement but who desired the basic skills she taught. By using the state constitution and Mississippi’s voter registration forms as the texts for her classes, Adams not only taught her students to read but prepared them for the literacy requirement of the voter registration test.
Despite Adams’s attempts, the Hattiesburg movement moved too slowly for the civil rights organizations. Another Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling found Lynd in contempt and ordered him to register forty-three African Americans. Lynd appealed the ruling to the US Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court decisions against Lynd. Bob Moses, codirector of the COFO, called for his fellow activists to converge on Hattiesburg before the 1964 elections. In the fall of 1963 the Voice of the Movement newsletter was created and distributed among African Americans. In addition, civil rights leaders in Mississippi staged a mock election, the Freedom Ballot, and Hattiesburg had the largest African American turnout in the state.
On 22 January 1964 the Hattiesburg movement staged the first Freedom Day, during which picketers would march in front of the courthouse while large numbers of African Americans applied to vote. In anticipation of mass arrests, experienced activists Fannie Lou Hamer, Amzie Moore, James Forman, John Lewis, and Ella Baker traveled to Hattiesburg with the intention of going to jail to keep up the morale of the locals arrested. Everyone agreed to refuse bail to draw more attention to the cause.
Inspired by speeches given the night before, around two hundred people from all over the South braved the rain to demonstrate at the courthouse, with newspaper reporters and television cameras documenting the protest. The police ordered the picketers to disband, but they refused. By the time the courthouse closed that day, seventy-five African Americans had stood in line all day to register to vote, but only twelve had been allowed inside. They were not notified of the results of their tests.
Only two people were arrested on Freedom Day: Moses, for refusing to leave the sidewalk across the street from the courthouse, and Oscar Chase, an African American who had recently graduated from Yale Law School and who was arrested for failing to report that he had hit a parked truck with his car (though the incident caused no damage to the truck). In jail Chase was beaten by a white cellmate while guards watched, and his bail was paid the next day. Moses refused bail and had no problems in jail awaiting his court date with Judge Mildred W. Norris. Norris requested that those in attendance who were sitting on the “wrong” sides of the courtroom segregate themselves. However, Howard Zinn, an adviser for SNCC, brought to her attention to the fact that the US Supreme Court had ruled segregated courtrooms unconstitutional, and Norris continued with the case. She found Moses guilty of obstructing sidewalk traffic and refusing to move when police asked.
By the end of that week, 150 African Americans had completed the voter registration test in Hattiesburg, and more continued to picket outside, earning the name the “Perpetual Picket.” More activists were arrested as the movement ushered in Freedom Summer 1964. Freedom House hosted the largest organization in the state, and Hattiesburg was a center of activity, including founding freedom schools and libraries.
Hattiesburg movement members were active in founding the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the white delegates at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. In the mid-1960s Hamer, Adams, and the Rev. John Cameron ran for Congress from Mississippi, a landmark event for the state’s African Americans.
- Townsend Davis, Weary Feet, Rested Souls: A Guided History of the Civil Rights Movement (1998)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- United States v. Lynd, 301 F.2d. 818 (1962), 371 US 893 (1963) cert. denied, 375 US 968 (1963) cert. denied
- William Sturkey, “The Heritage of Hub City: The Struggle of Opportunity in the New South” (PhD dissertation, Ohio State University, 2012)
- William Sturkey, Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White (2019)
- Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (2002)