February 24, 2018  

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Conference Spotlights Civil Rights Movement in Hattiesburg, Southern Miss

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The University of Southern Mississippi came of age during a turbulent time in American history – the Civil Rights Movement. On Oct. 21-23, 2010, an academic conference titled “A Centennial Celebration of the Civil Rights Movement” will examine the long history of this period at the university and in the City of Hattiesburg.

Sponsored by the Southern Miss Centennial Committee, the Center for Black Studies and the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, this conference will feature nationally renowned scholars and civil rights heroes. In addition to examining the university’s history during the Civil Rights Movement, this conference will assess the broader freedom struggle from Reconstruction to the present.

Registration is $35 for the general public and $20 for students. This fee includes lunch on Oct. 22 and 23 and heavy hors’ doeuvres at the opening reception and closing session.

“Few people realize the central role Hattiesburg and its residents played in the national Civil Rights Movements and our conference will shed light on that fact,” said Dr. Curtis Austin, associate professor of History and director of the Center for Black Studies at Southern Miss.

The conference will open at the African American Military History Museum at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 21 with remarks from Southern Miss President Martha Saunders, Austin and Raylwani Branch, one of the first two African-Americans to attend Southern Missand retired from the United States Air Force Reserves and the Southern Miss School of Nursing.

Another featured speaker includes civil rights veteran Peggy Connor, who represented the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Two full days of presentations will take place in the Thad Cochran Center on Friday, Oct. 22 and Saturday, Oct. 23. The conference will conclude with a closing session commemorating Clyde Kennard, the first African American to attempt to desegregate Southern Miss.

“No civil rights conference associated with Southern Miss would be complete without a discussion of the Clyde Kennard affair,” Austin explained.

Kennard was falsely imprisoned after applying for admission to Southern Miss in 1959. He later died after serving three years of a seven-year sentence in Parchman Penitentiary. Despite a nationwide outcry and the efforts of his attorney Thurgood Marshall, who argued the Brown vs. Board of Education case and later became a Supreme Court Justice, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Kennard’s conviction.

Several veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, including author Charles Cobb and long-time activist Hollis Watkins, will discuss their experiences as part of the conference. Watkins, who was the first worker from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to arrive in Hattiesburg, will serve as a keynote speaker on Friday, Oct. 22. Cobb, the architect of the Freedom School idea, will serve as keynote speaker on Saturday, Oct. 23. Hattiesburg served as the site of largest number of Freedom Schools in the state.

“These Freedom Schools served as a spark to some of the most important political changes to emerge from the movement,” Austin explained. “Due in large part to the learning done in these schools, African-Americans eventually found common ground with local educators, political and business leaders, and in the process, helped transform the Hub City into one of the most progressive and cosmopolitan cities in the state.”

In a bus tour of Hattiesburg civil rights sites, local civil rights veterans Daisy Wade Harris and Ellie Dahmer will discuss their experiences as foot soldiers of the movement.

Hattiesburg native Dorie Ladner and MFDP Director Lawrence Guyot of Pass Christian, Miss. will accompany them. Because of his activism, Guyot languished in the Forrest County Jail while Fannie Lou Hamer delivered her now famous speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. The Rev. Dr. Cecil Gray, the son of Palmer’s Crossing native Victoria Gray Jackson, will also speak at the conference.

 “It promises to be an event that will provide presenters, students, faculty, staff, alumni and visitors alike with experiences and memories they can cherish for years to come,” Austin said.

Visit www.usm.edu/civilrightsconference to download the registration form and to view the full list of conference speakers. For more information, call 601.266.4333.