Fifty years after he marched for equal rights, Anthony Harris returned to downtown Hattiesburg Jan. 22 to retrace his steps in pursuit of a more just society.
Harris, a University of Southern Mississippi alumnus, braved chilly temperatures along with many area residents, students and other supporters for the Freedom Day reenactment march in downtown Hattiesburg. The event, part of the university's programming commemorating Freedom Summer, recognized those who marched for voting rights and equal access to facilities for African Americans in Hattiesburg in that pivotal year of the civil rights movement.
Enduring arrest and threats to his life as a young man growing up in the segregated South, Harris was the first African-American to enroll at Hattiesburg’s then all-white Thames Elementary School and went on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees at Southern Miss. He later served as executive assistant to university president Horace Fleming, and is currently a member of the faculty at Mercer University.
“It’s so gratifying to be able to come back for this event, to reflect on the sacrifices so many people made then, and now see the fruits of their labor today,” Harris said as he greeted old friends and fellow marchers from past and present. “But we must remain vigilant to maintain what we have achieved.”
The genesis of the reenactment march was an effort by a group of Southern Miss students who wanted to commemorate the milestone anniversary of the march. Taking the name “Remember Now, ‘64” the students worked with university, local officials and groups and those who participated in the original march to organize the event, with the ultimate goal of securing a commemorative marker at the Forrest County Courthouse where the original and reenactment marches concluded.
Shane Hand of Birmingham, Ala., a doctoral student in history at the university, is a member of the group and one of the key organizers of the reenactment. “This was a really powerful event, and I’m touched to see so many people participate, including those who were in the original march,” he said. “What they did all those years ago is worthy of remembering.”
Kevin Greene, a visiting professor of history at Southern Miss, serves as advisor to the group and congratulated the students on the success of the event. “The result was beyond my expectations,” Greene said. “I’m so honored to have been a part of it.”
Southern Miss President Rodney Bennett also praised the students and those who took part in making the idea of the reenactment march a reality. “I believe what took place today speaks volumes about our students, faculty and our community,” Bennett said. “It would have been a tragedy for USM and the city not to commemorate this event.”
Southern Miss Dean of Students Eddie Holloway, a Hattiesburg native who participated in the original march and the reenactment, said the event gave him the opportunity to reflect “on those persons that played so much importance in the successes that have come.”
“It was the common and local people that carried the heavy loads for the advancement of the underserved,” Holloway said. “African Americans have endured so much to be included in the main fabric of the American society. As I look back, the landscape among people of difference today is far different than in 1964.”
Harris, who chronicled his own personal struggles and of those who fought against segregation and discrimination in his book Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round, spoke to the crowd of marchers and other onlookers during a post-march ceremony about what he and others faced in the Hattiesburg civil rights movement.
His arrest came after Harris, his brother and a friend were picked up by police for picketing the Forrest County Courthouse, made illegal under state law but, as the group insisted, legal under the U.S. Constitution. The officers berated and attempted to intimidate the three in route to the jail, saying that Mississippi law trumped U.S. law.
At one point, one of the officers called in to the station on the car radio to ask if the police dogs had been fed. “They haven’t?” the officer said. Well, we’ve got some fresh meat for them.”
With humor, Harris clarified the situation for his audience. “He was talking about attack German Shepherds, not a Chihuahua,” he said.
Arriving at the jail, the three were thrown in a cold holding room instead of a regular interrogation room, where the threats and intimidation continued. One officer held up a black jack, a traditional police weapon similar to a club and pointed it toward them, saying “This is what we use to beat n----s with,” he said.
Suddenly, the door to the room busted open and a woman shouted “Let them go!” The woman was Anthony Harris’s mother, Daisy Harris, who was in the audience as her son shared the story. Anthony Harris said the police complied just as if her own children would have when she gave them an order.
“Never in my life was I as happy to see my mother as I was at that moment,” Harris said.
He said his mother and all those who risked so much, including their lives, to secure the promise of liberty are examples for anyone who ponders the risks of staring down injustice. He recognized his mother and called out the names of many others who were active in the local freedom movement, with the help of audience members.
“If I ever wonder what I should do when it comes to taking a stand, I think of Daisy Harris,” he said.
Participants in the reenactment march were given escort and protection by Hattiesburg Police and deputies with the Forrest County Sheriff’s Department, who 50 years earlier would have suppressed such an act. Among the Hattiesburg Police officers on duty for the event was Harris’ nephew, Lt. Stephen Harris.
Those ironies were not lost on Anthony Harris. “Always, in the end, good triumphs over evil,” he said.