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“People Who Stood Up”: Mississippi Women in the Civil Rights Movement

This guest blog post comes to us courtesy of Catherine Turner, a high school senior working at the American Folklife Center this Spring on her service project for Park School in Baltimore, MD. Catherine is entering Brown University in Fall 2017, and has spent the last six weeks diving into the collections at the Library that reflect her interest in history, social justice, and civil rights. The stories of the activists whose experiences she references below are included in the interviews conducted in 2015-16 for the national Civil Rights History Project. These interviews are currently being processed and prepared for eventual release on the website later in 2017, and will add greatly to the dozens of other interviews with astonishing women activists  from Mississippi, and across the nation, in the collection.

Jeannette Smith’s name does not appear in history books. She has given no televised speeches and no biopics memorializing her life have been produced. But Smith was at the forefront of the struggle for voting and civil rights in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, during the 1960s. Growing up in a mixed-race family in Soso, Mississippi, she was confronted early in life with the limits racism imposed on African Americans. She went on to work with two prominent civil rights organizations – the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) and the NAACP – in the early 1960s. Her memories of the struggle are vivid, particularly those of Freedom Summer 1964, when Northern activists, principally college students, arrived in Mississippi to support the efforts of local African Americans engaged in the freedom struggle.

Jeannette Smith interviewed for the CRHP collection (afc2010039), 12/010/2015, Hattiesburg, MS

In those early years of the  Movement, Jeannette Smith met many people whose names do appear in history books, the same books that omit the story of her and and other local activists’ work in the struggle. Numerous national civil rights figures, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael traveled to the deep South, trailed by many journalists and photographers who chronicled these leading lights for various publications. Smith draws a contrast between the Hattiesburg-based activists and the outsiders in her 2015 interview with Emilye Crosby: “We were not writers. We didn’t come down here [from outside Mississippi] representing churches…organizations. We weren’t documenting any history. We were just doing it because we wanted our rights.”

I encountered Jeanette Smith’s story and other narratives like hers in the Civil Rights History Project (CRHP) collection, which is housed in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The CRHP is a joint initiative of the Library and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and logging and correcting some of the transcripts from the first-person interviews in the collection have been the main focus of my six-week senior project through the Park School of Baltimore. As my work at the AFC comes to a close in the next few days, I wanted to reflect on the experiences of Ms. Smith and other local activists whose struggle for freedom, equal rights, and justice for African American citizens shaped the course of American history.

History often forgets those who do not actively document it. The voices excluded from standard narratives, disproportionately, are of those individuals without the means, location, or status to make themselves visible. In many narratives of the Civil Rights era, the perspectives of women and local activists are especially absent.

But, oral histories can provide a window into stories previously untold and the lives of heroes previously unsung. The CRHP has interviewed some of these heroes, including Smith, on their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. (NOTE: Many of the nearly 150 CRHP interviews were conducted by Emilye Crosby, Professor, SUNY-Geneseo.) Below are some more stories of women who changed their local communities indelibly and, in doing so, changed the United States and the world.

Ellie Dahmer first moved to Forrest County, Mississippi, to work as a teacher in the early 1950s. She quickly became involved in the voting rights struggle and the local NAACP branch, alongside husband Vernon Dahmer, Sr. (who eventually became president of the Forrest County NAACP). One of the Dahmers’ many contributions was making it possible for customers at their grocery store to pay them the poll tax that voter registration officials required before a registrant could vote. The Dahmers would then bring their customers’ poll taxes to the registrar. Voter registration officials often intimidated, threatened, or dismissed African-American would-be registrants; by streamlining the process, the Dahmers made it possible for more people to comfortably attempt to register.

Mrs. Ellie Dahmer interviewed for the CRHP collection (afc2010039), 11/30/2015, Hattiesburg, MS

Like Jeannette Smith, Dahmer participated in Freedom Summer 1964. Her role was primarily “behind the scenes.” As she notes in her 2015 CRHP interview with Emilye Crosby, “I did not participate in nothing but cooking, getting food out there for them to eat, and helping with whatever needed to be helped with.” It often goes unremarked that these everyday chores were essential to the success of Freedom Summer, as activists arriving in the Deep South relied entirely on the local community for food and shelter. It cost immense time, energy, and resources to support these visitors, but Dahmer and other women added to their already-heavy workloads in order to support visiting activists.

The Dahmers’ actions were all the more courageous given the constant threat they lived under. Unlike the visitors who could (and did) eventually return to their safe homes far away from local hate groups and belligerent officials, the Dahmer family was firmly rooted in its community. On January 10, 1966, tragedy struck the Dahmers. Ellie Dahmer was asleep in bed when she was awoken by gunshots and flames: her home was under attack by the KKK. Though Mrs. Dahmer and her children escaped, her husband died from smoke inhalation.

Rather than retreat after this brutal attack, Ellie Dahmer stood up, testifying in court against KKK members and officials who had intimidated or abused black Hattiesburg residents in order to bar voting access. She would later be voted election commissioner for District 2 of Forrest County, an office in which she served three terms. “It was a wonderful feeling to be able to help with something that they had denied me, and I made sure that nobody else was denied,” Dahmer says in her interview.

Peggy Jean Connor interviewed for the CRHP collection (afc2010039), 11/30/2015, Hattiesburg, MS

Peggy Jean Connor was born and raised in Hattiesburg. She was first exposed to the civil rights struggle through her seventh-grade citizenship class. After inheriting her aunt’s beauty shop, she began to collect poll taxes for customers, like the Dahmers did in their store. She was also a key early member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which was founded in 1964 by, among others, Fannie Lou Hamer, one of the most renowned local activists in the history of the struggle. Connor was elected as an MFDP delegate for the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where the group of 68 challenged the legal standing of the state’s all-white, segregationist Democratic Party to represent all Mississippi citizens. At the convention, Connor, along with the delegation, rejected the national Democratic Party’s offer of two non-voting seats to the convention for the entire group. As Connor notes, “I didn’t come all this way from Mississippi for two…votes. I mean, they’re going to give you two seats, and you couldn’t vote! No, we wouldn’t have it!”

To this day, Connor continues to participate politically. She is particularly proud of the Movement’s success in electing black officials to public office. Unfortunately, few of these officials recognize Connor’s role in laying groundwork for their careers. “I found out a lot of these elected officials, they don’t want to be associated with me, period,” she says. And Connor’s activism was only recently brought into view when photographs of her with other MFDP leaders began to circulate. “Didn’t nobody know nothing about me until Herbert Brown [local activist]…sent those pictures,” Connor recalls. “People in that delegation don’t even remember me, because I was quiet.” Not all of Connor’s contributions have been recognized, but all were vital to the success of the civil rights struggle in Hattiesburg.

Glenda Funchess interviewed for the CRHP collection (afc2010039), 12/02/2015, Hattiesburg, MS

Glenda Funchess is also a native Hattiesburg activist. She participated in Freedom Summer, attended a Freedom School at Mount Zion Church, and played a major role in school desegregation. But Funchess, unlike these other women, was only ten years old during Freedom Summer. She worked toward school desegregation from the position of a student, attending previously all-white junior high and high schools. As a child, she braved harassment and exclusion from classmates, both for her involvement and for her background. Funchess remembers:

I did this paper on Martin Luther King, because I was there when he spoke about the Poor People’s March two weeks before his death. [O]ne day, the history teacher said, “Glenda, I need to speak to you. Outside of class, she said, ‘Some of the students got ahold of your paper, and they cut it up. But you got an A on it.’ So, it was one incident after another.

But Funchess was not deterred from her pursuit of civil rights and justice. Her subsequent career has involved writing anti-discrimination policy and providing legal services for disadvantaged individuals in Hattiesburg. Funchess has committed herself to carrying the legacy and history of the Civil Rights Movement into the future, spearheading a tour of important civil rights landmarks throughout the South for Hattiesburg youth. She is critical of histories of the struggle that do not honor the contributions of local activists and community institutions, especially churches. “I had to bankroll [a commemoration of] Freedom Summer last year [2014], because there was a concerted effort to take the celebration from the churches that had opened their doors [to the Movement],” she states in her interview with Emilye Crosby. “There were about six churches, where they had Freedom Schools, and nothing was planned [to include them in the events]. These churches were the ones that risked being fire-bombed.” It is important to Funchess that today’s audiences are aware of the seemingly ordinary “people who stood up” against discrimination, and that the voices of these ordinary people are heard.

Without these women’s work, it is undeniable that Hattiesburg would be a different place today. But Hattiesburg is not unique in that regard. Many of the Civil Rights Movement’s most important gains were the product of unseen work by people whose lives and livelihoods were under direct threat, but who persevered in the fight for their own rights and the rights of their local communities. When we forget them, we lose the lessons their stories hold; when we remember them, we learn from their struggle. We learn that change does not always, or even usually, occur on a grand scale. It happens within communities, between individuals. It happens when people decide that their destinies, and destinies that they see play out every day, have been set in unjust ways. And, paradoxically, it is these individual changes that set off the domino effect of global change.

Selected Texts:
Cline, David, From Reconciliation to Revolution: The Student Interracial Ministry, Liberal Christianity, and the Civil Rights Movement, 1960 to 1970 (University of North Carolina Press, 2016)

Crosby, Emilye (ed.), A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi (University of North Carolina Press, 2005)

____________ Civil rights history from the ground up: Local Struggles, A National Movement (University of Georgia Press, 2011)

Dittmer, John, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (University of Illinois Press, 1995)

Jeffries, Hasan Kwame, Bloody Lowndes: Civil rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (New York: New York University Press, 2009)

Blog posts:
Stewart, Kate,  Women in the Civil Rights Movement  (2015)

Catherine Turner at work
in the AFC auditing CRHP interviews, June 2017; photograph by John Fenn