Hattiesburg kicks off Freedom Summer commemoration with march

HATTIESBURG, MS (WLOX) - The City of Hattiesburg played a critical role during civil rights activities in Mississippi back in 1964.

That was the year of "Freedom Summer", an organized campaign to help blacks register to vote.

A re-enactment march in Hattiesburg on Wednesday, kicked off a series of events to remember and reflect on those civil rights struggles.

"Fifty years ago today, groups of civil rights activists from across the country partnered with local Hattiesburg residents to challenge the discriminatory practices that kept African-Americans from voting here in Forrest County," said Dr. Sherita Johnson, the director of the Center for Black Studies. "They were prepared to face the towering figure of circuit clerk, Theron Lynd, who had not allowed any blacks to register to vote despite the ruling of the U.S. Supreme court to outlaw intimidation tactics."

A rally outside Trinity Baptist Church preceded the morning march.

"This is our opportunity to honor those who fought tirelessly for African-Americans to gain the right to vote," said Dr. Cheryl Jenkins.

Both women spoke at a pre-march rally in front of Trinity Baptist Church.

USM president, Dr. Rodney Bennett, was among those leading the march.

He reminded the crowd that USM was not yet integrated in 1964, but thanks to the courage and struggles of those who stood up for change, USM is now among the most diverse institutes of higher education in the country.

"I am hopeful that each of us will remember their courage, their spirit and their role in changing our history," said Dr. Bennett.

Many in this 2014 re-enactment, also marched these same streets in 1964 under far different circumstances.

"Sixty four was unbelievable. They called Mississippi, it was referred to as "the blood state" because people were killed, fire bombed. You know we lost three civil rights workers that summer," recalled Glenda Funches, who was among the 1964 marchers.

The re-enactment march ended at the Forrest County courthouse, where 50 years ago a defiant circuit clerk refused to register blacks to vote.

"Today, we are thankful to you for coming out and supporting this event. Your presence tells the world that we will remember," said one of the organizers.

Harold Dahmer remembers all too well.

His father, NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer, was fire-bombed to death two years after Freedom Summer.

"The younger generation don't have no struggles now. It was back during a long time ago. Older people had struggles. And so, we've overcome some of it, but there's a lot of it out there still in the way," said Dahmer.

"Sometimes it's difficult to stand up for what's right," said Dr. Anthony Harris, who stood up as a teenager in '64.

He was arrested by Hattiesburg police for his demonstrating, scared to death by the threat of police dogs and an intimidating officer wielding a "black jack".

"And I'm going to tell you his exact words. And I apologize if I offend anyone's sensibilities. Because I want you to hear what my ears heard. He said, 'This is what we use to beat niggers' asses with'. And I thought to myself, oh my God, we managed to not get eaten by the dogs, but now this man's going to beat us to death," Dr. Harris recalled.

He was rescued by his brave, outspoken mother, who demanded the police release her child.

They complied.

But the impact on that then-teenager will be forever remembered.

"We pray that as we move forward, that we will continue to give of ourselves until thou shall call us from labor to reward," prayed Rev. John Cameron.

The re-enactment march was the first in a series of events to remember "Freedom Summer 1964".

Other activities will include various speaking engagements, special exhibits and a conference at USM, June 19th through the 21st.

Copyright 2014 WLOX. All rights reserved.