Civil rights leaders speak at USM
Several notable civil rights activists and speakers presented the Black History Month Forum: “Past Struggles, Current Challenges” at the LAB on Feb. 16.
The Center for Human Rights and Civil Liberties (CHRCL) sponsored the event.
Guests included civil rights leaders Peggy Jean Connor, Raylawni Branch, Bettie Dahmer and City of Hattiesburg councilwoman Deborah Delgado.
Professor of political science and CHRCL co-director Bob Press introduced the guest speakers, beginning with Branch.
Branch, who participated in the Civil Rights Movement and was one of the first African-Americans to attend The University of Southern Mississippi in 1965, began the forum by criticizing Black History Month.
“There are many events during this month, and I’m one of those people who wants to change – to stop stuffing everything into one month,” Branch said. “This is not black history. This is USM history. This is Mississippi history. This is United States history.”
Branch said America’s youth needs to become educated on how elections work and then participate in elections.
“The one thing I want to live long enough to do now is make sure more names go on the ballot than one name and one position,” Branch said.
Connor, a former citizenship teacher and a founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, began her portion of the forum by sharing personal anecdotes with the audience.
One of the stories she told involved clearing her own name.
Following the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Connor took a bus home, according to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) website. Connor’s fellow party member and SNCC project director Lawrence Guyot remembered Connor threatening the police officer with the knife. However, Connor denied making this threat.
“It’s in the history books, and I want to get this straight right now,” Connor said. “I really believe in nonviolence today. We kept moving as long as we were nonviolent. One of my co-party members said that I had a knife on the bus. That never happened.”
Bettie Dahmer, daughter of activist and Forrest County NAACP chapter president Vernon Dahmer, told the story of her father’s assassination.
According to Dahmer, the Ku Klux Klan attacked the Dahmer family’s Hattiesburg home Jan. 10, 1966. The KKK, led by grand wizard Sam Bowers, used shotguns and gas jugs to set the house on fire. Ellie, Bettie and the rest of the Dahmer children survived, but Vernon died of severe burns and smoke inhalation.
“Everyone knew that we were about to be killed that night, but they didn’t care,” Dahmer said. “‘You know, you just gonna be another dead n*****.’ That’s how Sam Bowers put it.”
Dahmer said her father received little support from the black Christian community.
“My father was excommunicated from a Baptist church, and of course that was a black church,” Dahmer said. “Black people haven’t always been what they say they are, so you need to research your history so you will find out who has been supportive and who has not. My daddy was kicked out of membership at Shady Grove Baptist Church because of his activity in civil rights.”
Lastly, Delgado discussed her current struggles with redistricting and representation.
“When you look at the challenges we face as a city, most of the time it’s because the decisions are not made on the best interest of the community,” Delgado said. “It’s because of a certain segment of the community.”
According to Delgado, 52 percent of the population in Hattiesburg is African-American, but efforts to redistrict to provide a greater chance of electing African-American or liberal- minded officials have failed due to the amount of white men on the city council.
When the event came to a close, sophomore and CHRCL intern Lindsey Hargrave said the event was a success.
“I think we had some good conversation, and I think that we really helped connect some of the young people here at USM with people who paved the way,” Hargrave said.