Mississippi streets became classrooms where civil rights activists and local historians were teachers for a university course about the civil rights movement, focusing on Mississippi.
“Mississippi was ground zero for the movement” Rebecca Tuuri, an associate professor at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, said Wednesday.
She said the real teachers in the combined graduate and undergraduate course titled “Topics in African American History” were the people who lived through the era and are preserving its memories.
“These people are very nice to let our students prod and pick and ask questions. They’re really the ones who deserve credit for being willing to talk about traumatic events,” she said in a telephone interview.
They included Ellie Dahmer, widow of slain civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer of Hattiesburg; Jackie Martin of McComb, who participated in a high school walkout; Lillie Easton of Hattiesburg, who was a civil rights leader’s niece and went to one of about 40 freedom schools designed to teach civil rights as well as academic subjects in Mississippi during the summer of 1964; and Henry Bethley, who has created a small museum in the basement of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Hattiesburg, where a freedom school was held.
The university’s main campus is in Hattiesburg, where as many as one-third of the black residents participated in civil rights activity during the 1960s.
The students did plenty of other research. Undergraduate assignments included creating a curriculum for a modern freedom school and creating a podcast, including an introductory synopsis, of a civil rights figure whose oral history is in the university’s collection.
Dani Kawa of Richmond, Virginia, a student in USM’s dual history/anthropology master’s program, said she was amazed by the activists’ resilience, especially in Mississippi.
“It’s one thing to read about people fighting for equality and justice in a book; it’s another thing completely to listen to someone talk about their experience of standing with their friends and their communities in the face of imminent danger to do so,” Kawa said in a university news release.
Kawa said she never really learned about the civil rights movement in high school, and the assignments, lectures and field trips were eye-opening.
Tuuri said her last civil rights history class, in 2016, was about evenly split between whites and African Americans. This year, 13 of 17 undergraduates and all 13 graduate students are white.
“I’m white, too,” Tuuri said. “That’s another reason I need to get students to speak with people like Miss Hilda Casin,” who runs a history museum called the Black History Gallery.
“She is a retired schoolteacher who has dedicated her life to teaching the history of McComb,” Tuuri said.