Mississippi had pockets of strong local civil rights activity before the Freedom Riders entered the state, but their presence in 1961 propelled the local movement to new heights.
Civil Rights Movement
Prior to the involvement of national initiatives in the 1960s, such as the Freedom Rides, local people worked to bring an end to discrimination in their communities. These efforts were led out of public view in private homes, churches, and small businesses. For this reason, the early local leaders of the Civil Rights Movement are often overlooked in history.
In 1949, political scientist V. O. Key suggested that “insofar as any geographical division remains within the politics of [Mississippi] it falls along the line that separates the delta and the hills.” By the time Key thus defined the state’s political line of demarcation, James O. Eastland had already been a significant player on both sides of it.
Aaron Henry was born in 1922 in Coahoma County, Mississippi, the son of sharecroppers. From a young age, he worked in the cotton fields alongside his family on the Flowers Plantation outside of Clarksdale. He remembered those years vividly when he recalled, “As far back as I can remember, I have detested everything about growing cotton.” Regardless of his early hardships, education was a priority for the Henry family.
Clyde Kennard put his life on the line in the 1950s when he attempted to desegregate higher education in Mississippi. Kennard, a little-known civil rights pioneer, tried to become the first African American to attend Mississippi Southern College, now the University of Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg. In doing so, he ran afoul of the White political establishment and paid a heavy price. After his tragic death, his story was overshadowed by other developments in the civil rights movement.
Clyde Kennard, a young Korean war veteran born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, tried in 1955 to become the first African American to attend what is now the University of Southern Mississippi. Though overshadowed by more well-known figures from the mid-20th century civil rights movement, Kennard’s story is an integral part of the history of segregated Mississippi. It is the story of a seemingly ordinary person who courageously acted on his beliefs. Clyde Kennard deserves a permanent place in the annals of the civil rights struggle.
When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education, compliance with this judicial ruling was met with much resistance in Mississippi. Even though most Mississippi schools had integrated peacefully by the mid-1970s, the integration of Mississippi schools was a long hard-fought battle that took place between the national government and state officials.
Mississippi public schools underwent a dramatic change in 1970. After sixteen years of delays and token desegregation after U. S. Supreme Court orders to dismantle the state’s dual school system, a steady stream of legal action by Black parents and federal intervention toppled the state’s ninety-five-year-old “separate but equal” educational system in which White school children went to one school system and Black school children went to another one.
In this lesson plan, students are challenged to move beyond a step-by-step recitation of events in Mississippi’s civil rights years. Rather, they are encouraged to compare the effectiveness of various techniques used in the civil rights drama, and to discover the plan and purpose underlying the acts that brought the movement to a successful climax.
CONNECTION TO THE CURRICULUM
Mississippi Studies Framework: Competencies 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5
When Youth Protest: Student Activism and the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, 1955-1970 Lesson Plan
Given the opportunity, most students are eager to explore and to understand the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. Their interest will certainly be aroused by an informative study of youth involvement in the movement, an area often overlooked in a cursory review of the primary leaders and events. Students will be engaged in thinking about the following questions as they research the subject: