Forrest

PEOPLE

Gray, Victoria Jackson

Victoria Jackson Gray was a Hattiesburg native that helped lead the MFDP's challenge to Mississippi's all white delegation to the Democratic National Convention of 1964. Gray also ran on the MFDP ticket for the U.S. Senate seat then held by Senator John Stennis. Gray's campaign headquarters were located in the Woods Guest House at 507 Mobile Street. Gray began her civil rights activism by organizing literacy classes where she used the Mississippi voter registration form and the state constitution as textbooks.

Sources:

Tusa, Bobs. The University of Southern Mississippi Libraries Special Collections. http://www.lib.usm.edu/~archives/crsitdoc.htm

http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aah/adams-victoria-jackson-gray-1926-2006

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PLACES

Forrest County Courthouse

The Forrest County Courthouse was a cite of contention for many Civil Rights Movement activists in Hattiesburg. Although the U.S. Constitution guaranteed American citizens the right to vote, in many areas of the South, local registrars of voters implemented procedures designed to keep African Americans from registering to vote. The right to vote was the single most important objective of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. In the early sixties, only fifty black citizens of Forrest County were registered to vote in spite of the fact that 30%of the population was black.

In addition to paying a poll tax (later declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court), citizens trying to register to vote had to complete a voter registration form (thereby requiring literacy as a prerequisite to voting, later declared unconstitutional) and to read and interpret a passage of the Mississippi state constitution to the satisfaction of the registrar. Local businesswoman Victoria Jackson Gray began her civil rights activism by organizing literacy classes where she used the Mississippi voter registration form and the state constitution as textbooks.

Historian Neil McMillen notes that "Mississippi ... permitted fewer blacks to vote for Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964 than had been eligible to vote for William McKinley in 1896. ... Whether field hand or college professor, domestic servant or physician, a black Mississippian could rarely meet the exacting standards of the county courthouse" ("Black Enfranchisement in Mississippi: Federal Enforcement and Black Protest in the 1960's," Journal of Southern History, Aug. 1977, 351, 354).

Beginning on Freedom Day, January 22, 1964 and continuing throughout the spring, a "perpetual picket line" of peaceful demonstrators, many of whom were church pastors flown in from all over the country by the National Council of Churches, marched in front of the Forrest County Courthouse for voting rights. Civil Rights Movement leaders came from all over the country to join with local African Americans and march peacefully with picket signs in front of the Forrest County Courthouse.

Sources:

Tusa, Bobs. The University of Southern Mississippi Libraries Special Collections. http://www.lib.usm.edu/~archives/crsitdoc.htm

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EVENTS

Freedom House of Hattiesburg

In 1964, beginning with Freedom Day (January 22) and continuing through Freedom Summer, Mrs. Lenon E. Woods, the owner of the Woods Guest House at 507 and 509 Mobile Street, allowed the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) to use a vacant portion of this historic two-story hotel as its headquarters.

The building had been built between 1895 and 1900 as a hotel for African Americans in a racially segregated society. It was located in the heart of Mobile Street, the “main street” of Hattiesburg’s African American community a bustling center of small businesses, restaurants, and movie theaters, patronized not only by local African Americans but also by black servicemen from nearby Camp Shelby.

Dr. Howard Zinn, Boston University professor and faculty advisor to the national civil rights organization the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) describes in his book SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964) the Freedom House staffed by legendary SNCC Field Secretaries Robert Moses and Fannie Lou Hamer. The house was furnished with the late 19th century marble-topped mahogany furniture of the Woods Guest House.

During Freedom Summer 1964, the Hattiesburg Freedom House was the headquarters of the Hattiesburg and Palmer’s Crossing project, the largest Freedom Summer site in the state. Under the direction of SNCC Field Secretary Sandy Leigh, over ninety volunteers and approximately 3,000 local people organized Freedom School classes for the largest number (650-675) of students in the state and voter registration instruction. Volunteers canvassed local African American neighborhoods, refurbished and furnished of two buildings to serve as community centers, and assisted visiting teams of attorneys, doctors, nurses, folksingers, and the Free Southern Theater repertory troupe.

In addition to housing COFO headquarters and a Freedom Library of books donated by Americans from all over the country, the Freedom House at 507 Mobile Street also served as the Hattiesburg headquarters of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) beginning in 1964. The MFDP was an alternative grass-roots political party which registered over 80,000 black Mississippians and challenged the all-white delegation to the regular Democratic Party’s Presidential nominating convention in Atlantic City in August 1964 and later the all-white Mississippi representation to the U.S. Congress. The two challenges were led by Fannie Lou Hamer from the Delta and Victoria Jackson Gray from Hattiesburg.

The Freedom House was destroyed by fire in September of 1998.

Sources:

Tusa, Bobs. The University of Southern Mississippi Libraries Special Collections. http://www.lib.usm.edu/~archives/crsitdoc.htm

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GROUPS

Hattiesburg Ministers Union Headquarters

This building at 522 Mobile Street (the northeast corner of 6th and Mobile Streets), constructed in 1950 and still standing, housed J.C. Fairley’s Radio and TV Repair business and the Negro Masonic Lodge No. 115 (identified by the cornerstone). While the Freedom House at 507 Mobile Street housed COFO and MFDP headquarters, the building at 522 Mobile Street was the headquarters of the Hattiesburg Ministers Union, which later became part of the Delta Ministry.

Local African American ministers Rev. L.P. Ponder and Rev. J.E. Cameron helped to organize this group of pastors turned civil rights activists. Working with the National Council of Churches, the Committee of Free Southern Churchmen, and the national headquarters of the Presbyterian Church, the Hattiesburg Ministers Union oversaw the arrival, lodging (cots in the back room), meals, showers (Mr. Fairley rigged a temporary shower stall), and civil rights activities (voter registration canvassing and picketing the Forrest County Courthouse) of hundreds of Protestant pastors and Jewish rabbis from all over the country, especially during Spring 1964.

From 1964 to 1966, Rev. Bob Beech, a Presbyterian minister from Illinois, headed the Hattiesburg Ministers Union and then the Delta Ministry office in Hattiesburg both from his office in the Masonic Lodge building. He moved to Hattiesburg with his wife and sons. Another son was born to them while they were here.

Sources:

Tusa, Bobs. The University of Southern Mississippi Libraries Special Collections. http://www.lib.usm.edu/~archives/crsitdoc.htm

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DOCUMENTS

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