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