Civil rights activists stage a peaceful voter registration mass picket in front of the County Court House in Greenwood, Miss., on March 25, 1964. / Associated Press
WASHINGTON - Dorie Ladner remembers driving 90 miles south to Hattiesburg, Miss., one rainy day in January 1964 to join protesters outside the courthouse demanding voting rights for blacks in her hometown.
It was the first time Ladner, then a senior at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., had taken part in a protest so close to home. She and other civil rights activists feared that their actions could lead to retaliation against family members.
"I felt a little uncomfortable being right there in downtown Hattiesburg," Ladner, 71, recalled of her participation in "Freedom Day," as the event was dubbed. "I didn't feel scared. ... You can't let fear overtake you. Wherever we had to go, we went to bring about change."
Ladner was among thousands of Southerners who took to the streets in the 1960s to end the system of segregation that barred blacks from voting, from eating in many restaurants and from going to school with whites. Local farmers, domestics and teachers played crucial roles, large and small, in the civil rights movement.
"There are so many unsung heroes that you don't hear about," said Cynthia Palmer, executive director of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement. "We have to keep in mind all those persons we'll never know the names of, who supported (the movement) just as much as some who were on the front line."
Their achievements, which ultimately led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other landmark legislation, are being celebrated across the country this year with ceremonies and presentations marking the 50th anniversary of major events in the civil rights movement.
Local efforts mattered
Civil rights veterans attribute their successes to people such as the grandmothers who held chicken-dinner fundraisers to help send participants to the 1963 March on Washington. Many local churches housed civil rights workers and hosted mass meetings.
Some locals opened their homes to civil rights activists. Others washed and ironed clothes for protesters and chipped in gas money so they could get to the demonstrations.
Historians say projects such as "Freedom Summer" in 1964 couldn't have happened without help from locals in Mississippi.
"If you commemorate the summer, you also commemorate those people who were there before the summer and those people who were there after the summer," said Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.
The decisive battles of the civil rights movement came in such places as Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 and cities and small towns in Mississippi in 1964, Carson said. Freedom Summer, he said, drew national attention to the "entrenched" segregation in Mississippi, which had more lynchings than any other state. The project was key to passage of the Voting Rights Act. "It set the stage for it," Carson said.
Groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, made up mostly of students from historically black colleges, relied on Mississippi and Alabama residents to spearhead voter registration efforts.
"SNCC's work was organization. We lived in the community," said Courtland Cox, chairman of the SNCC Legacy Project. "What we did was work with the people to make sure that they were stronger people, which made a big difference.''
SNCC at the grass roots
SNCC, like other civil rights groups, focused on "breaking the political stranglehold that existed'' in the Deep South, Cox said. "We didn't create big stages,'' Cox said. "Our thing was in the local communities, working one on one with those communities, and that's not where the press and the glamour (were).''
It was local black businesses owners in places like McComb, Miss., in the early 1960s, who helped activists navigate unfamiliar territory and gain the trust of locals, recalled Reggie Robinson, then a 19-year-old field secretary for SNCC.
"They would feed us. They used to give us gas. ‚?¶They would support what we were doing,'' said Robinson, who lives in Washington, D.C. "There were some who wouldn't because they were afraid to, but in a lot of these places they would be the support.''
Robinson recalled Web Owens, a retired Pullman porter, begging businesses to feed and house activists. Owens and others would also get owners to chip in money to get activists out of jail.
He remembers George Heads, who ran a taxi business, driving workers around to register blacks to vote. One late night, he took Robinson, Marion Barry, SNCC's first chairman, and John Doar, a Justice Department official, to get an affidavit from a man who had been denied the right to vote.
Despite the economic risks, Heads and others would serve as liaisons, Robinson said.
Local activists had been working across the state trying to register blacks to vote, but they mapped out a plan to bring their work to the attention of the entire country.
"We knew if people from the outside came in, then the whole nation would get a glimpse of Mississippi," recalled Ladner, who now lives in Washington, D.C.
"Mississippi has never been the same since. ‚?¶ The curtain was pulled back. Laws began to change," Ladner said.
Civil rights activists did turn to outsiders, namely white college students from the North, to draw national attention to their efforts during Freedom Summer. Many of those students stayed in the homes of black families and slept in pews at black churches.
"That was basically our first contact with white Americans," recalled Glenda Funchess, 59, a regional managing attorney for the Mississippi Center for Legal Services in Hattiesburg.
Three years after Freedom Summer, Funchess, at the NAACP's urging, attended a white middle school.
"I went on a mission," Funchess said.
For a year, the 13-year-old ate lunch by herself. She says she still gets apology letters from white students who treated her badly during that period.
Gracie Hawthorne of Hattiesburg had a similar experience. For years, she studied from used schoolbooks, often with pages torn out, at the segregated schools she attended.
By high school, Hawthorne had had enough. What bothered her most was that her parents couldn't vote. She joined anti-segregation protesters on Freedom Day - Jan. 22, 1964.
"I remember the excitement of the day," Hawthorne, 67, a retired Head Start worker, recalled. "It was a scary time, but we were going to show America and Hattiesburg that we as students disagreed with segregation and the way black folks were being treated."
Despite fears of retaliation, Hawthorne's mother, who took in laundry for a white woman and cleaned house for another, let her daughter join the demonstration.
"Mama was scared, but she knew I was passionate about it," Hawthorne said.
Freedom Day turned into weeks, with Hawthorne regularly joining protests after school at the courthouse. In April, after finishing a chemistry exam, Hawthorne was arrested for ignoring a court order calling a halt to the demonstrations.
She spent years afterward in other Mississippi communities helping register blacks to vote.
"It didn't just go away," she said of local activists' efforts. "We just kept it going."
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Read the original story: For '60s activists, freedom was serious summer pursuit