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  • Nicole J. Burton

If You Don't Vote, You Don't Count

Before leaving Jackson, I walk down Capitol Street past the site of the 1963 Woolworth's lunch counter sit-ins by Tougaloo College students and professors. The Mayor of Jackson had refused to desegregate downtown businesses despite being court-ordered and a mob attacked the protesters while police looked on. More than 50 students were arrested and segregation protests and voter registration drives accelerated. People I've talked to are proud of the achievements of the Mississippi Movement. Black and white, they speak with refreshing candor about history, racism, and ongoing struggles. I drove to my last destination, Hattiesburg, through the Pine Belt. Near the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi, I met African-American and gender studies professor and author of Strategic Sisterhood, Dr. Rebecca Tuuri. Over coffee at T-Bones Cafe, she unloaded a glorious treasure trove of book, online, and people resources to further my research. Hattiesburg was a civil rights hub, Rebecca told me, the biggest of the Freedom School sites, with over 3,000 local activists, 70 student volunteers, and 645 students enrolled in Freedom Schools in the summer of 1964. At her suggestion, in the waning light I squeezed in drive-by's of the African American Military History Museum, formerly one of two black USO's; the Mt. Zion Baptist Church, known locally as "the Civil Rights Church," where Rev. Martin Luther King preached two weeks before his assassination; the Eureka School, one of the first brick schools for black students built in the South, and my favorite site, the new Vernon Dahmer statue that graces the front of the Forrest County Courthouse. Vernon Dahmer was a Hattiesburg farmer, businessman, and civil rights activist whose motto appears in the photo. Dahmer died when his house was fire-bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1966. This courthouse, named for a Confederate Civil War general who was the first Grand Wizard of the Klan, was the site of hundreds of black people lining up to register to vote in the rain in January 1964.

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