Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement Conference: Student Reflections

May 20, 2013
Keila Davis and Myrlie Evers-Williams

Guest Blogger, Keila Davis reflects on a recent conference she attended as a first year student in the MA in Public Humanities Program.  

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With support from program provided conference funds,  I was able attend the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement Conference in Jackson, Mississippi, March 20th – March 24th  at the historic Tugaloo College campus.    I was encouraged to attend the conference by Anne Valk because of my interest in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, by my professor Charles “Charlie” Cobb Jr. a veteran activist of the movement in Mississippi and former SNCC field-secretary, and largely, because of my role as a collections research intern with the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum (MCRM). Though mid-academic year, and far from New England, this was a professional opportunity not to be missed.  This conference would help me understand first-hand the impact and legacy of the movement as well as the opportunity to connect with veterans and scholars of the era. 

To say that the conference was simply “great” is an understatement. The stories, lessons, and “aha” moments that I gained from attending are priceless. I was able to participate in small informational sessions, a banquet, engage with freedom songs, and see many of the historic sites around the city of Jackson.  Most importantly I was able to meet amazing Civil Rights Veterans who taught me valuable lessons of community organizing, dedication, and that many issues facing communities of color today are similar to the struggles faced during the 1960s.

There were three major highlights of the conference:

  1. Hearing stories and connecting with them, with the storyteller – Having discussions with numerous veterans of the movement personalized my studies here at Brown. I was able to place faces with the many names that I have read about in books and newspaper articles like Hollis Watkins and Dorie Ladner.  To hear first-hand their narratives of courage and faith along with painful and chilling tales of arrests, murders, and injustices changed me.  Listening to these experiences both humanized a movement that, for me, has been over-romanticized and somewhat glossy or entirely absent in books.  Many of these local Mississippi activists have been left out of the mainstream narrative that has shaped the public’s view of the Civil Rights Movement.  Being there enabled me to hear unvoiced history, stories untold.  Because this conference was specifically about Mississppi activism, I was able to learn and contextualize many stories within the larger history of the fight for human rights – stories that unfortunately have not yet made it to the mainstream.  Being on site, hearing these personal stories tapped into my emotions and made some painful realities real for someone like me, who hadn't lived them.   I was in the physical place that witnessed violence, courage, heart and that connection heightened my emotional response.  At a “We Remember Medgar” event, towards the end of the panel discussion, Hollis Watkins sang an passionate ode to Mr. Evers, a song so emotional that he even cried after singing it. Seeing the tears in his eyes made the movement real. It showed me that so many people are still dealing with the emotional wounds and sad memories that occurred over 50 years ago and that so many of these legacies, sentiments, and stories will be lost if it is not preserved. Building these relationships were also very important for both my research and internship with the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. I had a revitalized sense of urgency to tell these stories and a true connection with the movement that placed upon me a level of responsibility to tell the whole story. I felt that I was trusted and encouraged by the many people that I met at the conference, a feeling that I could not get from doing research in Rhode Island.
  2. Exhibit Design Team Meeting – While in Mississippi I was able to meet my boss, Jacqueline Dace, the Project Director for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, face-to-face. I’ve been working in a distance research position organized by the Center’s community jobs program, as the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum’s collections research intern. My role with the MCRM is to research possible objects including stories, photographs, and 3D artifacts that could be used by the museum and added to their collection, but until this conference, I had not actually met  my boss or colleagues.   Jacqueline invited me to sit in on an exhibit design team meeting that included all of the museums executive staff and the visiting design team where I was exposed to questions and debates surrounding the connection of the community to the museum, how to tell such violent stories, how to work with updatable exhibits, etc. Many of the scenarios and lessons that I had learned in classes at Brown were actually being worked out and debated on in a professional sphere. It was fascinating to experience that environment particularly because it is my career goal to become a museum curator. My boss was able to provide me with the backstory for these discussions and bring me up to speed with a project I'd only been connected to remotely prior to my trip.  After the meeting she debriefed me on a new object that she helped to acquire for the museum and her challenges in developing the collection. It's not every day that one has this kind of opportunity.  I was able to see the behind-the-scenes challenges, developments, and discourses around the construction of a state-funded museum.  And I loved it.
  3. Meeting Myrlie Evers-Williams!!! – Ok, so this was the absolute highlight, climax, and magnificent moment of the trip. Myrlie Evers-Williams is the first woman and layperson to give the invocation at a presidential inauguration – she gave such prayer this past January for President Obama’s inauguration. She is also the widow of slain Mississippi Civil Rights Activist Medgar Evers who was assassinated at his home in 1963. What a powerful woman with a presence like none other. I was in awe that I was able to not only introduced to her by my boss Jacqueline, but I had the opportunity to speak with her for 5 whole minutes!! I also spoke with her daughter Reena who is equally charming and very funny! Mrs. Evers-Williams attended the banquet that culminated the event. I am not sure if Mrs. Evers-Williams will ever know the impact that her kind words had on me, but I am so glad to have met her.

This trip gave my research a personal meaning and provided me with contacts to help enrich my internship with Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.   I was able to meet and network with scholars and activists under the same roof. I witnessed interviews and the documentation of oral histories, and I was also taken to get Mississippi Catfish by an 89-year-old woman who worked with the NAACP for over 50 years. I encourage anyone interested in African American History, human rights issues, and/or community organizing to attend this conference in future years. I am extremely eager to attend the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer post-graduation in the summer of 2014 and to continue to foster the relationships gained from visiting Mississippi. 

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