Contact: Zack Plair
STARKVILLE, Miss.—In a crowded ballroom in Starkville’s Hilton Garden Inn, Oktibbeha County native Chris Taylor spoke candidly about his experiences growing up African American in the segregated South.
Serving on a panel gathered to discuss that very issue, Taylor looked into a room of faces – some white, some black, some of other races or ethnicities – all listening intently. There was no “white” or “colored” side of the room. Everyone sat together.
It wasn’t always like that in Starkville, said Taylor, the president of the Oktibbeha County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Seeing it, he added, showed just how far things had come.
“We have come a long way as a society, and we (African Americans) are now in a position where we are not afraid,” Taylor said. “There was a time you couldn’t say things like this to a crowd like this.”
A two-hour community forum Thursday night [Oct. 29] highlighted the struggles of African Americans during Starkville’s civil rights movement, starting from its slow-moving grassroots beginnings in the early 1960s through the public school desegregation process in the early 70s. Others serving on the panel included Shirley Hanshaw, associate English professor at Mississippi State University; Michael Vinson Williams, dean of social sciences at Tougaloo College; and Stephanie Rolph, an assistant professor of history at Millsaps College.
Funded by the Mississippi Humanities Council, the forum, “A Shaky Truce: Civil Rights Struggles in Starkville, MS, 1960-1980,” was a collaboration between the university’s history department and MSU Libraries.
The forum also debuted a digital history website (http://starkvillecivilrights.msstate.edu) on Starkville’s civil rights movement, with interviews compiled by a team led by associate professor of history Judy Ridner, and assistant professors Hillary Richardson and Nickoal Eichmann with MSU’s Mitchell Memorial Library.
While the website now includes 16 interviews giving firsthand accounts of Starkville’s civil rights movement, Ridner showed brief clips of some of the interviews Thursday to sum up the story of the team’s research findings. While Starkville’s movement didn’t become as physically violent as other more notable movements of the era in Mississippi, Ridner said it didn’t “go smoothly.” In fact, interviews pointed to local blacks being slow to organize because of fear of reprisal from whites.
Once the NAACP started a Starkville chapter in 1969, marches, protests and a boycott of downtown businesses followed. The flashpoint of Starkville’s public school desegregation in 1971 brought the struggle to a head, Ridner observed, with black unrest and white resistance to change reaching their height.
Still, as project participant Nancy Bardwell noted during a part of her interview shown during Thursday’s event, life went on. Now a library associate with MSU, Bardwell was among the African American students who desegregated Starkville High School in 1971, and she remembered feeling awkward.
“There was still a divide in the classroom,” she said. “It was obvious we didn’t want to be there, and (the whites) didn’t want us there. But that was just the way it was, and we made the best of it.”
In another interview, Starkville resident Minnie McCarter noted that, over time, the integrated classes “made it work,” and many students formed friendships that crossed racial lines.
Those in attendance on Thursday could sign up to tell their own stories to be published on the project’s website, one that Ridner said she hopes will continually evolve.
“We’ve found that this region of Mississippi is understudied in terms of the civil rights movement, and that has created an African American community who feels completely neglected as far as telling their stories,” Ridner said. “We want this to be a vehicle for them to tell their stories so that we can create a dialog in the community about this time period and what it means.”
MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.