Project, forum recount civil rights era in Starkville

Contact: Zack Plair

STARKVILLE, Miss.—For Shirley Hanshaw, Starkville’s civil rights movement may have lacked the turmoil and violence iconic of other Southern communities in the 1960s, but the struggle toward racial equality still left emotional and psychological scars.

Now an associate professor of English at Mississippi State University, the Oktibbeha County native and 1965 graduate of then-segregated Henderson High School remembers using tattered, cast-off textbooks, looking out the window as she passed several white campuses during long bus rides to her own school, and being relegated to enter local businesses through the back door.

“It was demoralizing,” Hanshaw said. “Everything was second- or third-best. When I was an elementary school student, it didn’t really dawn on me; but as time wore on, it became apparent that I was being treated like a second-class citizen.”

Hanshaw is one of five panelists who will speak as part of a community forum from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Oct. 29 at the Hilton Garden Inn. The event will recount the civil rights era in Mississippi, specifically Starkville. Funded by the Mississippi Humanities Council, the forum, “A Shaky Truce: Civil Rights Struggles in Starkville, MS, 1960-1980,” is a collaboration between the university’s history department and MSU Libraries. The public is invited to attend the free event.

Other panelists will include Michael Vinson Williams, dean of social sciences at Tougaloo College in Jackson; Stephanie Rolph, a professor at Millsaps College in Jackson; Chris Taylor, president of the Oktibbeha County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and project staff member Nick Timmerman, a graduate student in history at MSU.

The forum also will debut a digital history website ( 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. So far, Richardson said, the project team has compiled interviews with 16 participants – including forum panelists Hanshaw and Taylor – with hopes to grow that number over time. Dr. Richard Holmes, the first African American to enroll at MSU, also provided an interview for the project.

At next week’s forum, Richardson added, others who lived in Starkville during that era can record their stories for publication on the project’s website.

With Starkville’s NAACP chapter forming in 1969 and public school desegregation following in 1971, Richardson said the project tells Starkville’s story of persistence.

“It was successful in terms of it being ‘peaceful,’ in a sense, but it was very slow to happen,” she added. “Starkville’s civil rights movement is sort of defined by its lack of physical violence, but there’s a more nuanced and personal story to tell.”

As the website develops, Ridner said she hopes it becomes a prominent teaching tool in high school and college classrooms across Mississippi as they study the civil rights era, as well as by scholars researching the movement.

“We’d like to make Starkville’s story better known because we believe it’s important,” Ridner said. “From what we’re seeing so far in our research, Starkville seems to offer an alternative model to that of the Delta, the region most civil rights scholars study when they look at Mississippi’s movement.”

Hanshaw left Starkville after graduating high school in 1965 and returned 40 years later to join MSU’s faculty. While she acknowledges the progress made toward racial equality in Starkville over those four decades, she hopes the civil rights project helps “explode the myth” that Starkville’s progress came smoothly and without cost. She also hopes it reveals that the struggle isn’t necessarily finished.

“I see a great deal of potential for the future,” she said. “There’s more progress to be made.”

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