Let’s Revisit Nat Turner Day

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant declared April 2016 as Confederate Heritage Month and set aside April 25, 2016 to honor those who served in the Confederacy.  In the last full year of the first African American president’s administration, when Mississippi still lags behind in public education and health, the state’s top executive chose to pay homage to those who fought to keep African Americans in bondage.  What a tragedy and misuse of executive power.

According to the 1860 U.S. Census, Mississippi had a slave population of 436,696 and a free population of 354,700.  It was one of only two states with a black majority…a majority who could not vote, who could not go to school, who could not legally marry, and whose freedom did not exist.  Governor Bryant chose to honor those who supported such a dismal way of life for the state’s antebellum majority population.  Even in 2016, there are those who suggest that the Civil War was not about slavery.  If that is true, then someone should have informed the secessionists. Mississippi Confederates made their desire to preserve slavery abundantly clear in their “declaration of the immediate causes which induce and justify the secession of the state of Mississippi from the federal union.”  These lawmakers asserted:

our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery--the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of the commerce of the earth.  These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery, is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has long been aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.[1]

Mississippi’s Confederate Heritage Month is problematic not only because of the Confederacy’s inextricable relationship with slavery, but also, because there is no official recognition of Mississippians—black and white—who fought for the Union.  Five hundred white residents from the state and more than 17,000 black residents donned blues during the Civil War.  Governor Bryant, what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

Black Mississippians have long realized that many of the state’s honored traditions and observances exclude them.  In the mid-1960s, the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) Head Start program debated the best ways to deal with such exclusion.  Working-class black Mississippians and their white and black allies created the program in 1965 and operated it until 1968.  The program’s mission was to provide black children with quality early childhood education and to provide black parents with well-paying jobs and leadership opportunities.  CDGM personnel debated substituting the anniversary of Nat Turner’s Rebellion or the anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers in place of President’s Day, Labor Day, or Veteran’s Day.   The proposed substitutions speak to both the sense of black pride that ruminated throughout CDGM centers and CDGM’s supporters’ acknowledgement of African Americans’ racial exclusion in society.  Perhaps it is time to send Governor Bryant a list of new individuals and events worthy of having commemorative months.  Let’s revisit Nat Turner Day.

For more information about the untraditional Head Start program that worked to end African American exclusion, pick up a copy of A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle.

[1] Proceedings of the Mississippi State Convention. Held January 7th to 26th, A.D. 1861,” Accessed Electronically on April 14, 2016 via Documenting the American South, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, http://docsouth.unc.edu/imls/missconv/missconv.html.

Black Women and Head Start in Mississippi's Post-1964 Freedom Struggle

March is the month of the year dedicated to recognizing women whose contributions to society too often go unnoticed.  In honor of Women’s History Month, I use this space to acknowledge the activism and leadership of working-class black women in Mississippi who transformed a federal early childhood education program into an opportunity to challenge white supremacy in “the most southern place on Earth.” Over the last two years, there have been many commemorations celebrating passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  While these pieces of legislation were crowning achievements of the African American freedom struggle, black Mississippians kept their hands on the freedom plow.  They did so because rather than desegregate public facilities as the 1964 civil rights bill mandated, many business owners in Mississippi simply closed their doors.  AFTER Congress passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act and federal voter registrars came into the South, white supremacists killed Vernon Dahmer in 1966.  Dahmer was a black man from Hattiesburg who had the audacity to encourage African Americans to register to vote.

Black women in Mississippi understood all too well that civil rights legislation alone could not improve their lot.  Many of them turned to Project Head Start, an early childhood education program created in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty.  These women created the largest inaugural Head Start program in the nation, the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), and used CDGM to improve their lives and the lives of their children.  CDGM operated from 1965 until 1968 and employed more than 2,500 black women.  Head Start did not originally require its teachers to have formal teaching credentials.  Thus, black women who had previously worked as domestics or are agricultural workers earning $3 per day chopping cotton began making $75 per week as Head Start teachers.  These jobs bettered their standard of living and gave them the financial freedom to continue their civil rights organizing. 

For example, Mrs. Hattie Saffold secured CDGM employment and then enrolled her daughter in the previously all-white elementary school in Durant, MS.  Segregationists attempted to intimidate Mrs. Saffold by posting her name on fliers around town, but she would not be moved.  She did not worry about job termination because she was employed by the federal Head Start program.  Mrs. Alice Giles of Indianola also found that Head Start gave her greater financial freedom to agitate.  Klansmen had already bombed the Giles’ property in May of 1965 because of the family’s civil rights work, but Mrs. Giles remained undeterred.  As a Head Start teacher, she took one of her sick students to a medical doctor’s office and sat in the white waiting room.  On that hot summer day in 1965, she taught her student that he had a right and a responsibility to challenge segregation.  Stories abound of CDGM women using the financial freedom of Head Start employment to challenge racial segregation and black disfranchisement.

The Head Start program allowed black women to give their children quality educational opportunities, healthcare, and nutritious meals.  As one mother explained, “CDGM is something that our children have never had before.  We are a race of people who never had anything for our children except standing around at the end of cotton fields.’’  CDGM was a chance for mothers to give their children a head start, a healthy start, and a fair start in life.  Many black children saw medical doctors for the first time and had two hot and balanced meals throughout the week.

Not everyone celebrated CDGM's successes and connection to the movement.  The white power structure worked tirelessly to defund the program.  If you want to learn more about CDGM women and the opposition they faced from segregationists, pick up a copy of A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle.

Staff at the Porterville CDGM Center

Staff at the Porterville CDGM Center