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August 1961

Young people sit-in in McComb

In August 1960, Curtis Hayes and Hollis Watkins walked into SNCC’s office in McComb. Watkins approached Bob Moses and said, “We were told that Dr. King and other big folks are out here holding meetings.” In his characteristically measured tone, Bob Moses introduced himself and told them about the voter registration project. On the spot, Watkins and Hayes agreed to start canvassing for SNCC.

Early on, SNCC recognized the importance of getting local young people involved in the McComb Movement. With the help of NAACP stalwarts like C.C. Bryant and Web “Super Cool Daddy” Owens, they recruited young people to help with voter registration. While Bryant and Owens quickly embraced SNCC, the broader community had a more cautious reaction to the organizers. The fear of white retaliation paralyzed members of the community. “There were a lot of people that would come by the office,” Watkins remembered, “but that is as far as they would go; they wouldn’t go on down to the courthouse and attempt to register.”

Although Watkins and Hayes started off doing voter registration work, they soon met members of SNCC’s direct action wing who had also come to McComb after Moses began working there. They began training local young people in direct action and encouraged them to start their own direct action committee. When they formed the Pike County Nonviolent Direct Action Committee, Watkins became its president and Hayes its vice president. Almost immediately, the group began planning a sit-in at the McComb public library. However, “One of the things we had not investigated was the days that the library was open,” Hollis Watkins recalled. It was closed.

Only Watkins and Hayes had showed up for the library sit-in, but undismayed, the two decided to sit-in at the Woolworth’s instead. All of the seats at the lunch counter were taken, so they had to wait around awkwardly pretending to shop. Finally, two seats opened up. The server ignored them. The police were called. An officer approached the counter and ordered them to leave immediately, but Hayes and Watkins refused and were arrested.

That night, two hundred people attended a mass meeting in McComb. James Bevel, then a SNCC field secretary, spoke at the meeting, encouraging local people to get involved in the Movement. Brenda Travis, a high school student heard his call to action. She felt compelled to “show that we were organized and that this was a movement that wasn’t going to die.” Along with Robert Talbert and Ike Lewis, Brenda Travis staged a sit-in at the McComb bus station.

Talbert, Lewis, and Travis spent a month in the Pike County jail. When she was released, Travis found out that she’d been expelled from school. McComb students would soon walk out of school in protest.

Sources

John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbaba: University of Illinois Press, 1994).

Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

Interview with Hollis Watkins by John Rachal, October 23, 29, 30, 1996, Oral History, University of Southern Mississippi Digital Collections.

Interview with Curtis Hayes by McComb and Urban School Students, March 14, 2011, Telling Their Stories Oral History Project, The Urban School of San Francisco.


Interview with Joe Martin by Jimmy Dykes, November 1, 1995, Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, USM

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“Students Face Violence for You!” SNCC fundraising flyer from McComb, Mississippi, 1961, crmvet.org


Interview with Hollis Watkins by John Rachal, October 23, 1995, Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, USM


Jack Minnis, “A Chronology of Violence and Intimidation in Mississippi Since 1961,” April 1963, Freedom Summer Collection, WHS