Mattie Bivins (Dennis)
February 24, 1940 – October 25, 2018
Raised in Hattiesburg, Mississippi
On a CBS national broadcast, Mattie Bivins told the country what registering to vote in her hometown, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, was really like. “I was thinking as I walked along the dirt road in front of my house about the dust which would be on my shoes and the scars from the rocks. And that if we had enough registered voters–Negro registered voters, that is–this wouldn’t be a problem at all. Because the streets would be paved.” It was September 26, 1962, and only 12 of the 7,500 voting-aged Blacks in Forrest County, Mississippi were actually registered to vote.
David Robertson, local science teacher at Rowan, the Black segregated high school, was one of the many who Forrest County circuit clerk Theron Lynd deemed ‘ineligible’. Robertson–a Cornell graduate and National Science Foundation fellow–was told he failed the required literacy test. In the face of such harsh local repression, locals like Mattie Bivins used their community knowledge and connections to organize.
For Bivins, civil rights work was a family affair. She and her relatives formed a web of local activists in the local Freedom Struggle. As a child, Bivins watched her father D.K. Bivins fight for the vote alongside farmer and NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer. Her cousins Dorie and Joyce Ladner were integral to SNCC’s organizing in Palmer’s Crossing, a proud and resilient Black community just south of the Hattiesburg line. This local network and support system inspired Bivins and others to keep on despite fierce white resistance to their efforts.
When Bob Moses came to town in the summer of 1962, Bivins was ready to jump on board with SNCC. She went with fellow Tougaloo College students Colia Liddell and Dorie Ladner to Sunflower County to register people to vote. For a time she managed the SNCC/COFO office in Greenville, Mississippi.
Dave Dennis, the only CORE organizer in Mississippi at the time, came to Hattiesburg, and met this community of local people changing the world around them. There he met Mattie, and soon he and Bivins married, forming an important partnership rooted in organizing for the Movement as well as love.
Bivins brought important local knowledge of Mississippi and incredible commitment to the Movement. But when it came to adding people to staff–and to payroll–national organizations like SNCC and CORE were under serious financial constraint. In December 1962, Bivins wrote to James Farmer, National Director of CORE. “Here in Mississippi,” she wrote, “there is much that has to be done and especially in my hometown (Hattiesburg).” She went on, “it is my feeling that as a Mississippian, I am familiar with the problems here and can do my best work helping the people here.”
Dave Dennis wrote a letter a week later pleading for CORE to hire her. “She is the type of person that I need for the project here… She will be quite a boost to the movement here.” There were no funds to hire her, but she continued working on COFO voter registration projects across Mississippi anyway. Meanwhile, she and Dennis kept waiting on the single monthly $25 check to survive.
In 1963, Bivins went back to Tougaloo and kept fighting against segregation and police brutality. And, despite the financial stress that Bivins, Dennis, and all movement workers dealt with everyday, they shared what they had to keep the Movement family alive.
Dave Dennis, “Unsung Heroes of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer,” Southern Quarterly, Fall 2014, 44-50.
Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of Growing Up Poor and Black in the Rural South (New York: Dell Publishing, 1968).
Interview with Joyce and Dorie Ladner by Joseph Mosnier, September 20, 2011, Civil Rights History Project, Library of Congress.