Rust College: A history in civil rights

By Lena Mitchel/NEMS Daily Journal

HOLLY SPRINGS – Black students leaving home for college in the 1950s and 1960s had a lot of expectations to shoulder.
For many it was the first time a family member had attended college, and earning a degree was the top priority.
Often the next expectation was that the college graduate would find employment with higher earning power, more social status and a better quality of life than the generation before.
The third expectation was usually that the college graduate would become a productive, respectable and contributing member of society, reaching back to help other African-Americans follow a similar path to success.
Many of those expectations and dreams were put in jeopardy, postponed or thwarted during the turbulent civil rights era.
The dramas that defined the civil rights movement played out on the campus of historically black Rust College in Holly Springs – and around Marshall County – as they did in other communities across the South.
Rust, which was established in 1866 and is connected to the United Methodist Church, provided both a safe haven for activists and a launching pad for civil rights activities.
Those were historic times, and since then Anita Moore has returned to Rust College as head librarian to help prepare future generations of students and leaders.
Moore graduated from Mississippi Industrial College – whose campus faced Rust College across Memphis Avenue and held shared classes with Rust – in 1960. She then went to work as a teacher in Byhalia.
“As soon as I got out of college and started working there was an uproar to get people to register to vote,” Moore said. “There were a few ‘token’ black folks that white people had allowed to be put on the rolls, but only a few.”
Several teachers in the county were fired from their jobs when they or their spouses attended voter registration meetings, and African-Americans organized boycotts of businesses around Holly Springs’ courthouse square in protest.
“There were five or six of us that they took to the courthouse to see if we could get registered,” Moore recalled recently. “We had to take a voter registration test, and I used to remember what my question was. It was something a fifth-grader could answer.”
Moore and the others – college graduates who included her husband, Arvern Moore, who already earned his master’s degree – took the test. All later received letters saying they had failed and could not register to vote.
“I’m not sure if the investigation began with the NAACP or which organization, but the FBI came to my house and asked my husband and me what questions they had asked us on the test,” Moore continued. “When the investigation was over we got a letter telling us we could go back and register. The people at the courthouse looked at us as if they wanted to kill us because they had to let us register.”
Moore has been a regular poll worker during Marshall County elections since that time. She began her job at the Rust College library in 1967, and is now the second longest– serving employee at the college.

Partners in the struggle
Across Marshall County other people were working to create a level playing field for African-Americans.
J.M. “Flick” Ash, 82, has retired from a 44-year political career that included terms as mayor of Potts Camp, state legislator, sheriff and chancery clerk, and has a track record of supporting black candidates.
“I came back from service in World War II and the Korean War and became mayor of Potts Camp in the early 1950s,” Ash said. “I knew what was right and what was wrong. We had some turmoil in Marshall County, but not as much as in some places.”
Ash said he feels largely responsible for helping elect the county’s first black sheriff – Osborne Bell – who was elected to two terms beginning in 1980, but died in 1985 in the line of duty while making an arrest.
“The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act brought big changes in Marshall County,” Ash said. “Around the state and the nation blacks had been trying to register for a long time, and we went out and registered a lot of people then. President Johnson finished off some things President Kennedy wanted to do, and things really changed from there.”
Ash’s service continues on the board of the Northeast Mississippi Planning and Development District and the zoning board in Potts Camp. He also has served on the Rust College board and retired last year from the Mississippi Veterans Affairs Board.
“All of my political life I’ve gotten 85 to 90 percent of the black vote, which showed I was trying to do the right thing,” he said.

Area civil rights highlights
Black voter registrations increased after the mid-1960s laws passed, but activists continued to press for equality on many fronts.
Rust College Professor Sylvester Oliver put the college and county’s civil rights history in perspective in a timeline of the period from 1957 to 1989 that he published in 2003.
n In 1965, Rust College President W.A. McMillan took a group of students to conduct a sit-in at a local lunch counter.
n In 1965, Rust College students and professors successfully integrated local clinics and doctors’ waiting rooms and the bus terminal.
n In 1966, Marshall County residents participated in the James Meredith March Against Fear down Mississippi Highway 51, during which Meredith was shot.
n In 1966, Marshall County Citizens for Progress, a local moderate group, conducted a boycott against white Holly Springs merchants for discriminatory hiring practices.
n In 1967, almost 8,000 African-Americans voted in the Mississippi primary in Marshall County, and voters elected four black men to county offices.
n In 1969, Eddie L. Smith was elected the first black alderman in Holly Springs since reconstruction.
n In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schools must end segregation at once.
n In 1972, Leon Frazier, a Rust College student, won a class-action federal lawsuit that allowed college students to vote where they attend school.
n In 1974, the United League of Marshall County, a direct action civil rights group, was organized.
“The whole idea of the civil rights movement was to rid the country of inequality between the races and get rid of the Jim Crow practices that lingered,” Oliver said.
More work to do
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, NAACP and later the United League were among the groups that organized civil rights efforts in Marshall County.
“Basically the United League involved students from the start,” said Marshall County Justice Court Judge Ernest Cunningham, one of the early members. “It basically started from the Butler Young incident in Byhalia.”
Butler Young was killed while in police custody in 1975, and when a grand jury refused to investigate it prompted protests and boycotts by the United League.
“It started with a traffic stop, and they said he ran,” said Robert Young, currently victim services director for the Domestic Violence Project based in Oxford. He, too, was an early member of the United League.
“It expanded to marches in Byhalia, Holly Springs, Tupelo, Okolona, Houston and Lexington, all over the state,” Cunningham said. “It pretty much shut Byhalia down and definitely got their attention in Tupelo.”
Members of the United League and the NAACP worked together, Young said, but the difference was that members of the NAACP had to receive approval from the national organization to act.
“They couldn’t endorse candidates, and still can’t, but the United League could,” Cunningham said. “Flick Ash was one of the candidates we endorsed, and he endorsed us.”
Through all the adversity of the era, many Rust College students, faculty and staff, as well as Marshall County activists, stood together to make a difference.
“The leader of the United League used to say ‘If you help the oppressed it will help the oppressor as well,’” Cunningham said. “He always reminded us that we were fighting for human rights. We had a right to these things because we were human, not because we were African-American.”

Contact Lena Mitchell at (662) 287-9822 or lena.mitchell@djournal.com.