Return to Mississippi
Abandoning his degree course prematurely at the University of Chicago, as well as leaving the relative peace and security of Chicago to run the family farm in a segregated and volatile Mississippi, could not have been easy for Clyde. He remained determined to ensure this break from the routine of his studies was as short as possible and to avoid his previous years of study counting for naught. He hoped and planned to complete his degree course once the farm business was back on track, but Mississippi was a state in the grip of civil resistance and unrest with a determination to preserve segregation.
After returning to Eatonville, and still with his mother’s Baptist upbringing influence, he joined the Mary Magdalene Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, codirected their youth choir, and started the first Bible class for young people, becoming a Sunday school teacher in the process.
As a young girl, Gloria Peck was in Clyde’s Sunday school class and later remembered that he “taught his students with a firm but gentle hand, planning Christmas plays and delivering fruit baskets to every child in the area on the holidays.” 2 Viola Grant, who also worked with the youth choir, recalled that even his fellow church volunteers thought he was a bit of a “goody-goody.” 3 She added that in an effort to “corrupt” Clyde, a group of friends took him to the Embassy Club in Palmers Crossing. Although they knew Clyde did not drink, they ordered a bottle of wine and poured him a glass. But when they left at the end of the night, “that glass of wine was still there,” she said. “He was just a different sort of person.”
Clyde became good friends with his neighbor, the barrel-chested fifty-three-year-old Vernon Dahmer Sr., whose farm was only two miles from Clyde’s. Dahmer was an NAACP activist, and Clyde joined the NAACP, serving as president of the local NAACP Youth Council founded by Dahmer, who also acted as an adviser. It was through this involvement that Clyde met Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s field secretary in Mississippi, who traveled to Hattiesburg to assist in setting up an NAACP youth chapter. This was when Evers first became aware of Clyde’s NAACP youth work. There were many parallels between these two men. They were the same age, they’d grown up in rural farming families, they were World War II army veterans who had pursued further education on their return to the United States through the GI Bill, and neither was intimidated by white segregationists.
Clyde also attended statewide NAACP meetings in Jackson, and as the pair’s relationship grew, Medgar developed an enormous respect for Clyde. “Clyde was like a brother to him,” recalled Joyce Ladner.
Clyde mentored both Joyce and Dorie Ladner, fifteen-year-old sisters who were both members of the youth council and pupils at Earl Travillion High School. Clyde tutored Joyce in English and history, and on one occasion, he helped her write a speech on the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. She recalled that Clyde “took his time” with Joyce and her sister, adding that “he was very patient.” 6 She graduated valedictorian of her high school, while her sister. Dorie graduated salutatorian.
Clyde was serving on the Eatonville school board when the authorities decided to consolidate the Palmers Crossing and Eatonville Negro schools. He was incensed that the 125 black students from Eatonville had to travel eleven miles to attend classes at Palmers Crossing. To make matters worse, the Eatonville Negro students passed the all-white Eatonville school enroute to Palmers Crossing.
He joined others in circulating a petition to have the Eatonville schoolchildren attend the closest school, the all-white Eatonville school. Predictably, their petition was unsuccessful. In the segregationist world of Mississippi in 1955, regardless of the United States Supreme Court’s Brown decision, the public education system continued under the “separate but
After settling back in the Eatonville community, Clyde began to develop and expand the family farm, taking a loan to buy a plot of land in Eatonville and purchasing three thousand hens to start a chicken farm. In June, to supplement the farm’s income and earn additional funds to repay the loan, Clyde set up business as a “small gardening and handyman service,” purchasing “1 push mower, 4 power mowers, 1 wheel barrow and numerous assortment of gardening tools,” as well as a pickup truck a few months later.
With a second source of income and the family farm set up to work in a way that would allow him to continue his studies, Clyde turned his attention to completing his degree course. Similar to the Eatonville school pupils, the nearest Negro college for Clyde was around ninety miles
away, at Jackson State College in Jackson; however, the nearest all-white college, Mississippi Southern College (MSC) in Hattiesburg, was only about five miles from the farm and around a fifteen-minute drive. With his commitments to his mother and the farm, Jackson State College, at ninety or so miles away, was not a practical option, as he wanted to finish his education close to home. To allow him to both complete his degree and run the farm, MSC was the obvious choice.
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Mississippi Southern College (MSC) was approaching its fiftieth anniversary, and construction of a new library facility, at a cost of $855,000 to accommodate two hundred thousand volumes, had just been completed.
At the time MSC was described by journalist Ronald A. Hollander as “white-columned, red bricked, broad walked and ivied, with lily pond and kissing bridge.” 9 MSC at the time was essentially a liberal arts school, and the intention of its alumni was its eventual status as a university.
The college marching band; the cheerleaders, named the Dixie Darlings; and the football and basketball teams were all white. The mascot was “Old Nat,” who rode on a horse called Son of Dixie. Old Nat took his name from former Confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest,
who had tormented Union troops during the Civil War with lightning raids and from whom Forrest County itself took its name.
Social life at MSC was typical for the time, revolving around sports events and bus trips downtown to see the latest movies, but with curfew at 9:00 p.m. for freshmen girls.
As with all public education in segregationist Mississippi, MSC was entirely dependent on the state for its funding; its president, William David McCain, was responsible to the state-appointed Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning; and by definition, MSC’s entire student
body of around 4,200 were white.
McCain, a former army general and “hardcore segregationist,” became the college’s president on August 18, 1955, promising to keep the campus “dusty or muddy with construction.” This driving ambition reflected the alumni’s desire to secure university status and for MSC to join the state’s other flagship schools, Ole Miss and Mississippi State University. The last thing McCain wanted under his presidency was adverse publicity from an integration attempt. Any question of threatening the whites-only tradition would adversely affect the pursuit of university status.
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Clyde believed that common sense would prevail despite the political climate in Mississippi in the wake of the Brown decision and that integration would be achieved. He decided to enroll at MSC to complete his degree course while at the same time running the family farm. Unlike
Medgar Evers’s petitioners, Clyde’s enrollment was not motivated by the NAACP but simply his own desire to complete his degree course. “Clyde just wanted to finish school,” recalled Dorie Ladner. “He wasn’t trying to make a political statement.”
While not motivated by the NAACP, as a member of its Forrest County chapter, he had discussed his intention to enroll with them. Far from any discouragement, local president J. C. Fairley and fellow member Joseph Otis actively encouraged Clyde to apply for admission.