On Friday morning, Feb. 2, 2018, an unveiling ceremony was held on the USM campus for a new historical marker detailing the efforts of Clyde Kennard to enroll at Mississippi Southern College.
Kennard had tried to enroll as a student at Southern Miss multiple times in the late 1950s, but was denied admission because of his race. He was later arrested on trumped-up charges and sentenced to seven years in prison. In this episode, Raylawni Branch of Hattiesburg recalls Kennard’s attempts to integrate the all-white college. Branch was active in the Civil Rights Movement between 1959 and 1965. She describes her work with the NAACP and the limited opportunities for black people in Hattiesburg.
In 1965, Branch was a young mother, trying to make ends meet. She remembers being offered the chance to become one of the first African-American students at Southern Miss. Shortly afterwards, Vernon Dahmer, a popular businessman who led the local effort to register black voters, died from injuries he sustained when the Ku Klux Klan firebombed his home at Kelly Settlement. Branch recalls Dahmer’s generosity and how he died fighting back.
When Elaine Armstrong and Raylawni Branch became the first black students at USM, they were assigned six bodyguards for protection. Branch reflects on how they were accepted by the other students.