Tracing the Origins of the Civil Rights Movement
Sociology professor studies the role played by colleges in Mississippi
When people think of the civil rights movement, they usually think of individuals such as Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, Jr.
But this individualistic framing is not necessarily accurate, according to Southwestern University Sociology Professor Maria Lowe.
“There were people who were ensconsed in networks that had been talking about integration for a long time beforehand,” Lowe says.
Studying some of these networks that operated “under the national radar screen” has been the focus of Lowe’s research for the past 12 years.
Lowe says she became fascinated with studying the civil rights movement when she was asked to team teach a course on the subject during May Term in 1998. The course took students to all the major civil rights sites in the south and provided opportunities for them to talk to early activists in the movement.
“It was the best teaching experience of my life,” Lowe says.
A chance encounter at a party hosted by a retired Southwestern faculty member launched Lowe on her research path. At that party, she was introduced to Morton King, a former sociology professor at the University of Mississippi who resigned his tenured position in 1955 when the administration at Ole Miss made him rescind the offer he had made to a guest speaker after finding out that speaker had given money to the NAACP.
“I wondered about what other forms of protests faculty members at schools in Mississippi had done,” Lowe says.
Much of her research has focused on two colleges in Jackson, Miss. − Tougaloo College, a historically black college, and Millsaps College, a historically white college.
In 1952, long before Mississippi became integrated, a group of black and white scholars gathered regularly at Tougaloo College for meetings they called the Social Science Forums. At these meetings, the participants would hear lectures, discuss political issues, and strategize about ways they could challenge Mississippi’s system of racial segregation.
“Having a safe location where blacks and whites could regularly come together to question the legitimacy of racial segregation was extremely rare,” Lowe says. “I don’t know that there was any other space like this in the Deep South.”
The Social Science Forums were started by Tougaloo Sociology Professor Ernst Borinski, who escaped from Nazi Germany in 1938. The forums met twice a month on Wednesday evenings and typically included dinner followed by a discussion period. The audience ranged from 20 to 200 attendees, including Tougaloo students, faculty and administrators; progressive members of Jackson’s white, black and Jewish communities; and moderate white faculty members and students from Millsaps College.
To encourage interracial interactions at the dinners, Borinski asked Tougaloo students to arrive early and sit in every other seat, thus compelling white guests to sit in between black students and facilitating interracial discussions.
James Loewen, a former Tougaloo sociology professor who attended the forums, says that this was, in many cases, the first time the white invitees and the black Tougaloo students had ever eaten with someone of the other race.
Loewen is one of 50 people who were connected directly or indirectly with Tougaloo or Millsaps during the civil rights movement who Lowe has interviewed as part of her research. To date, Lowe has published four papers based on her research and has a file drawer full of materials for future papers.
Lowe says that Tougaloo College was uniquely positioned to host the Social Science Forums because it was a private university. “Private black colleges were relatively financially independent from the southern white power structure, which afforded them more protection and freedom,” she says.
However, as the forums grew in popularity, they came under growing scrutiny from the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which was created in 1956 to oppose school integration and to preserve a segregated society.
“Representatives from the Sovereignty Commission would wait in unmarked cars outside the gate of Tougaloo College to take down the license plate numbers of those who went onto campus,” Lowe says. “Some people were intimidated, but they still went.”
Despite the risk of harassment, Lowe found that the forums had a profound impact on all those who attended. For Tougaloo student activists, the forums informed their ongoing civil rights activism and put them in regular contact with others who believed in the importance of racial integration and equality. For Tougaloo students who were not yet involved in the movement, the forums were a launching pad or incubator for their eventual activism. Tougaloo faculty members who attended the forums worked closely with many of Tougaloo’s student activists in protests to oppose racial segregation in Jackson.
For Millsaps faculty members who frequented the forums, Lowe found that “getting to know blacks as equals, exploring ideas that challenged the state’s racial status quo in an interracial setting, and interacting with people involved in the movement, including Tougaloo student demonstrators, helped to begin the process of dispelling stereotypes, which, in turn, facilitated a change in their attitudes about racial integration and civil rights activism.”
In part as a result of the forums, Millsaps faculty members began to push for change at their white-only college. They successfully changed the college’s segregated seating policies in 1963 and its closed admissions policy in 1965.
Lowe says some other whites who attended the forums told her they were motivated to become emissaries for racial integration among other white Mississippians.
While other researchers have documented the role black colleges played in the formation of networks of black civil rights activists, Lowe is the first researcher who has documented the role these colleges played in the formation of inter-racial networks.
For her next paper, Lowe plans to compare and contrast what happened at Tougaloo and Millsaps College during the civil rights movement with what happened at the University of Mississippi. After that, she plans to write a paper comparing and contrasting what happened at the three colleges in Mississippi with what happened at three colleges in Tennessee – Vanderbilt, Fiske and Tennessee State.
Lowe hopes to place transcripts of all the interviews she has conducted at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.