Selected Excerpts from Book
Chapter 1: Medgar’s Mississippi
Excerpt: Tougaloo College
It is nearly ten miles from the old capitol in downtown Jackson to Tougaloo College, just outside the city limits to the north. State Street, which runs perpendicular to Capitol Street, leads directly there.
Tougaloo is one of America’s approximately one hundred surviving historically black colleges and universities (HBCU). Distinctive double-arched wrought-iron gates stand guard at its main entrance. Between the words “Tougaloo College” on the large arch, an ornamental cross indicates the school’s religious foundations. The second, smaller arch, carries the acronyms “AMA” and “UCMS,” additional clues to the college’s rich history. AMA refers to the American Missionary Association, a Christian organization with strong abolitionist leanings that was established in 1846 to educate whites on the evils of slavery while evangelizing and educating blacks in both Africa and America. After the Civil War, the AMA shifted its focus to educating the recently freed slaves, or freedmen. Initially nonsectarian and nondenominational, the AMA eventually became the vehicle through which several denominations fulfilled their charitable and evangelical missions.
With the financial support of the churches and the Freedmen’s Bureau, a post–Civil War federal agency charged with helping former slaves, the AMA started more than five hundred schools in the South during Reconstruction. Tougaloo was founded in 1869 on the land of what was known as the old Boddie Plantation. Because Mississippi’s Reconstruction constitution promised all citizens—white and black—a public education, for a time Tougaloo received state funds in addition to AMA support. The college also obtained a state charter in 1871, a significant political move that would shield it decades later from the attacks of conservative political leaders.
In its early days, the college’s primary mission was to educate black teachers for the state’s growing number of black schools. Initially named Tougaloo University, the school first created a “normal school” to train teachers and a “model school” where the developing teachers could get classroom experience by teaching local children.
The college was by tradition politically conservative—more in the Booker T. Washington mold than that of W. E. B. Du Bois. Advising its students to concentrate on education rather than activism as the best long-term strategy for success, the institution’s administrators seldom openly challenged segregation for nearly the first century of its existence. But Tougaloo’s mere existence challenged the established norms of Mississippi culture once Jim Crow laws and a new segregationist constitution went into effect in 1890. At Tougaloo, whites and blacks lived and worked together, while in the rest of the state the two races rarely interacted other than in boss/servant relationships.
The UCMS initials on Tougaloo’s arches are those of the United Christian Ministry Society, an offshoot of the Disciples of Christ denomination that had, like the AMA, sponsored schools for blacks during Reconstruction. One of those schools, the nearby Southern Christian Institute, merged with Tougaloo in the early 1950s.
The historical center of the campus is the Boddie Plantation house, a three-story structure with wide porches and dramatic overhangs built in 1848. The house, called “the Mansion” by modern students, sits atop the highest point on campus and overlooks large oak and hickory trees covered with draping Spanish moss. The spiritual center of the college is Woodworth Chapel. Built at the turn of the century and named for an early Tougaloo president, the chapel is an elegant wood and brick structure with a tall bell tower that in earlier days regularly called the students to prayer. With the onset of the civil rights era, the bell also would beckon students to the chapel during moments of crisis or celebration.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Beard Hall was known as the intellectual center of the campus thanks to the radical thinking of the college’s lead sociology professor, Dr. Ernst Borinski. Professor Borinski, nicknamed Bobo, was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. He had been a law clerk and law professor in his native country, but once Hitler came to power, he became acutely aware of the danger he and other Jews were risking by staying in the country. Unable to convince his family of the coming catastrophe, he decided to save himself and successfully bribed his way out of the country. He arrived in the United States in 1939 and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. After the war, with the help of the GI Bill, Borinski earned a master’s degree in sociology at the University of Chicago and a doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1947, he accepted a professorship at Tougaloo because, in the words of one of his students, “He believed that the race question was at the heart of America’s problems, and he wanted to be where that problem would work itself out.”
Borinski created his now-legendary Social Science Lab in Beard Hall’s basement, which for thirty-five years served as the radical heart of the college. One feature of the Lab was Bobo’s Social Science Forums—evenings when blacks and whites from the Jackson area gathered to hear speakers and discuss topics of local, national, and international significance. Among the speakers Borinski hosted were U.S. diplomat and Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche, author James Baldwin, and Dr. Otto Nathan, friend and confidante of Albert Einstein. It is said that the Lab was the only place in Mississippi where local blacks and whites could interact regularly as equals. Borinski insisted that food be served and that blacks and whites sit together as they ate, a clear violation of Jim Crow laws.
Bobo’s forays into integration did not go unnoticed by the state’s political establishment. As early as 1955, he was denounced as a communist by the Jackson Daily News, and he was described on the floor of the Mississippi legislature in 1957 as “that white radical professor at Tougaloo College”— a badge of honor he wore proudly. Borinski ruffled the conservative administrators at Tougaloo as well, but his ability to consistently attract lucrative foundation grants and to place promising students into well-regarded graduate schools helped to keep his on-campus critics at bay.
Tougaloo’s window on political activism opened a bit wider with the accession of Dr. A. D. Beittel to the presidency of the college in 1960. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Beittel was a United Church of Christ minister and had been a teacher of sociology and religion at a variety of religious schools. He had also served as president of Talladega College, another HBCU in neighboring Alabama in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Beittel brought with him liberal racial views that helped to galvanize activist segments of the student population—and later members of the faculty—into motion.
It is safe to say that without the existence of Tougaloo College and its proximity to Jackson, Medgar Evers would have never been able to get his local movement off the ground. Thanks to Borinski’s radical focus and Beittel’s liberal thinking, Tougaloo provided the fertile soil for Evers’s civil rights agenda to take root in Jackson.
About the Author
It was while visiting the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia in 1991 that M. J. O’Brien conceived the work that has become We Shall Not Be Moved. As part of its civil rights display, the King Center showed a photograph of the 1963 Jackson, Mississippi Woolworth’s sit-in—a photograph that has become the image used in history books and magazine articles to show what a sit-in was like. O’Brien was captivated by the photograph because at its center was a woman, Joan (Trumpauer)Mulholland, whom he had known for a number of years.
We Shall Not Be Moved is a labor of love. Primarily created in the late 1990s and finally brought to life through the auspices of the University Press of Mississippi, it is a story of triumph and determination that was captured by the now-iconic Fred Blackwell photograph. Although its publication was delayed (as told in Acknowledgements), timing is everything. The book was supposed to be published in 1999, but for a variety of reasons, it is only reaching a broader public today. And that is as it should be. We are on the cusp of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Jackson Woolworth’s Sit-In (May 28, 1963) and the courageous souls who decided, one-by-one , to sit in at the counter that day are being recognized for their contribution to the overall civil rights struggle.