Judith Ridner On the 50th Anniversary of the 1970 Starkville Racial Protest Marches

Thursday, June 18, 2020

 Starkville Daily News

Earlier this month, spurred by the tragic death of George Floyd and the systemic racism that permeates our communities, thousands of us joined together for Starkville’s Unity March. We marched down Main Street to the Mississippi State University campus while carrying signs and chanting; police blocked traffic; merchants handed out water. At a rally that followed, we listened to speeches by university students, clergy, NAACP leaders, and state representatives; even Starkville’s mayor and the university’s president spoke words of support.

Fifty years ago, another series of racial protest marches shook Starkville, culminating during the first weeks of June 1970. As part of the Starkville Civil Rights Project, a team of researchers from the MSU Department of History and MSU Libraries studied the details and context of the June 1970 protest marches. Documents and oral histories that we collected during our research show key similarities and differences between the marches that took place in 2020 and those that took place 50 years earlier.

Like the Unity March that took place this month, the 1970 protests were also non-violent. They, too, were organized from within Starkville’s African American community, which was then led by the physician, Dr. Douglas Conner, and local businessmen Bennie Butler, W.B. Robinson, and Clarence Taylor, among others. R.B. Cottonreader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was there to lend logistical support. Also, like today, these marches were born of the African American community’s frustrations over the effects of systemic racism in the city.

That April, African American leaders launched a boycott of downtown businesses to protest unequal hiring practices at local retail establishments. African American picketers of all ages marched in circles outside white-owned businesses carrying signs that read: “No Black Sales People, No Business.” Meanwhile, frustration and fear mounted over how federally mandated public school desegregation--some sixteen years after the momentous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision--would affect Starkville’s black community. News that Starkville’s all-white school board was about to fire thirty African American schoolteachers and a few administrators set off a new wave of larger protests by early June.

Few within the city’s white community welcomed these racial protest marches, and no whites marched as allies of their African American neighbors in 1970.

Whites hurled insults at picketers and merchants called the police. Starkville’s mayor and the university’s president took a mostly hands-off approach. The mayor claimed to have no leverage to force white business owners to change their hiring practices, or their discriminatory treatment of African American shoppers.

As protests grew during the late spring, the mood turned more confrontational. Police denied protesters’ requests for permits to march. The situation finally came to a head during one week in early June when police began arresting hundreds of protestors--365 in total--for obstructing the city’s streets and sidewalks. Starkville’s jail filled quickly and soon the police were busing detainees, including many young people, to the fieldhouse at Henderson High School, the city’s allafrican American school, where they were held until a federal judge ordered their release and set new guidelines under which protests could resume.

The protests gradually ended that fall. The boycott and marches had taken a toll on Starkville’s white business community; they finally pledged to hire more African American workers as sales clerks. School desegregation issues took longer to resolve, however. Starkville’s African American leaders filed a lawsuit on behalf of the fired teachers and administrators. In 1971, a federal judge ruled in their favor, arguing that their dismissal constituted an unlawful form of racial discrimination and ordering that they should be reinstated and compensated for their lost wages.

Remembering the 50th anniversary of Starkville’s other protests against systemic racism is especially important during this critical juncture in the nation’s and the city’s history. What happened in Starkville in 1970 reminds us of how far we have come as a community. Yet, these memories also highlight the work that is still needed to resolve the persistent inequities and discrimination that African Americans continue to face in Starkville and other communities across the nation.

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