Oral History/Interview
Brenda Travis
February, 2007

With Wazir Peacock, Jean Wiley and Bruce Hartford

Standing Up
Voter Registration
Sit-In Arrest
Education in Mississippi
County Jail
Students March in McComb     
Control by Intimidation
Student Boycott
Reform School
She Served Time Too
Exiled From Mississippi
Escape to SNCC
Palmer Institute
Walking Wounded
Freedom Summer, 1964
Moving On
Mississippi Today
Back to McComb
Looking Back
See also Remembering Brenda by J. Randall O'Brien.



Bruce: Why don't you tell us where you grew up and how you got involved in the Movement?

Brenda: I grew up in McComb, Mississippi. My parents were L.S. Travis and Icie Martin Travis. I'm the fourth of seven children. My dad was a sharecropper in Mississippi, up in the delta near Itta Bena or Belzoni, when my mother was pregnant with me. The [white] owner of the land — the plantation I should say — according to my dad his name was Moon Mullen. And I haven't done any research on him, but I plan to. [Laughing]

Bruce: Moon Mullen?

Brenda: Moon Mullen, yes. And my mother was late term in her pregnancy, and my dad went into the field to pick cotton or scrape cotton or whatever. Mr. Mullen approached my dad and or told him to go back and get my mother, so she could help complete this scraping. So my dad told him that my mother was about to drop her load — that's a term they use when you're about to deliver. So Moon Mullen became infuriated with my dad. And he left the field to go to the house [to get a gun] to kill my dad.

Moon Mullen left going in one direction, and my dad left to go to the little hut or shanty that they were living in. And he went in and got my mother and told her, "Don't pack anything. Just get the bare necessities. We've got to go. Don't ask any questions. Let's just go."

He took my mother back to McComb, Mississippi. That's where they married and moved up Belzoni or Itta Bena. He returned her to McComb, and that's where I was born in 1945. I believe that my activism in the Civil Rights Movement was always predetermined, even from the womb. Even from the womb.


Standing Up

Brenda: My activism didn't really manifest itself until I was a teenager. After witnessing so many abuses of Blacks, killings and murders, and even one of the sheriffs coming to our home and arresting my brother, my oldest brother. I recall him coming there like the Gestapo, there was no knock, I mean, he just bust the door open, blast the door open. And my brother was still in bed, and they snatched him up from the bed.

Bruce: How old was your brother?

Brenda: He was three years older than I, and I believe I must have been about 10, so he had to have been around 13 years old. I recall my grandmother inquiring of the sheriff, why are you arresting him? He's done nothing.

"Oh, yes he has. I'm taking him to jail today!"

When he did that — it's like having visions, seeing [the photo of] Emmett Till in the Jet [Magazine], how his body was beaten and battered and swollen. And then I saw Mack Charles Parker who was hung by the neck, and they had this picture on the front of Jet, with his head hanging over to the side. There were just different remembrances. And I became enraged and knew that one day I had to take a stand.

The president of the local chapter of the NAACP, who was C.C. Bryant, would attend the local churches on Sundays. Within the community there were five churches. One of the churches was Society Hill Missionary Baptist Church, where he was a deacon. The others were St. Mary Number 1 and 2, Free Will Baptist, the African Methodist Church, and the fifth church was the the Church of God in Christ. The community was so small, we would all attend each other's churches. C.C. Bryant would go to the churches and encourage people to get involved in the NAACP.

It was during the summer of 1961. I recall, I was working — I started working outside of the home at the age of 12 years old — I was working at this cleaner's, a laundry. We always called it Sadie's Cleaners, it had some other name I don't remember because we called it Sadie all the time, that was the [name of the] proprietor. I was a presser, and this [white] woman came in, and she looked at her shirt, and she saw — you know what a wrinkle is? We called it "cat face." And she said to me, "If you don't get that cat face out of this shirt, I'll have your ass out of here so fast that it'll give you the swimming in the head."

I put the iron down. I collected my little sandwich, and I left out. And I went directly to Mr. Bryant to join the NAACP. Ironically, that was the day that Bob Moses appeared in McComb looking to solicit people to help with voter registration.


Voter Registration

Brenda: When he came, Mr. Bryant said to him, "Here. Here's a young lady. I'll turn you over to her. [Laughing] She knows McComb very well." It was from that point that I became involved.

Bob Moses was setting up schools to teach people how to vote. In Mississippi, they had tests that you had to take. First, you had to pay your poll tax, and then you had to pass some — I don't recall what it was.

Wazir: Literacy test.

Brenda: Literacy test, yes. And so that was what the school consisted of — but there was no way that they were going to pass the literacy test when they're asked "How many grains is in a bag of rice?" There was no way, it was doomed for failure.


Sit-In Arrest

Brenda: I recall Bob Moses getting beaten during that time, he had gotten beaten on the head, and he was standing there, wrapped in gauze, where they had beaten him. And Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes (Muhammad) had gone to jail on this particular day. They had a mass meeting that night where they were asking people to volunteer, because they wanted to keep the momentum going. And it was at that point that I knew that I could not sit still and be silent. So I volunteered to go to jail, and so did Robert Talbert and Ike Lewis. So the three of us plus the two that had gone to jail before us, Hollis and Curtis, we became known as the "McComb Five."

Bruce: Were you arrested on a march or a sit-in? Or...?

Brenda: It was a walk-in at the Greyhound Bus Station.

Brenda: We went in and purchased tickets, and then we proceeded to sit at the lunch counter. And we were arrested. We went in and purchased tickets to go to New Orleans. It was to test the interstate commerce law. Just as we were getting the tickets, the police came and hauled us off to jail.

I recall not telling my mother anything, not telling her that I had volunteered to go to jail, because [if I did] it wasn't going to happen. So I guess, at that time, you could've considered it an act of defiance. Many times, that's what we had to do. We had to be defiant, even of our parents, because for generations our parents were helpless to do anything to protect us. So then it was up to us to protect ourselves and try to protect generations to follow.

I prepared for jail. We only had one toothbrush in the house, and I couldn't take that, because we were very, very poor, as most of us during that time were. I tried to prepare to go to jail as best I could, and sure enough, the next day I was arrested.

I was arrested at the Greyhound Bus Station, and they took me to City Hall, and then they booked me, and then I was transferred to the Pike county jail in Magnolia.

Bruce: Do you remember, what were you charged with?

Brenda: Trespassing.

Bruce: Not a violation of the segregation ordinance, but trespassing?

Brenda: Trespassing.


Education in Mississippi

Bruce: Robert and Ike who were arrested with you, they were from McComb, right?

Brenda: Yes. Ike Lewis was still in high school with me. Even though he was 20 years old, and people usually question that, but I must say that I admire him. He didn't give up. I admire him, because even at 20 years old, he was still trying to get his high school diploma. And I decided to elaborate on that point because people are going, "Well, what was a 20-year-old doing still in high school?" He was there because he wanted something.

Wazir: It was commonplace. My school in Tallahatchie County started out as a private high school that the Baptists organized. And if you didn't make the grade, you could be there until you — because the white people, the board of education, wasn't scrutinizing us like they did the white school. You could be there until you were 25 before you got that diploma if you didn't pass everything. Because those white teachers, they felt you that you had to be able to compete if you got out of school.

Bruce: Students had to work most of the time, a lot of the time, which is why it took longer.

Wazir: Sometimes you only got a chance to go to school six months, depending on the plantation that they lived on. Sometimes they would only get a chance to go three months. It took a long time.

Brenda: Where we were, they didn't have plantations, but Ike was just a guy with a lot of determination. And in many ways, I appreciate that old system, because they don't have, what is it called where you pass the children?

Bruce: Social promotion.

Brenda: Social promotion, yes.

Wazir: That wasn't in place. They didn't have that.

Brenda: They didn't have that. I appreciate the old system much better than the newer one. We'll see what "No Child Left Behind" means. [Laughing]


County Jail

Brenda: I spent a month in jail.

Bruce: Tell us what it was like in the county jail.

Brenda: It had bars. You know, the Movement trained us very well. They had good survivor techniques. They trained us how to survive, how not to go stir crazy. Many times we would sing and pray. This was Hollis and Curtis Hayes and Bobby and Ike and all of us. They had the men upstairs, and I was downstairs.

There was one other woman in the jail in the cell with me, during my first arrest, and she was in for something totally different. She was there when I got there, but I understood from her that they tried to get her to beat me, and she knew my family very well, and she knew my uncle would not tolerate that. They told her that if she beat me, she would be able leave the jail. They would let her go free. And she said she thought about it for a minute, but then she knew she had to face my uncle also! [Laughing] So she decided she would serve her time.

Our survivor technique was prayer and singing. And we would sing. We would wake up sometimes; we would sleep many times during the day and wake up at night, at around 12 o'clock or so, and we would start singing and praying. The jail was surrounded with a community of white people. And they began to complain [laughing] because it was so much noise! We were singing, Hollis and Curtis would be upstairs. They'd call, "Brenda! You awake?" They would wake me up calling. "Yes, I'm awake!" And we would send up some prayers, and we would sing. You're talking about jailhouse rock — [Laughing]

We had the jailhouse rocking. But that was how it was, because, as I said, those were good survival techniques. Not thinking or concentrating on our surroundings but going outside of ourselves, you know? Going outside of our physical selves, connecting.

I spent a month there. And after spending a month there, I was released. Jack Young was our attorney, and I recall being in court that day, and judge — I believe his name was Brumfield — asking if I wanted to go back to Africa, and he threatened to send me to Africa. Not just sending me to Africa, but back to Africa. And I was just looking at him, thinking what is this cracker talking about sending me back to Africa? Because I didn't know anything about Africa — they didn't teach us anything about Africa. But had I known then what I know now, I would have gladly gone. [Laughing]

But it was just to try and instill fear. It was trying to instill fear in me, but it didn't work.


Students March in McComb

Brenda: When I was released from jail, I went to enroll in my high school and found out that I had been expelled, but mind you, this was the summer months. It had nothing to do with school whatsoever.

Bruce: Your arrest, you mean?

Brenda: Yes. My arrest had nothing to do with school, but it was at the end of the summer, and in September, when I was released from jail and I went to school, only to find that I had been expelled from school.

I was approached and asked what happened? "Did they allow you to enroll in school?"

I replied, "No."

This person said, "Come on." And we went to the assembly. They were having an assembly that day. He inquired of the principal, "Why wasn't Brenda Travis allowed to enroll in school?"

The principal told him, "I want to see you in my office after the assembly."

Well, what happened was that after the assembly was over, students started dispersing. Some students were coming out to march, and protest, and others were going to their classrooms. And they had students going around to the classrooms, telling them, "Come on. Come on. Join the march. We're going to go down to..." We had initially planned to go down to the county jail [in Magnolia], but that was quite a distance to walk. This was in the afternoon. So we went to the McComb City Hall.

The workers from SNCC were taken completely aback, because they saw all this band of children marching down the street! [Laughing] They knew they had to get out there and organize us, because [the students] were furious.

[© Erle Johnston]

Bruce: Because you had not been allowed to register for school as punishment for supporting the Movement?

Brenda: Yes. Yes. So anyway, we were just all over the street. We weren't marching orderly. So they came out, and they organized us and told us to march two-by-two. We came to the SNCC office and began to make signs. Not with sticks, because they would have considered that a weapon.

[© Erle Johnston]

We marched to City Hall where we proceeded to pray. And one by one, we were arrested. It was my second time arrested within a little over a month. I was in there with the other students. They had one cell for the males and one cell for the females. I was there with them for a brief period of time before they removed me from the cell, and they took me back to the county jail.

Bruce: And when you were arrested on the march, what was the charge?

Brenda: I believe it was disorderly conduct, but if you recall, I never went to court, so I don't know what it was. It was just incarceration. I never went to court after then. I was taken from the McComb City Jail to the Pike County Jail, and from the Pike County Jail to reformatory school.

Bruce: And never saw a judge or had a trial.

Brenda: Never.


Control by Intimidation

Bruce: After the student marchers were arrested, the parents had to come get their children from the jail. Did they have to promise that the children would not participate anymore?

Brenda: Yes, they did. That was one of the conditions for release.

Bruce: They had to sign something?

Brenda: They had to sign something saying that their children would not participate in, I think — I don't know if they used the words "subversive," or what — activities. And the same for the school, if children were to be readmitted, they had to sign the same release, agreeing not to participate in any more activities.

Bruce: Were there conflicts between the children who were arrested and their parants? Maybe they didn't want to sign the statement? But the parents did?

Brenda: From what I understand — I didn't witness this — it was a sad situation. I was told that many of the parents were angry and frightened. And they disciplined — beat their children there at the jail — to show [the police] that they were in control and that this would never happen again.

Bruce: Because they were frightened of what would happen to them.

Brenda: Exactly. Exactly.

Jean: To them as well as to their children.

Brenda: Exactly.

Bruce: So this was a whole control by terror — 

Brenda: Exactly.

Bruce: The whites to the parents to the children.


Student Boycott

Wazir: At some point, I don't know when it happened, but there were some who were not admitted back to the school. And I don't know how many it was, but Campbell College took them.

Brenda: There were many of them, and I don't know the number. There were some of them who went to Campbell College. The President of Campbell College accepted them. And allowed them to continue their education there. And I understand — Campbell was a private college, it was a — 

Wazir: An African Methodist Episcopal Church school. One of my schools.

Brenda: From what I understand, even being a private school, they suffered repercussions. And it's now closed down.

Wazir: They eventually, somewhere in the "70s, early "70s, they got — 

Jean: They [Mississippi] got their revenge.

Brenda: Yes.

Wazir: Revenge, yeah. One of the AME bishops sold Campbell College out. Yeah. Those bishops had the power. I don't know whatever happened to him, I don't know how much they paid him, but he — So it's just sitting there.

Bruce: It's still empty? They didn't use the land?

Wazir: It's sitting right there surrounded by Jackson State University. Yeah. The state revoked the charter.

Brenda: The State of Mississippi.


Reform School

Brenda: They removed me from the county jail, and this was without a trial. Martin Luther King put up $5,000 for my release from the county jail, but instead, what they did, was they sent me to a reformatory school, Oakley Training School, and there I spent six and a half months. [The Movement] tried — unsuccessfully — to get all kinds of writs and habeus corpuses to obtain my release.

Three to four weeks later, my mother found out where I was. A busload of people (mostly students from McComb) — Fred Bates owned a school bus in Mississippi, and a group of them decided that they were going to come and visit me in the reformatory school. And I recall that morning seeing all this activity not even a mile from the reformatory school, because they had a railroad track there, and you could hear the train as it came through. And that's where all of this activity was, all morning long. It was on a Sunday. I kept wondering, "What's going on? Why are all these policemen and sheriffs or whatever they were out there with dogs."

That afternoon, I saw the school bus, and they stopped the school bus at the railroad track and turned them around. According to the people who were on the bus — I wasn't within earshot. I can only go by what they said and what they told me [later]. They threatened to pull them off and have the dogs bite them, attack them. They told this man to turn around and get this bus "the H" out of here. So Mr. Bates turned his bus around and left the area.

After that, the superintendent of the training school had the house mother to bring me to his house, to tell me what had happened. And I was so upset. I didn't sleep for days, because they had denied my mother, whom I hadn't seen in awhile, the right to see me. Even though she may have brought other people with her, what was wrong with them allowing her to see me, telling the rest of them, "You stay on the bus." But there was that denial.

So as I stayed in the reformatory school — that was the one time that I felt that I didn't care if I lived or died, because I didn't feel as though I was going to see my family again. I felt like just breaking out of there and running. Shoot me, do whatever you have to do to me, because right now, you've stripped me of everything — when you took me away from my parents. I didn't have anything to live for. And then they allowed her to come to see me.

Jean: The support, and the singing, with the other Movement prisoners you had in the county jail, that's something you didn't have when you were sent to the reformatory, right? Because you were the only one? Were you the only protester who was shipped to the reformatory?

Brenda: Yes.

Jean:: So you didn't have that kind of camaraderie or singing or — 

Brenda: No, I didn't. But, you know, I must give it to — thw lady we called "Mama Turner." Her name was Mary Turner. She was the house mother. She really embraced me. She would have her husband or her son — they lived in Edwards, Mississippi — she would have them bring me decent food to eat. And she would sneak down the hall. She was a very soft-spoken woman, and she walked very softly and slowly. She would come to my room, [knock, knock]. They would feed me. And they would talk to me.

She made it possible for us to go to church on Sundays. They had a bus that would come and take us to church on Sundays. That was our outing.

Bruce: The house mother, Mrs. Turner, was she Black?

Brenda: Yes.

Bruce: What about the other staff at the Oakley Training Center?

Brenda: Oakley was completely Black. I don't even think they have an institution like that for white children, because white children were their children.


She Served Time Too

Brenda: My mother [was] fired from her job in McComb, so she had to leave McComb to go elsewhere to find employment.

Bruce: Fired because of your... ?

Brenda: Yes, my activities. My brother was only one year younger than me, which would have made him 15, but I had two sisters. One was three years younger, and the other one six years younger. She had to abandon these children to go and try to make a living, for their well-being, to take care of them. They stayed with another family.

The pain never goes away. The hurt doesn't go away. And people say, "Time heals all wounds." But that's not true. That is not true. The wound may have a scab over it, but deep within, it's still sore. It's still painful.

When I was placed in reformatory school, nobody knew where I was, not even my attorney. And it was several weeks before he knew, because my mother kept calling him, inquiring about, "Where is my daughter? Where is my daughter?" She thought that they had removed me from the jail and killed me. Can you imagine what stress she was under?

And I honor my mother. I pay homage to my mother, because she truly was a mother. She served her time right along with me. And she paid a price, the same as I did. Her love for me, her love for her children, she paid a price.


Exiled From Mississippi

Brenda: A professor came in from Talladega — Talladega was a Black college in Alabama — he came with two [Talladega] students. He was able to speak with Governor Ross Barnett to obtain my release into his custody. They came in the middle of the night to get me from this reformatory school. Now you know good and well I wasn't going to leave at midnight, had not these Black women been with this man, to go anywhere.

Bruce: You had been there for how long?

Brenda: Six and a half months. I went with them, and it was 1962. It was the Saturday night before Easter of '62. I was released into the custody of this individual. And he did take me to Jackson, and I had about three hours to visit with my mother before leaving the state of Mississippi. Governor Ross Barnett had stipulated that he would release me into his custody, if and only if, he got me out of Mississippi within 24 hours, because he could not "guarantee my life." So, I don't know what anybody else called it, but I called it exiled from the State of Mississippi.

In reformatory school, they didn't have a high school. They did provide home economics classes. And that was it. But if you listen to the accounts of that lying, dead, Ross Barnett, he claimed that he released me from the reformatory school because they didn't have a high school there. [Barnett lied when he said] that he understood that [the professor] was taking me to Georgia with him when he was teaching at Atlanta University.

Bruce: How did the professor get connected with you? How did that happen?

Brenda: On many of the college campuses, they had activists. And they had people who would read the papers and it was on the news media. The news media carried different stories, and so they decided that I would become a subject for them, and they were going to follow through and see what happened with me and see if there was anything they could do to help me.

Bruce: These were people at Talladega?

Brenda: People at Talladega. Yes.

Bruce: So the professor then went to Barnett; it wasn't that Barnett hired him — 

Brenda: No, the professor went to Barnett. And what he told me was that he knew that he could be successful because he was German, and he said that he had worked with the Jews in the Underground Movement. So he figured he could be successful at obtaining my release. And he was. But for the wrong reasons. It may have started out to be the right reasons. I don't know what his motivations were. I just know how it turned out.


Escape to SNCC

Brenda: I have to back up again, because things keep coming. And it's almost like a floodgate, and I'm feeling very emotional right now, because I was taken away from my family. Put in an abusive situation. I had to leave this man in Talladega because I had to run again for my life. I had to get away from him.

One of the notes that he sent me or put in my room was, "You're as beautiful as a sphinx." I knew I had to get away from him. But before I could get away from him, I had to become violent, because he was advancing on me. And I had to turn around, and I hit him in the name of Jesus. I hit him so hard until he stumbled backwards, and that gave me room to flee. You know, fight or flight. And that's what I had to do. To get away from him.

I had to leave, and I thank God for [SNCC Executive Director] Jim Forman, and I thank God for his wife, Mildred, because they came to my rescue. There was a [different] professor in Talladega, and I befriended his son, or his son befriended me, and I ran to him when I had to get away. And he said, "Is there anybody that you can call and might help you?" I told him, "Yes." I said, "Call Jim Forman." And he did.

Jim told him to put me on a bus to Georgia. And he did, and Jim said, "After you put her on the bus, come back and call me and tell me what time the bus is to arrive and let me know how much it costs, and I will send you your money." And sure enough ...may I have a tissue please... Jim and Mildred met me at the bus, and they took me to their home.

A couple of hours after I was there, and we were talking, there came a knock upon the door. The professor had driven from Alabama to Georgia.

Jim knew, intuitively, who it was. So he went to the door. I was behind him and Mildred was behind me. They had me sandwiched in. They opened the door, and the professor was there with two Atlanta police. And when they opened the door, he told them, "Arrest this girl! She is a fugitive from justice! Send her back to Mississippi to the reformatory school."

Jim intervened and said, "Wait, wait, wait just a minute. Wait just a minute."

Then the police sidestepped Jim and came and spoke directly with me. They wanted to know what did I do, and how old I was"

I said, "I didn't do anything, and I'm 17 years old." God is so good, because I had just turned 17 in March, and this was May. So then they looked at the professor and told him that in Georgia, at 17, you're no longer considered a minor. That was my saving grace.

Bruce: How long were you in Atlanta?

Brenda: I was only there for the summer, because I had to be in Sedalia by September to start school. Julian Bond's sister, Jane had a place, and there were several of us who went and stayed at her place. Miss Ella Bakaer took me shopping, and she purchased me some clothes — and a suitcase, I no longer had to use a brown paper bag. And she taught me how to fold and roll your clothes so they could be compacted without lots of wrinkles.

Bruce: Did you participate with SNCC or work with SNCC in Atlanta while you were there?

Brenda: Yes, I did office work, like answered the phones. I had actually little or no skills. I could answer the phone for them though. I had a pleasant telephone voice, so I could answer the telephone. And I could do a little hunt-and-peck typing. You know, something to contribute. And that's what I did.


Palmer Institute

Brenda: Miss Baker enrolled me in this school in North Carolina, Palmer Memorial Institute, just out of Sedalia, North Carolina. I stayed at Palmer for a year.

Bruce: Palmer is a womens' academy?

Brenda: No, it was also co-ed.

Bruce: Did they know you had been active in the Movement? That you had been arrested?

Brenda: I don't know. The founder of Palmer Institute did, but the rest of them knew nothing. After being incarcerated, it was extremely difficult to be in that kind of environment. When I say that — many people don't understand what it is that I'm trying to convey — but you know, like going from a prison and then going into a dormitory where you have somebody that has keys that are clanking, and going on, and then having to lock the door and lights out at a certain time. It was a little bit overwhelming for me.

Wazir: Yes, I went to a co-ed school in the South, at Rust College in Holly Springs [MS]. We had the same set-up that she was talking about. And what she's explaining to you — coming from prison to a dormitory situation like that — there was no visiting on the dorm like all this mess that's going on now.

Bruce: It's sort of like being back in prison.

Wazir: Yes, it is. It is. Because I went through that prison myself, at Rust College. There's do's and don'ts, and things you do you get sent away from there, right quick. There were certain ways that you socialized with the opposite sex. You didn't have to have sex, but certain ways you socialize — you get sent away.

Brenda: Yes.

Wazir: If the dormitory madam, or whatever, if she had something against you, like some of the boys on my campus were very outgoing and very arrogant types. They would come on the dorms, and they weren't doing nothing, but if that dormitory mother didn't like it, she could get him sent home. For nothing. So it was that sense that Brenda is talking about. It's just one step up from being in prison.

Brenda: Um, hmmm, yes.

Wazir: So all those schools that were founded in the early days of 1860's and on down, still had that foundation in their founding. That's the way they operated.

Brenda: Yes. And we had study hall. You had to go to study hall no matter — You had between 6pm and 9pm study hall. Dinner you had at 5 o'clock, 5 until a little bit before 6, every day, including Saturdays and Sundays. And then you had study hall, and then from study hall you went back to your room, and it was lights out. You had to be in bed by a certain time.

Wazir: It's like we went to the same school. [Laughing]

Bruce: And they wouldn't allow you to continue to be active with the Movement at all, of course.

Brenda: Well, in order to be active with the Movement, I had to go there and create a Movement. And Greensboro itself was too far. This was in Sedalia. Sedalia didn't have retail stores or anything like that. We had to go into Greensboro to do our shopping for all our toiletries and clothing.


Displaced Person

Brenda: When I went to North Carolina — and after North Carolina — I always say that's when my displacement began, but that wasn't true. My displacement began from the first day that I was arrested. That began my displacement, because it was from that point, except for three or four days after my initial arrest, that I was taken from my family. So that was when my displacement began.

Bruce: Was your family not able to visit you in Atlanta?

Brenda: No. My mother was working and had little or no money to travel. She did visit me one time in Atlanta, and it was because someone sponsored a trip for her to come to Atlanta.

Wazir: This gives you an in-depth understanding of the poverty in Mississippi. My father and family only lived 35 miles from Greenwood, and when I was in jail, he was only able to come down one time [to visit me]. Somebody, one of the activists, brought him down one time, because he was coming that way for us and to contact some other Civil Rights people — the old line Civil Rights people. That's how he was able to. But money-wise, he couldn't have made it there. Some of the people, gross yearly income would max out to be less than $600 a year. That kind of thing. And some people much less than that.

Brenda: She was making $12 a week. She could not afford to take that money from the other siblings to visit. But someone did offer her a trip to Atlanta. It was after the incident with the profesor, that she came to Atlanta. They said for her to come to Atlanta to see about me.

During this period there were many people who came to my rescue. There were people like Jim Forman. There were people like Ella Baker. Martha Prescod took me up to her parents in Detroit to rest. There were people like Vera and Leo King. You remember them?

Wazir: Yes.

Brenda: Friends of SNCC in Chicago. Vera and Leo King. There were people like attorney Emerson and his wife, Ruth, in North Haven, Connecticut. And that's where I finished my high school was in North Haven, Connecticut. They were the people who came to my rescue. I call that the "underground movement."


Walking Wounded

Brenda: I don't know whether I turned out all right or not, but if I didn't, it's OK too. Because I still carry the blood-stained banner, and one day it will be all right. It may not be all right now. I may have the emotional scars.

I was so out of it, until I was told I could sue the State of Mississippi. When I inquired about suing the State of Mississippi, I was told by two Civil Rights attorneys that there was a statute of limitation. What a travesty. Because we talk about heinous crimes. These were heinous acts, and there should be no statute when you damage mankind, especially for doing humanitarian acts.

Jean:: When the State itself is committing those acts.

Brenda: Exactly. Exactly. But this wasn't the State who said it. It was the Supreme Court. That sets the statutes, uh-huh. Yeah. I just feel like our fight was far from over, and I feel that these are the kinds of things that we need to focus on now. Because when we were in the Carolinas in — 

Wazir: In 2000? [at the "Ella Baker: We Who Believe in Freedom..." conference at Shaw University, April 2000.]

Brenda: Was it 2000? OK, 2000. And we were talking about the "walking wounded." We are the walking wounded. And we are the ones who should be before Congress, before the Supreme Court, letting them know about our scars, of our wounds that we are still carrying. And let them know that there should not be a statute on that. There's no statute of limitations on convicting a person for murder; this is another type of death. There should be no statute on it.

Wazir: Yeah. Because actually, like [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover was able to set aside the law that protects anyone who helps anyone to get the franchise for voting. He had the law that could have protected us.

Bruce: He had the obligation.

Wazir: And there was an obligation. And he set it aside. He said it publicly, it cannot be denied. He said it publicly that he was not going to protect the Civil Rights of workers. He said it publicly. So somewhere along the line, I think that some smart [FBI] lawyer put the language right and said that the law that protects people [registering voters] is set aside because these are special cases. They set it aside, where we were just alone, by ourselves, [registering people]. And we had neither the protection of the United States Constitution or the ones to enforce it. And some kind of day of reckoning — 


Freedom Summer, 1964

Brenda: After I graduated from high school [in North Haven, CT], I came back to Mississippi briefly and found that they had organized COFO. And it was really a hot-bed there in 1964. I went back to McComb. Well, actually between McComb and Jackson, because I stayed in Jackson more than I did in McComb, because Jackson was a larger place.

Bruce: And your mother had left McComb anyway.

Brenda: Well, no, she was back and forth. She was back and forth, between Gulfport, Mississippi and Jackson, and then finally she settled back in McComb again.

Jean:: What led you to go back to Mississippi?

Brenda: Defiance.

Wazir: Defiance. That's right. I remember that. I know that.

Brenda: Defiance.

Wazir: That's right.

Brenda: [Laughing] So I went back. I didn't stay very long, but I went back. But it was '64, which was one of the rougher periods, and I have here an accounting [McComb Mississippi Incidents and Events] of the different things that were happening in McComb. That's a month by month and day by day, and I wanted to — 

Jean: This is really incredible.

Bruce: Yeah. This looks like one of the reports — from COFO. They kept a log for each area.

Jean:: And SNCC kept a log in the Atlanta office.

Brenda: Some of these people [Klan members] were arrested. And it tells you what the charges, how many charges they had against them, and it also tells you the suspended sentences that most of them got — because they don't prosecute them until they have one foot in the grave and the other one on the banana peeling.

Bruce: Can we put this on the website?

Brenda: Ok.

Jean:: I guess I'm amazed at how things must have changed so quickly in McComb, because your arrest seems to be the first — among the first — arrests for Civil Rights activity there among young people, right?

Brenda: Well, I was the youngest one and the only female to be arrested at that time. The other guys — Curtis was in his twenties; Hollis was in his twenties; Bobby was in his — 

Wazir: Can't tell them how old Bobby was!

Brenda: [Laughing] I don't know how old he was either, but I'm just kidding about that. He was in his twenties, and so was Ike. So I was the only minor that was arrested at that time.

Jean:: I guess what I'm getting at is how the state of Mississippi, and especially McComb, the whites racheted up their own resistance to the Movement, because [their resistance] was so much bigger in just — we're only talking three years, right?

Brenda: Hm-hmm.

Wazir: Hm-hmm.

Jean:: And that's kind of hard to see until you were talking about it. OK, in three years, they decided to attack from all angles. They attacked the children; they sent them off to reform school, or they told them they can't get involved in quote "subversive activity." Now they've escalated it because voter registration is happening more intensely. They've escalated the violence.

Brenda: Exactly.

Jean:: The bombings, the arrests.

Wazir: Hm-hmm. In three years.

Jean:: So it goes from harassment to utter terror.

Brenda: Exactly.

Bruce: It goes to murder, because they killed — 

Brenda: Herbert Lee.

Bruce: And Lewis Allen.

Wazir: And Lewis Allen.

Brenda: Hm-hmm.

Wazir: They escalated to murder. That's right. There had always been secret killings, but the open killings had escalated so that I could see someone like Bob Moses and the rest of them from out of state who was not acclimated to all of that stuff that was going on say, "Hey, we got to attack this with something else." And I think that made it conducive for the thought of a Summer Project [1964] such as we had. Because let's face it, the Congressmen and the statesmen are from all over the country, and as long as they were making their deals with Mississippi, they weren't paying any attention. They knew what was going on, but they weren't going to do nothing about it.

Brenda: But all of this brought it to the forefront.

Wazir: Right.

Jean:: And I have no doubt that it would still be the same if it hadn't been for the Movement.

Wazir: It would have been.

Jean:: I mean, the exact same. Nothing would have changed.


Moving On

Jean:: You said [you returned to McComb] out of defiance, how did you feel there?

Brenda: I was very uncomfortable. And as a matter of fact — I guess maybe I was too foolish to be frightened — but the discomfort was there. And after listening and hearing about the bombings and stuff like that, I determined that it was not a safe place for me to be. I left Mississippi again. I went to Jackson, and I stayed there for a period of time.

[After McComb] I started working, and then I have bits and pieces of college. I didn't graduate from college, but I have college credits. And I need to — Well, I'm not going to say I need to [graduate]. One of these days, maybe I will.

Then I went back to Chicago. I worked with the Reverend Jesse Jackson, on his Operation Bread Basket. And from there, I came back to Mississippi to hug my parents, and I left and went to California. I came to California, and I came here in 1966. I went to the Tony Taylor's School of Business. And I became involved in one of the organizations that Wazir was involved with.

Wazir: We were there at the same time. I didn't even know her face. I didn't know who she was.

Brenda: It was called GLACA. Greater Los Angeles Community Action. And we were talking one day on the phone, and I was telling him about this organization and we were working for them, with Oprah Jones. [Laughing]

Wazir: [Congressman Edward] Roybal and [Congressman] Gus Hawkins. The name of my organization was Neighborhood Adult Participation Project, and Oprah Jones had been head of that. Oprah Jones had been fired from that, because Roybal was stirring up the Chicano community to protest the fact that we got a Black person over an organization that covers the 21 outposts — that covers East L.A. and all them that shouldn't be. We got to the bottom, and they found that it was Congressman Roybal behind it that was trying to take that. He wanted to take it and take credit for it, but he couldn't because Augustus Hawkins was the Black congressman was the one who got that thing funded.


Mississippi Today

Brenda: Well, in many ways, I feel that there is solace in my heart. I brought this to share. When I see things like this —  McComb, Mississippi, in November [2006], elected its first ever in history Black mayor.

I was just sharing this with Wazir last night. When I go back, I am so hurt, so frustrated, so depressed, because not much has changed. People still feel intimidated. They're afraid. They don't know what to do. They're afraid to speak up. And they're looking for somebody to come down and save them.

Wazir: Come and save them, that's right. I get that every time I go back down. Hm-hmm.

Bruce: And they want you to be the one?

Wazir: But certain people — it's inevitable they were going to come to the front — who had not participated in anything, they took the offices. You know, I remember the elected officials, they weren't the people [active in the Movement]. The lawyer — Jess Brown — who did all this fighting, Jess Brown couldn't even get elected to a Justice of the Peace. They didn't want us who had been active running nothing in that state.

Bruce: And the "they" includes whites, obviously — 

Wazir: And Blacks. The Blacks who did not participate, who just waited to jump on board after it was safe and OK. Actually, I suspect that certain powers that be might have went to them [who had not been active in the Movement] to say, "OK, this thing is wound up. We want you all to have it. We want to support you all to be the elected officials."

Brenda: Yes.

Jean:: Oh, you know they did.

Brenda: As a matter of fact, in the mayoral race in McComb, something similar to that happened.

Wazir: Harris Buckley, this reverend, this minister in Jackson, Mississippi who was one of the first Black elected officials, he was one of the first. And he had never participated in anything. We never had a mass meeting in his church even. The same thing in Holmes County. Mr. Clark, I respected him. He was a nice man, but let's face it. He was a teacher and educator. I mean, he hadn't done anything. Mr. Bailey should have been the one elected to his position, who was intelligent and all of that, but a farmer. But he barely could get elected to be one of the county commissioners. But they like to put out [now]: "Mississippi has more Black elected officials than anywhere." But who are they?

Brenda: They don't want anybody who's going to do something positive. That's why they pushed those who've done nothing, and that's why I say all the time, "Don't just sit there. Stand up and do something." And that's what I tell them: "Do something."


Back to McComb

Brenda: To add insult to injury, they had this huge media blitz about honoring heroes, and "reconciliation," about giving honorary diplomas to those who were involved in the school walkout. I was called and asked how I felt about it. And they wanted me to come.

Bruce: It was titled "Making Amends."

Brenda: Yes.

Jean:: This is last year?

Brenda: Yes, in June [2006].

I'll tell you what it really was about. The federal government in 1970 had mandated the McComb School District to do something about their segregated schools. And the deadline was approaching. They decided they would call themselves reconciled, because otherwise if they didn't do something, the federal government was going to pull the funding or cut their funding.

So [in 2006] they had what they called themselves, "Making amends and reconciling." And not once — this is a resolution from the school board — not once did they ever apologize. They have not apologized yet. How can you reconcile something without an apology? I mean, I can understand recognizing that you've done something wrong. We can all do that, but yet remain silent. Then there's no reconciliation.

Wazir: Right, right.

Brenda: And this is exactly what they did. Secondly, they refused to give me an honorary diploma.

Jean:: They refused to give it to you?

Brenda: Yes ma'am. They refused to give me an honorary diploma. They claimed I was not expelled for civil rights activity. They said it was for promiscuity.

So the award that I received was the the Moral Compass Award from the William Winter Institute for Race and Reconciliation, which is housed in the University of Mississippi.

Bruce: That's the one Susan Glisson works with?

Brenda: Yes, she was devastated because they refused to give me [a diploma]. Not to worry. I've gotten along OK without it [laughing].

Bruce: Why do you think they refused? Was it because they still could not forgive you for being the leader? For being the first?

Brenda: I don't consider myself a leader. I'm not a leader, nor am I a follower. I'm just me. And I do what I do. But, I don't consider myself a leader. I consider myself a person who follows their own convictions, and that's what I did.

Jean:: But they would have considered you a leader though.

Wazir: That's what they would — that's the way they're seeing you.

Bruce: You were the first of the young people to get active.

Brenda: Perhaps. I don't know what their motivations were. The only thing I know is what Susan told me. And she thought I was going to be devastated, but I wasn't. Because I really didn't expect anything more from them. When you're not expecting anything, nobody can get to you. Nobody can hurt you.


Looking Back

Bruce: Looking back on it now and all the trials and tribulations and pain you went through, what do you think about it now? How do you feel about — by "it" I mean, you being active in the Movement, in McComb.

Brenda: In retrospect, when I look back and then see where McComb is today, I'm not sure that we were that effective. Maybe momentarily, maybe just for a brief period. But it wasn't a lasting effect. It wasn't something that stayed. Whatever it was, the system broke down again, and I would have liked to have seen it be something that was more permanent.

Black people are being voted into office, but as Wazir said, many for the wrong reasons. And then when they get there, they don't have an agenda. Their agenda, and their allegiance, is to the person that helped them to get there.

Bruce: And to their own personal interests.

Brenda: And to their own self serving. You know those things. I think that those of us who are activists have a high level of sensitivity, and these things — God forbid we don't get Alzheimer's — will bother us for years and years to come, because we didn't get the full effect of our efforts.

Bruce: So, are you sorry you did it?

Brenda: I could never be sorry, because it was good while it lasted. That's how I feel about it. I do not regret it. What I do regret is the suffering of not only my parents but other parents and families who were left without fathers. Families who were left without homes, churches who were left without places of worship. Those are my regrets. And the bodies that were tattered and torn. They may not have died, but the beatings. I remember [SNCC worker] John Hardy.

Wazir: Yeah, yeah.

Brenda: But they beat him senseless.

Bruce: Knowing now what you know today, if you could be sent back in time, and be 16-year-old Brenda Travis in McComb, Mississippi, would you still participate?

Brenda: I would still participate. Because when you feel that you have a conviction, how do you get away from your conviction?

Bruce: You're a Movement person.

Brenda: I'm a Movement person. So how can I get around that?

Bruce: Right. We talk about that some, and for some of us, that's why we're the walking wounded, because that's who we are.

Brenda: Hm-hmm.

Bruce: Let me ask you a different question. You have nieces and nephews who are adults now, and I'm sure they have children. When they were children or when they were young, or with their children now, do you ever talk to them about the Movement? And what you did? Are they at all interested?

Brenda: They're very interested. It just warms the cockles of my heart. You know why? Because I have two little nieces, and when they were younger, I a rocking chair. And they would come and sit down, at my feet. "Tell us about the olden days." [Laughing]

Bruce: When dinosaurs walked the earth [laughing].

Brenda: [Laughing] I would tell them portions of the stories, not the most horrific parts. "Auntie Brenda! You mean, you went to jail!?" [Laughing] "Reformatory school?! Were you bad?!" But first you had to explain what reformatory school was and why it existed. "But were you bad?!" "No, I wasn't." "But why did they send you to those places?!" [Laughing]

When I was in Mississippi in June [2006], I have a great-nephew whom I haven't had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with, and when he heard a portion of the story, at the Reconciliation event in Mississippi, this kid came to me in tears. He's 12 years old now. With tears in his eyes, put his arms around my waist and looked at me, "Auntie, I didn't know. I didn't know, Auntie. I didn't know. Why didn't you tell me?" And we just cried together.

And I said, "Now you know. Now you know to put your time to good use. Make every moment count. I don't mean being mischievous. I don't mean getting up in the classroom and being the class clown. I don't mean being rebellious and talking back to your teachers." He always gets on the principal's scholar, the principal's list or whatever, but he's hyperactive. And so, he's busy all the time. So I made a deal with him. I said, "If you continue to be a principal scholar and get on the honor roll, every reporting period, I have something special for you." So he makes it a point to call me, to tell me how well he's doing in school, how he's settled down, how he's listening to his teacher, and by the way, "I made the honor roll again." Or "I made the principal scholar." So he looks for his mail. [Laughing]

I have nieces, and one in Chicago that wrote — she wanted the story or portions of the story, and she wrote a paper when she was in high school, and her teacher asked her, "Do you think that I could meet your aunt?" She says, "I don't know. She lives in California." But then I have a niece here who graduated from Cal State Northridge, and she also wrote a paper. And twice I've gone to classes at Cal State Northridge to speak in a couple of classes there. So that's good.

Copyright © Brenda Travis, 2007

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