Curtis Hayes

Photograph of Curtis Hayes, www.crmvet.org

Raised in Chisholm Mission, Mississippi

Mississippi’s Movement committed Curtis Hayes (Muhammad) to a life of struggle for change. His beginnings were humble, like many who formed the core of the Movement. In June of 1961, he and his good friend, Hollis Watkins, went over to McComb, Mississippi, to see if it was true that Martin Luther King was in town. Together, Hayes and Watkins became the first young Mississippians to begin working full time with SNCC in the state.

While in McComb, Hayes and Watkins helped form the Pike County Nonviolent Direct Action Committee. Hayes became the group’s vice president. On August 26, the Committee decided to act to desegregate  McComb’s Woolworth’s lunch counter by conducting a a sit-in with other students in their new group. They were the only two who showed up and ended up in jail for 34 days. Though small, this was the first student direct action in rural Mississippi, and it would soon have much broader implications.

A few days later, Brenda Travis, and two other local teenagers, sat in at the Greyhound bus station and were arrested.  After serving more than a month in jail Brenda was expelled from Burglund High School; and over one hundred fellow students marched to McComb’s City Hall in protest. Hayes, Watkins, and other SNCC workers in McComb who had joined the student protest were charged with “contributing to the delinquency of minors.”

Bob Moses (far left), Curtis Hayes (third from left) and other young McComb activists on trial, www.crmvet.org

Although the arrests of children angered many of McComb’s adults, organizers like Curtis Hayes slowly won respect. McComb resident Percy Larry remarked, “Anytime a man come in my community and took the hardships that he took. . . He’s ready to take a beating, [get] jailed, being bombed and get back on two feet . . . I’m ready to join that fellow, wherever he is, right or wrong.” The perseverance of the organizers who had committed their lives to this work eventually won over the support of the local communities.

Then in 1962, with only $50 for three months, Hayes and Watkins moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to help Vernon Dahmer with a voter registration campaign.  From there, Hayes moved to Greenville at the end of the year to join fellow organizer Charlie Cobb. He moved to Greenwood in 1963 after the shooting of Jimmy Travis. By 1964, Hayes was back in McComb to lead the Freedom Summer effort and was wounded in a bombing of the freedom house on July 8.

Since his days with SNCC, Curtis Hayes has continued a life of organizing and activism. He was never willing to stay quiet while knowing “something was wrong,” and he recognized the ways in which voter registration and direct action empower individual and collective agency.

References

Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s
Wesley Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle
Interview with Curtis (Hayes) Muhammad, 2011, McComb Legacies