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Leslie B. McLemore was just a teenager when he first became involved in the civil rights movement. A native of north Mississippi, McLemore attended Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss. at a time when the University of Mississippi had yet to be integrated and then-Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett was attempting to maintain segregation. At Rust College, McLemore established the school’s chapter of the NAACP and later worked on efforts to register black voters during “Freedom Summer.” McLemore, former founding director of the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy, has worked in Mississippi for many years as an educator, activist, and higher education administrator.
The Hechinger Report spoke to McLemore about his experience during the civil rights movement, and his efforts to commemorate Freedom Summer’s 50th anniversary this year.
Q: What made you want to get involved in the civil rights movement?
A: I got involved in the civil rights movement before I went to Rust. I led a boycott at my high school in Walls my senior year, which was in 1960. We boycotted the classes at the school because we didn’t have any Negro history books in the library. In the town of Walls where I am now, there was really nothing in the town to integrate. We didn’t have any hotels or motels or restaurants, but they still wanted to control many of our actions.
When I went off to Rust in the fall of 1960 I had already had that experience, and obviously I wanted to be involved in the movement at some level or another. The year before I arrived there had been some action by the students on the campus. They had started an effort to boycott the local movie theater in Holly Springs. At that point, black folks were sitting on the balcony and whites were on the main level. So I got involved in that effort as freshman class president. It sort of took off from there.
Q: What does Freedom Summer symbolize to you?
A: To me, Freedom Summer was a watershed activity, from the standpoint of hoping to bring about some fundamental change in Mississippi and by definition, the rest of the country. It was the seminal of activity in terms of harnessing all the energy of people coming from different places throughout the country and even from foreign countries to participate.
Q: How do you think the event should be commemorated?
A: We need to use Freedom Summer as a way for us to figure out a way we can help change America and help move forward. I think there are just so many issues facing us today. Alleviating poverty, all kinds of issues we are confronted with. Equality of public education in Mississippi and the rest of country.
Hopefully it’s not just a commemoration, but an opportunity to move forward and look forward and plan for the future as we really try and change the circumstances in this country.
Q: How do you think things have changed in Mississippi since Freedom Summer?
A: It’s very obvious that Mississippi is a different place than it was 50 years ago. When I went off to college in 1960 we still had this great hurdle of getting people registered to vote in Mississippi. You know, I paid poll tax when I first voted and I took the literacy test when I first voted. So the environment is different. The atmosphere is not as tense as it was then.
But on the other hand, some of the old battles we thought we had fought and won, clearly we have not. We are having to revisit issues that we thought we had solved. We thought we had solved the issue of voting, but it’s very obvious to me that voter suppression is with us. There are still issues that we have to address, but God knows we have made remarkable progress. The struggle continues every day and it is something that we have to adjust if we want to live in a more just society. The Mississippi that we are talking about today in 2014, 15 years from now will be a different Mississippi.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.