When the Rev. Donald Register went to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 1964 to help African Americans register to vote, he didn’t know exactly what he’d be asked to do or if it would make any difference in the future of our country.
Register was a post-graduate intern serving at Berea Presbyterian Church in St. Louis when the National Council of Churches called for volunteers to go to Mississippi for a voter registration drive. Along with a few dozen other clergy from across the country — including some fellow Presbyterians — Register traveled to Hattiesburg, where he stayed with local supporters of the civil rights movement.
“Those people who were willing to provide housing for the outsiders, they were very strong people and under a lot of pressure from the establishment there in Hattiesburg,” Register said.
His days started with a briefing before volunteers spread out to canvass the community, knocking on the doors of African American residents and encouraging them to register to vote if they hadn’t already done so. Most had not, Register said.
“Some did not want to talk with us for fear of retaliation. Others did talk with us and were told how to go and register and there were people who would assist them, who would accompany them to the voter registrar’s office,” he said.
In the afternoons, some of the volunteers would assemble to picket outside the local courthouse with signs encouraging African American voters to register. In the evenings, there were rallies in local churches where residents and volunteers would gather and hear speeches offering support for the work at hand.
Two days after Register arrived in Hattiesburg, sheriff’s deputies blocked off part of the sidewalk in front of the courthouse and told marchers they could not march between the barriers. Protesters knew the plan for the next day, Thursday, was to block off the sidewalk entirely, so there would be no way to continue marching.
“So it was decided on Thursday morning some of us would step inside the barriers and continue to march with our signs,” Register said. “We did that on Thursday morning and were arrested by the local authorities and charged with disobeying police officials as well as disorderly conduct and littering because as they escorted us into the courthouse where the jail was we laid our signs down for others to pick them up.”
Register and eight others were kept in jail for nine days. Register, who is black, was not in the same cell as the other eight because they did not put blacks and whites in the same cell, but he could still talk to the others.
Eventually bond was posted with support from the National Council of Churches and the denominations and Register returned to St. Louis. When the case came to trial, the bond money went to pay the fines so there were no further penalties, but the charges remained on his record. Register did not return to Mississippi after that but did continue his civil rights work, mostly through working for fair housing in St. Louis and later, Chicago.
When Register was recently asked to appear on Greater Chicago Broadcast Ministries with two local youth, the young men were full of questions for Register, primarily focusing on his courage and dedication in forwarding such an important movement.
“I’m not sure how much they knew initially about the civil rights movement,” Register said. “One of the questions that they raised is something I think a lot of people have and that’s would I have the courage to lay my life on the line, and I think my response was, ‘We don’t know who has the courage to do that.’ One seldom gets involved in something like that expecting to lay his or her life on the line.
“When the situation arises some people do it and some people don’t, but we can’t tell in advance who the ones are that will stand firm and who the ones are that will back off,” he said. “You’ll never get to that point for a decision if you’re not involved. If you believe that what you are doing is right and just and not for self but for the betterment of the larger community and society, then you give it your best shot.”
The biggest piece of advice Register had for the youth was not about aiming for big accomplishments, but starting with small ones and doing what one can do from wherever one is.
“My counsel to them was simply if you see an injustice and you believe you can be involved in helping to eradicate it, then you do so with whatever powers and gifts you have to do that,” Register said.
The work that Register and others did in Hattiesburg was the start of change, although at the time, he didn’t know where it would lead. He found out in the 1980s, when his work with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) led him to cross paths with an African American female judge from Hattiesburg — a judge who happened to take over the seat of the judge who had sentenced him and others in the 1960s.
“Roughly 20 years or so later, enough change had occurred that they had African American officials on the council and an African American female had replaced the judge who had sentenced us,” Register said. “Speaking from the advantage of having been involved and having lived long enough to see some of the results, it didn’t have to turn out that way, but not knowing how it would turn out, there was a strong belief, not only in myself, in a whole lot of other people that there would be some changes made and they would be for the better — and we lived long enough to see some of those changes made.”
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.