Being a Black person is resistance, civil rights veteran David Dennis told me when I asked him about this year’s theme for Black History Month: The Importance of Black Resistance.
“We’ve had to survive from the day that our ancestors were brought into the country as enslaved people. So every day has been some type of resistance in terms of just being able to survive,” Dennis said.
Dennis knows a little something about resistance. He was one of the original Freedom Riders in the early 1960s and was deputy director of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, in which more than a thousand college students traveled to Mississippi to register Black voters and volunteer in Freedom Schools.
When Dennis entered Dillard University as a freshman in September 1960, he hadn’t thought about being part of the civil rights movement. But he saw a beautiful young lady addressing the students on campus about civil rights and wanted a date.
“She talked me into going to a meeting of the Congress of Racial Equality that was being held at Rev. A.L. Davis’ church the next day, and so that was my introduction to CORE,” Dennis said from his home in South Carolina. “It just so happens that she was the sister of Oretha Castle. Her name was Doris Castle at the time. I just kept going to meetings with her, trying to get a date.”
Born on a plantation outside of Shreveport, Dennis was the first person in his family to graduate from high school. He received a scholarship to Dillard and that was a big deal. His goal was to become an electrical engineer.
But at the top of Dennis’ mind at the time was trying to impress Doris. One Saturday afternoon, he decided to join the picket line outside of the Woolworth’s on Canal Street with students from Dillard, Xavier, Tulane and Loyola. The police, who weren’t initially arresting people, had started arresting picketers.
“They just arrested everybody, and that was my first arrest, was on that demonstration,” Dennis said. “We had to stay in jail for a whole week because I didn’t have any bond money. So that was my first introduction to the movement. All by accident, trying to get a date.”
Dennis struggled with whether he should go back to school or join the Freedom Rides. He made the choice during a meeting with civil rights leaders in Montgomery, Alabama. At the meeting were all the great leaders Dennis had read about – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Tee Walker and James Bevel.
“Someone in that room said, ‘There’s not enough space in this room for both God and fear.’ And for some reason that hit me, bam, struck me right between the eyes,” Dennis said. “That was the day of my commitment” to the civil rights movement.
Dennis joined the Freedom Rides in 1961. He and his New Orleans colleagues were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi and sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm. Dennis went to jail a total of 33 times between 1961 and 1964 for his civil rights activities. His commitment was clear.
After the bodies of Freedom Summer volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were found in an earthen dam 44 days after they went missing, Dennis gave a fiery eulogy during the funeral for Chaney, his frustration spilling over at the lack of concern for those dying in the movement. The speech is featured in a PBS documentary on Freedom Summer.
Dennis said he was filled “with a whole lot of anger and stuff at that time.”
“I lost a lot of good friends and people,” Dennis said. “Medgar Evers and I were very close and I was with him up to one hour before he was assassinated. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, I was with them 24 hours before they disappeared. We had lost, during that period of time, 19 people and nothing was really being done about it.”
By 1965, Dennis was burned out, he said. He returned to New Orleans and became the Southern program director for CORE. He also went back to school at Dillard and lived across the street from the school on St. Anthony Avenue.
“I got a job right there on the corner of Jackson and Dryades, which Dryades is now Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard,” Dennis said. “There was a joint there called the Big Time Crip. I worked most of my way through school working as a bartender [there]. I had a lot of good experiences there about life and community and organizing.”
Dennis said resistance is important. It’s trying to be seen and heard. Even young people wearing their pants low is a form of resistance, he said.
“You got to make a noise,” Dennis said. “So resistance is to bring attention to the needs that people have, the issues and the problems that exist. Resistance is necessary for people to begin to develop a kind of organization that’s needed to fight what’s going on. Resistance is very much important.”
Dennis graduated from Dillard in 1968. Then he earned a law degree from the University of Michigan law school and became a lawyer, not an engineer.
He never got that date with Doris.
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