At age 17 Brenda Travis was banned from the state of Mississippi, or so she was told. Forced to leave family and friends behind because she got involved in the civil rights movement she spent most of her life someplace else, but always felt like an exile.
Brenda was just 16 in the summer of 1961 when the civil rights movement came to her hometown of McComb, MS, 80 miles south of Jackson and 110 miles north of New Orleans. She had just recently been appointed head of the youth council of the NAACP and was aching to do something. Bob Moses and other SNCC activists came to start a voter registration drive.
SNCC set up an office in the Masonic Temple where it trained volunteers and sent them out to canvass. They brought potential voters to classes on how to pass the registration test.
As more blacks showed up at the registration office, local officials realized something was going on. Retaliation began.
The high school students SNCC had recruited wanted to do more than canvass. Impressed by the highly publicized sit-ins in 1960 and the Freedom Rides in 1961, they wanted to do direct action.
Brenda’s first arrest came when she and two friends tried to buy a bus ticket at the white counter in the Greyhound bus station. For that she served 28 days in jail, missing the first month of her sophomore year in high school. When she returned, her classmates treated her as a hero; her principal expelled her from school. At a subsequent school assembly the other students talked about walking out in protest; over a hundred of them did so later that day.
They marched to City Hall, where white bystanders beat up three SNCC workers who accompanied them. They were all put in jail. The other students were eventually released. Brenda was taken to the state reformatory for “delinquent Negro youth.” She was told she would be there until she reached the age of 21.
In fact she stayed less than a year. The national publicity about her case brought a white professor from a black Alabama college to her rescue. He told her that he had negotiated with the Mississippi Governor to take her to his home. The Governor agreed provided she never return to the state of Mississippi.
The professor turned out to have a bad case of ephebophilia. He showered her with love and affection, calling her his daughter, but wooing her like a prospective lover. When he tried to turn words into action, she walloped him and fled to Atlanta and her friends in SNCC.
More publicity brought more offers of help. She spent some time in New York living with Ella Baker, SNCC’s godmother, who enrolled her into a private school in North Carolina. She spent another year with a white family in a Chicago suburb, and another year in Connecticut, where she finally finished high school. All this time, what Brenda wanted most was to go home to Mississippi and her mother.
Brenda spent most of her life in Southern California. She did get back to McComb many times, where she saw some things change and some remain the same.
On one of these visits, at a ceremony of reconciliation at the high school which had expelled her, she was given a Bronze Star by J. Randall O’Brien, which he had earned as a serviceman in Viet Nam. In an epilog, he writes about why someone who was a young, white boy in McComb in 1961 when the black students walked out of their school, thought Brenda should get that medal for her heroism.
Read this book and find out why O’Brien is such an admirer of Brenda Travis.
Jo Freeman has published eleven books and hundreds of articles. She is currently finishing a history and memoir of working for SCLC in 1965-66. This article was originally published by SWW. Mississippi’s Exiled Daughter: How My Civil Rights Baptism Under Fire Shaped My Life, Montgomery AL: New South Books, 2018.