Civil Rights leader David Dennis speaks at Delta State University’s Winning the Race conference.

CLEVELAND — David Dennis didn’t grow up fighting for freedom. He grew up fighting to survive.

“Lynchings and beatings were everyday occurrences … that’s the kind of environment I grew up in. I was learned to fear white folk always,” he said.

But, in spite of that, he rose to become a prominent civil rights leader, befriending Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. along the way.

On Monday he spoke at Delta State University during its Winning the Race Conference, which aims to address how race affects everyday life.  

“It’s important for the discussion on an issue like race to be at Delta State, on a safe place like a campus where people can have an honest discussion that’s honestly brokered. … I’m sure there are people who don’t like it. It’s awkward, perhaps they’d rather we not do it, but it’s absolutely the right thing to do in this day and time,” said President William LaForge, who conceptualized the idea for the conference.  

The conference, which first began in 2014, spans throughout three days and offers discussions on education and community, economic opportunities, and social justice, civil rights and law. This year’s keynote speakers included Dennis and Kevin Powell — a writer, speaker and pop culture curator.

Delta State University President William LaForge

During his talk, Dennis spoke about how the civil rights movement brought different classes together, what made it successful, where it went wrong. He recalled the historic eulogy he gave for murdered civil rights worker James Chaney, which is still seared into his memory. He commented on the activism going on today for gun control. And when his hip started to give out, he pulled up a chair and talked some more — his audience engaged to the end.

“I think what should come out of this [conference] is the importance of the history of the movement, and how it relates to where we are today. Also [for activists] to get a feel for what they need to do, to take the lessons of the civil rights movement in the 60s to what needs to be done today to bring about equality.

“Because what you have here is a surge back in terms of social justice and equality. So what we’re trying to do is figure how people can become more active in terms of making a change and making it surge forward,” Dennis said after his talk.

Though the civil rights movement made forced segregation technically illegal, significant equity gaps still exist between race and class, said Chuck Westmoreland, co-chair of the conference.

“Jim Crow ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent changes after that, but we still have these huge racial disparities in education, job opportunities, health care access, certainly the criminal justice system does not work equally for everyone,” Westmoreland said.

“Our hope is that we get people in here and get people together to talk about these things.”


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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.