Credit: Mississippi Book Festival

Forty-five years after being told to leave Mississippi and never return, Brenda Travis delivered an impassioned speech in her hometown recalling the pride she felt for her part in bringing the civil rights movement to McComb.

In the audience that day in 2006 was Dr. Randall O’Brien, who was also a student in McComb when the 16-year-old Travis stood up for all Mississippians in 1961. O’Brien, who served in Vietnam, made the trip from Texas to present the Bronze Star he was awarded to his hero.

“Some people are asked to fight for their country. But no one should ever be asked to fight her country and that is exactly what you had to do,” O’Brien said.

The civil rights movement has many unsung heroes – those who bravely registered to vote risking life and livelihood, parents who prepared their children to walk through doors being opened and those, like Travis, who sacrificed family and friends to serve on the front lines.

In Mississippi’s Exiled Daughter: How My Civil Rights Baptism Under Fire Shaped My Life, Travis recounts how her anger over the treatment of African Americans in Mississippi and her beloved hometown gave way to determination and moved her to join the civil rights struggle as a teenager – and how two days in 1961 changed the course of her life forever.

Travis grew up in a two bedroom home she shared with six siblings, her mother, grandmother, an aunt and cousins. Her father was forced to flee the state before Travis was born after “offending” a white man. They were poor, without running water – but they were happy. But in 1955, the death of Emmett Till followed by her own brother being taken away in the middle of the night by police for questioning awakened an outrage in the 10-year-old that would later inspire her to become a youth civil rights leader.

During the summer of 1961, Travis, then 16, was helping with a voter registration drive when the call for “direct action” came to McComb. Travis volunteered to help integrate the town’s Greyhound bus station, where she and her two fellow activists were arrested.

After getting out jail 28 days later, she would learn that she was to be expelled from school. Upon hearing of Travis’ expulsion, fellow students walked out of school and marched – with Brenda Travis at the front – to city hall. Travis was again arrested but this time she was sent to reform school. Months later, on Easter Sunday, she was told that Gov. Ross Barnett had said that she could go free, but only if she left Mississippi and never returned – for trying to integrate a bus station and later attempting to pray at city hall.

Brenda Travis

Travis, then 17, began a journey borne in fear and distrust that would see many people come into her life – some good and nurturing, others not so good and even worse – and take her from Mississippi to Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Connecticut and finally California, which became her home until she was invited, nearly disinvited and eventually welcomed at an event to honor the students who walked out of high school that day in 1961 and were never allowed to return.

In her speech, Travis encouraged those in attendance to continue the struggle. Afterwards, she was approached by a white man who would tell her how proud he was of the then 16 year old in 1961 and the difference she’d made in his life.

“Brenda,” O’Brien began. … “I’m a minister and executive vice president and provost of Baylor University. I grew up in McComb. … You are a hero of mine. I was twelve years old when you sat-in at the bus station and marched on city hall. You were sixteen. Those remain, for me, two of the greatest acts of bravery in my lifetime.”

Mississippi’s Exiled Daughter: How My Civil Rights Baptism Under Fire Shaped My Life was co-authored by John Obee.

Brenda Travis will appear on the Mississippi Civil Rights History panel at 12:00 p.m. in the C-SPAN Room, Old Supreme Court Room. Others on the panel are Pam Junior, Eric Etheridge, Jane Hearn and Stephanie Rolph.

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Harvey Parson, a native of Prairie, Miss., served as managing editor at Mississippi Today from September 2017 until July 2020. He worked with newsroom leaders to oversee editorial production and staff development while leading the effort to partner with other newsrooms. A graduate of Mississippi State University, Harvey came to our newsroom with more than 30 years of experience in journalism, during which he worked at Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette.