MSU Civil Rights Workers Reunite

By: Lauren Zakalik Email
By: Lauren Zakalik Email

In 1966, then-college freshman Pau Herron heard a group of Michigan State students were coming to his all-black school in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

"I had no idea they'd all be white, I just assumed they'd be black," Herron says. "It was quite a culture shock."

It was more than culture shock; it was controversial. The MSU students spent four summers teaching underprivileged blacks at Rust College in the deeply segregated South. Forty years later, the students from Rust and the participants from State met once again.

"This is great fun," says William Skocpol, who did the "STEP" program in 1966 and 1968. "These are people I never thought I'd see again."

"This is very emotional," adds STEP participant David Hollister, who went on to be mayor of Lansing. Like many others, Hollister's participation in the civil rights program was inspired by a speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at MSU in 1965.

"I volunteered to go down to Mississippi right on the spot. Just hearing him speak and meeting him for that one momeny profoundly changed my life," Hollister says.

"What you see in this room are people who believed in his dream," says Bob Green, who worked with King in the SCLC in the '60s.

The reunion this weekend purposefully coincides with the upcoming MLK Day. Participants say this is a time to remember the thrill of his words and the destruction of segregation.

"Those were really tense times," Hollister says.

Theda Skocpol, who met her husband, William, during the STEP summers, agrees. "I think we had a little trepidation about driving down to the South in such times."

But breaking the tension was worth it. One example? College freshman Herron fell in love with the sciences during those civil rights summers and ended up transferring to Michigan State with the help of his friends from STEP.

"[It was a] tremendous impact on my life," he says. "It's unlikely I'd be doing what I do now, working at a medical school, otherwise."


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