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‘Mississippi’s Exiled Daughter’ recalls civil rights push in Pike County on book tour

MCCOMB, Miss. (AP) — “Mississippi’s Exiled Daughter” is coming home.

Brenda Travis was a high school student when she was arrested and expelled for participating in a sit-in in 1961 — a punishment that led to the Burglund High School walkout in protest and essentially ushered in the civil rights movement in south Mississippi’s Pike County.

Now, she’s on a book tour to tell her story.

Her memoir, “Mississippi’s Exiled Daughter: How My Civil Rights Baptism Under Fire Shaped My Life,” came out this summer from New South Books.

Travis is speaking Thursday at the McComb Public Library. She will appear Saturday at the Mississippi Book Festival at the state Capitol. Next week, she’ll be speaking at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which features an exhibit on her and the walkout at Burglund, which was an all-black high school before integration.

Travis takes pride in being a published author and being featured among the exhibits in the museum.

“It’s gratifying being in the museum to know that this is a part of history — civil rights history, black history or whatever you want to call it, but it will not be forgotten,” she said.

In an interview with the Enterprise-Journal, Travis recalled the process of writing the book with co-author John Obee. She said it wasn’t easy recalling the repercussions of her activism — a stay in jail and banishment from her home.

“It was very emotional and having to relive some of the things that I had gone through and experienced,” she said, adding that the experience led to a “deep depression.”

“It also makes me relive a situation that was beyond my control, actually,” Travis said. “It’s just painful. Nobody knows except for those of us who have been through it.”

Fellow activist Bob Moses wrote in the forward to the book that just three months earlier, waves of Freedom Riders had started descending on Mississippi, inspiring others like Travis to take action.

She was just 16 on Aug. 26, 1961, when she, Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes sat in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in McComb. Later, they and Ike Lewis and Bobby Talbert did the same at the Greyhound bus station and were arrested.

On Oct. 11, 1961, Burglund students insisted on the release of their classmates, Travis and Lewis. Frustrated over the situation, the students walked out of class in protest.

Travis said that on Easter Sunday 1962, she found herself before a judge who told her she could be released from state custody, on one condition: “I had to leave the state of Mississippi within 24 hours because the governor then, Ross Barnett, said he could not guarantee my safety.”

Travis, then 17, got out of town, leaving behind her family and home.

She now splits her time in between California and McComb, where she has set up The Brenda Travis Foundation, an educational center in McComb’s Baertown neighborhood, not far from where a street is named after her.

Travis said going through the ordeal then was bad enough, but then she turns on the news now and wonders how far America has come since then, pointing to events such as the separation of families on the border and the Unite the Right march a year ago last weekend. Travis said she can relate to the children detained on the border because she sees similarities in their experiences and hers.

“I know that we’re on a slippery slope,” she said. “There again, it’s reliving a past that we thought was the past but it’s ever present.”

Travis is on a mission to preserve the history of Mississippi’s civil rights era, calling it important to growing as a state and as a society.

She’s working on developing a civil rights history course and has been in talks with local officials to discuss putting up markers at local sites that were significant during the civil rights movement.

“Our children don’t have to leave this area on field trips in order to learn about history — if we do our due diligence,” she said. “I think we owe that to our children. I had a friend that would always say, ‘The lessons must be retaught and the stories must be retold.’ This is a re-teaching and a retelling of our stories, and that’s where the gratification comes in. Even though we’re having to relive situations, there’s also an expression that says failure is not fatal. It is the encouragement to continue what counts.”