Podcast

David Dennis Jr. on the ways ‘The Movement Made Us’

You may not know his story but David J. Dennis Sr. was a titan of the civil rights movement. Born in Louisiana, he joined the movement while at Dillard University in New Orleans. Like many people, he got pulled into the movement reluctantly at first. But by the time he was in his early 20s he was the field director for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Louisiana and Mississippi. He was working with Bob Moses to organize voter registration and turnout. And he was risking his life as a Freedom Rider.

David Dennis Sr. helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Summer. He challenged the Democratic Party at virtually every level to become more integrated. He put his life on the line time and time and time again. And he lost friends. Friends like Medgar Evers who was gunned down outside of his home. Friends like James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner who were abducted and murdered because of their work in Mississippi.

David survived but he lived with the guilt of that. For years, he couldn’t talk about the movement until one day Bob Moses brought him back into the fold. And David found a new purpose leading the Southern Initiative Algebra Project in Mississippi. And traveling across the country talking about the movement.

David Dennis Jr. grew up in that. And he’s become a titan in his own right, an award-winning journalist that has chronicled the ongoing freedom struggle embodied through the work of Black Lives Matter. He won the 2021 American Mosaic Journalism Prize for his incredible coverage of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.

Now, the father and son duo have a new book out chronicling the way that the movement shaped their lives. This week on the Reckon Interview, David Dennis Jr. discusses that book, “The Movement Made Us” and what it was like growing up in a civil rights household. He also discusses the ways in which movements are shaped by people in their twenties and the ongoing trauma of surviving a fight that never ends. As David Jr. asks can you call something post-traumatic stress disorder if the trauma is ongoing?

Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.

Sign up for the Reckon Interview on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss out on future episodes.

And sign up for The Conversation, our weekly newsletter to dive deeper into the topics and issues raised on the Reckon Interview.

Reckon: We’re here to talk about your new book, “The Movement Made Us.” It’s a really beautiful and gripping, powerful, sometimes painful, story about you and your father and the way that your family’s lives were shaped by the civil rights movement.

Your dad is also your co-author, David Dennis Sr. He was a major figure in the movement, especially in Mississippi and Louisiana. To start out, can you tell us what you knew about your dad’s story before you started working on this book with him?

David Dennis Jr: I knew broad strokes and then very specific stories. Right? So I knew Freedom Ride, Freedom Summer, you know, that he was good friends with Medgar Evers, that he was good friends with James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner. Those things. And then I knew some of the stories that are involved that are in the book. So like the last night he had with Medgar Evers and later in life, much later in life, that he went to the Harlem riots. You know, that he was there when the Harlem riots were happening. So, you know, very, very detailed stories and then very sort of macro what he did. But what I didn’t know was the day-to-day. In my head, I didn’t have a chronology of this stuff. And also, I didn’t have an understanding of just how young he was. This is the metaphor I always use is that when your parents tell the story about when they’re young, even if they’re like, you know, “when I was seven, I would go play tag with my friends,” you imagine your old mom and dad doing that. Right? And so I didn’t really understand and fully grasp that this was a 20 year old, 21 year old kid surrounded by other 20 year old kids trying to figure this out. So, so those were some of the things that I learned.

Reckon: Well, it was fascinating, you know, and I imagine this is pretty common for a lot of people who were involved with the movement at the time. He didn’t necessarily set out wanting to be involved with the movement. You start out talking about, he was just trying to follow a girl and wanted to get a date and suddenly found himself caught up in the movement in New Orleans. Is that a common story? Do you think, from what you’ve been able to research while working on this book?

Dennis: Yeah. I mean, especially, so my dad’s involvement in the movement came from being a Dillard University student and running into Doris Castle, who was a central figure in New Orleans CORE. And sorta running into her while she was recruiting people to CORE and he just wanted to take her on a date. And so what you find out and that’s sort of in the book, was so many of the people who were in those meetings were guys trying to go on dates with Doris Castle. You know, she understood what it took to sort of get folks into this movement. And there was an intentionality behind her trying to recruit folks. And I think vastly important because nobody is a five-year-old kid and says, “I want to fight for voting rights, get arrested and beaten and try to get us free.” You know, like, we have dreams of doing things. My dad wanted to be an engineer. And so, in general, nobody in the book sought out to be who they were. They just sort of happened upon it.

My dad, I think, would have been perfectly fine going to the CORE meetings, making picket signs and helping with the training and then graduating and being an engineer and go on the rest of his life. You just find yourself embedded in this and it pushes you, it pulls you, and you go as far as you can go. Some people did not want to go as far as that. And they did what they could, Don Hubbard, who was one of the New Orleans CORE members who’s mentioned in the book, you know, he had a wife and a child and a job and things like that. And so he was very much like, “I’m going to drive you guys. Y’all get arrested. I have a livelihood.” And he tried to not do that, but of course they still came for him and had him in some dire straits, also, back then.

Reckon: Well, it’s one of the things I like about the title of the book. You know, the movement “made us” like it molded us, it shaped us. But also the movement made us do these things, it called us to do these things that they didn’t necessarily set out to do. Your dad initially, like you said, he wanted to be the guy who was helping train, picket. The first time that he was arrested, it sort of happened by accident. He thought he was showing up to a situation where he was guaranteed not to get arrested. Can you tell us about that situation?

Dennis: Yeah. As he was in CORE and doing these things, he was meeting a lot of folks, Jerome Smith, Rudy Lombard, people who were just instilling a lot of this movement work to him. You know, we go back and forth over this where we talk about where he began his movement work and, you know, he considers the Freedom Rides begin his movement work. And I tell them, you know, “well, you were doing all this stuff back then that was contributing to a movement.”

And so he was doing all of that, but he was very, very staunch about the fact that, “I am not getting arrested. I’m not doing any of this stuff that’s going to jeopardize my education.” My dad was the first person in his family to graduate high school, go to college, that stuff. He was dead set on that.

There was a sort of loose treaty going on, a peace time thing, between the city of New Orleans and the CORE members where if you picket in a certain way, at a certain area, a certain amount of people, they weren’t going to arrest you. And so they had assured my dad that everything’s going to be fine. You’re going to go out there. We’ll come home. And so in the middle of it, Oretha Castle, Doris’s older sister, another central figure in the New Orleans CORE had instructed him to go around to a different area. And that’s where you can’t go. And so then he ended up arrested for that.

So his first time out there he was arrested. And not only was he arrested for the protest, but he was so adamant to the police that like, “you’re not supposed to do this. Please just let me go. And you’ll never see me again. I just want to go to school.” And he was so adamant about that, he ended up getting an obstruction of justice charge or something like that that caused him to have even more legal trouble. And while he was there, him and Jerome started sending messages to the newspaper, they were doing hunger strikes, they were getting more and more in invested into the movement work.

Reckon: And it’s interesting, you talked about him not really thinking that his movement work got started until he did the Freedom Rides. And there’s an interesting part in one of your first letters to him in the book, y’all discuss the nature of activism. And he thought that he wasn’t really an activist until he was willing to die for what he believed in. And that that was the Freedom Rides. But then I guess later he comes around on this idea that to quote him, " movement work is coalition work, where each individual contributor must be met, where they are without shame or guilt over how much little they suffer, sacrifice, or risk freedom. That this work takes everyone doing what they can for the shared goal of liberation, that the word activist should be inclusive, not one used to parse out different hierarchies of freedom fighting where the pain we’ve endured becomes our work’s currency.”

And it’s interesting because you also talk about your kind of rocky relationship with the word activist. So where do you come down on that now?

Dennis: Yeah. So that was one of the things I was thinking about in doing this is what constitutes the idea of activism, right? And of course, a lot of this was written in the George Floyd era and all of the book was obviously written after Ferguson. So when you see all this stuff happening, Ferguson, Trump, George Floyd, all this, you think like this is too big for me. Like, I don’t even know where to start. And if I want to make change, I have to be Martin Luther King, I have to be Medgar Evars. And I have to be capital A activist, right? And I think that sometimes folks say, “well, you weren’t out there on the street. You didn’t do enough. You didn’t get arrested. You weren’t doing enough.” And I think it’s a deterrent. It deters people from actually doing what they can. And one of the goals of the book is for people to understand that the “us” in “The Movement Made Us” is everybody. They contributed in some way. Like if you were a teacher in Mississippi, you were middle-class and you can not afford to lose your job and you were feeding multiple people. And you couldn’t be out there protesting, but you may donate some of your money, which was hard to come by. Or if you were a family in Greenville, Mississippi, and you are out by yourself and if they find out that you’re doing anything that, you could die, you could lose your job or whatever, your children, they’ll burn your house down, which they were doing. But if you housed a family or you housed a Freedom Summer volunteer and fed them, you were integral in the movement, you know? And so my hope is that folks read this and think I don’t have to be capital A activist to be part of this change. I can do something. I can be in my job and advocate for more Black folks in my job or whatever. Like you can do something. As long as you’re doing something, you’re doing something.

And I think that often there’s this divide between who is an activist and who is not. What is the line between an activist and somebody affecting change? That’s why the word sort of makes me uncomfortable, which is what I was grappling with. I have no interest in getting arrested or getting pepper sprayed or doing all that stuff, but I am going to contribute in the ways that I feel are going to help. I think that’s just one of the things I grappled with with the story and one of the things that people have their own definition for. But for me, I just feel as though that word and the idea of the threshold of what makes you an activist sometimes can be off putting for people who are trying to figure out how to work their way into all of this.

Reckon: Yeah, definitely. You know, this is the week where Elon Musk has made headlines for buying Twitter. And so there’s been a lot of conversation about Twitter as the public square and the way that it has... it’s done a lot of good in recent years in terms of elevating videos like the death of George Floyd or Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin. It’s also spread a lot of misinformation. And it does seem to sometimes boil down in people attacking each other for not being activist enough or being too much of an activist or not an activist in the right way.

And so I was reading through this book and thinking about like, I don’t really know what that movement would have looked like 60 years ago with Twitter. You’ve been covering this for the last several years in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement, how do you think that activism has changed today? It’s certainly on a more expansive scale, back then it was more localized and tactical. So how has activism changed in the last 60 years?

Dennis: I think one of the good things is that it’s more decentralized in a way in which you still need the local movements. I mean, all this starts with local movements. You know, Ferguson started with folks on the ground taking pictures. Twitter amplifies and just like one of the ways I wanted to frame movement work back then is that CORE, SNCC, NAACP were there to sort of amplify movements that were already in place. And I think that sometimes folks think social media is a replacement for that when it’s not the case. You know, like people can tweet and go fly to Minneapolis, but if you don’t know what the main street is where you’re supposed to be marching, you know, you’re just walking around nowhere.

It has changed the idea that you can amplify things larger. I mean, the 2020 marches were the largest mass protests in United States history. And that is because of the way that social media can sort of bind those voices together. And I think also one of the good things is that there are fewer backwoods now. When you think about Ahmaud Arbery, it’s one of those stories that we would have never heard of. When Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner went missing, there were multiple bodies that had been found in those 44 days, or whatever, looking for them. There were multiple bodies that had been found that nobody ever knew had been missing. So I think one of the things is that a Brunswick, Georgia, becomes a central location because now we can spread that around. But I do think that in all of these cases, we should remember that it’s the local movement that’s where all this starts anyway.

Reckon: Yeah. There’s a haunting part early on in the book where your father describes seeing the pictures of Emmett Till and realizing, “oh, all those people that disappear around here, that’s what happens to them.” And, like you said, one of the benefits of cell phones and cameras is that fewer of those things hopefully happen today then than it did. I’m sure some of it still happens.

You know, your father’s definition of activism at that one point of being willing to die for what he believes in. You also illustrate the way that that can become survivor’s guilt, because he did have friends like Medgar Evers who were killed. And he survived. And, I mean, it’s not a psychological diagnosis, but it seems like a form of PTSD that a lot of people had after that chapter of the movement was over.

Dennis: Yeah. So my dad, when he went to law school in Michigan and he was having trouble sleeping-- you know, this was the early seventies-- had trouble sleeping and couldn’t focus on school and if he slept in a place that had a wood floor, if there was a creak, he would jump out of bed and wonder what’s going on. And the psychologist there said, look, you’re exhibiting some of the same symptoms as somebody who went to Vietnam. And there are tons of stories of PTSD.

I mean obviously, there’s the physical aspect of people who were beaten, who never recovered from those injuries, but the PTSD of watching your friends die and being in a war where there was no home base. You know, there was no like safe base that you can go to and be like, okay, I can sleep here for the night. Like Medgar Evers was shot in front of his house. And so that PTSD is a real thing.

And I also argue like, where is the “post” in it if the trauma is unending? Where is the PTSD of it if, you know, me, my dad’s son is still getting pulled over by police and under the same sort of siege that he was under? You know, and his grandchildren are under. So where is the “post?” Like PTSD, you think about war, you go to Vietnam, go to Afghanistan, you come to America and that is “post.” But dad moved back to Mississippi in the nineties so he was back there where it was. And there are still these things happening. So where does the post actually come in?

Reckon: What is interesting is that, like you said, where does the “post” come in? This stuff is still happening. None of this is ancient history. Like sometimes, in terms of American textbooks and things like this, we talk about the civil rights movement as if it was actors who were doing these things decades ago. But your father just turned 80, 81. He’s still here. You know, we run into foot soldiers, and obviously people who were on the other side of it too, at the gas station and at the grocery store.

And I guess I had always kind of thought that maybe we talk about it that way because white people want to whitewash history and don’t want to talk about that because of our role in it. But it does seem like there’s an element to which people like your father and Bob Moses... Bob Moses went to Africa. Fred Shuttlesworth went to Ohio. Rosa Parks went to Detroit. There was a period where the people most active in the movement just couldn’t talk about it for awhile. And so what led to your father finally being able to talk to you about it?

Dennis: So dad left New Orleans and CORE in 68. And for the most part, never really talked to anybody about it. Never did any interviews. He did “Eyes on the Prize” in the eighties, and like one with James Baldwin in the early eighties. But, for the most part, never really talked about it.

And it was really Bob Moses who came back from Africa and he was into this idea of math as a frontier of equality. And so he sort of brought dad back into thinking about this stuff. And there was also the Civil Rights Museum opening in Memphis and all this stuff was happening. And Mississippi Burning had just come out and there was all of this talk about how inaccurate and whitewashed that story was. So the wheels were sorta turning and Bob just kept on pushing at dad to come back to Mississippi. And so he spent most of my childhood, reliving these memories for the first time, which is something that I did not realize until we were doing this book. You know, that he was doing that for the first time that just didn’t register to me until we were doing the book.

And so when it got time to work on the book, a lot of these stories I’d sort of heard some aspect of them before, but there were parts that were just extremely painful for him to go back to. There was a lot of stuff that he did not remember. There was stuff that even now he’s still remembering. You know, I had to tell him, “look, you can’t remember nothing else. The book’s done. Like, if you remember something else just don’t even tell me, I don’t want to know.” So we’re working out memories in real time and I was digging through files, digging through the newspaper clippings and trying to recreate this as best we could based on what we saw and what he remembered. But there were things that were locked away and things that he was open about, but it was a trying process.

Reckon: And y’all were having to do a lot of this over Zoom because of the coronavirus pandemic. Is that right?

Dennis: Yeah. So there was an idea that some of this book, like the stuff in my voice, the letters, which were not letters originally, were going to be sort of me writing about dad as we traveled to some of these places.

Now we went to Shreveport, briefly. But we wanted to go back to Shreveport, we did a little Jackson, we were going to go back to Jackson. We were going to go to Harlem. And you know, we were gonna to try to go to all of these different places. I mean, we went to Jackson, we went to Medgar Evers’ old office and did some of that stuff. And that was literally like two weeks before things shut down. So we had to spend a lot of the rest of the time on Zoom, which actually, it was dad and I for two hours every Sunday sitting in front of Zoom, talking about memories and our feelings. So I think it actually ended up being something that was therapeutic for both of us.

Reckon: Your relationship with your father not being what you wanted it to be as a child, what was it like? I’m always curious about what it’s like to grow up surrounded by the movement and have all these important figures in your life and your dad being an important figure in the world. You know, what was that like for you as a child?

Dennis: It was two things. There were two things here. There was the Dave Dennis civil rights hero, and then there was Dad. And so there was the Dave Dennis who I just looked up to because, I mean, he did so much and there were so many people who respected him, who were in and out of the house. Bob Moses was in the house all the time. People like that, who just always had something great to say about him and the work that he’d done.

But then there was also dad who would thrust himself back into this movement work and that required lots of travel, lots of late nights, lots of thinking about other people. And that’s just what movement work is thinking about a lot of other folks. And for me, our relationship, I was like, well, that’s part of the sacrifice for the movement. I’ll just wait until he comes home and that’s just what we do for other folks. And it was something where he wasn’t at home or, you know, spending as much time as I would’ve liked. It was difficult, especially when you get older and, you know, my parents divorced and your family is sort of splintered. And you’re trying to pull it together. But the foundation of it is the fact that there’s always something that you agree with is more important than your relationship. Like, I was like, you got to go out there and save the world. Go do it. And then that is fine.

Reckon: To what extent did you feel the need to live up to that legacy? To be a part of the movement? To what extent did you feel like you didn’t want to be a part of the movement because you wanted a different relationship with your family. How did that shape you?

Dennis: Yeah. So for me to sort of right the ship was to be the best dad and husband possible. And my . Dad had always admired me or say he admired me for being that. That was his, I guess, idea of what righting the ship was. And he says that he never was concerned about me and doing that kind of work cause he just sort of felt that that was just what would happen. That I would just find myself into it.

But it was a real conflict for me, especially around Ferguson, when all of this stuff is happening and I feel as though I need to be a part of it. I need to go to Ferguson. I need to go march with folks. I need to be on the street. This is what’s going on. My dad did this. I need to do this. But at the same time I had equated that kind of work with losing your family. Like I didn’t want my children to think that our relationship was part of the sacrifice of the movement. I didn’t want my wife to be up worrying where I was and stressed out about that. That was more important to me, but I was at the same time feeling like I was letting down Dave Dennis, while making dad proud of me.

Reckon: How did your relationship with your father change over the course of working on this book? And did you ever get pushback from him when you were wanting to explore certain parts of this history?

Dennis: I didn’t really get a lot of pushback from him in terms of him saying, I don’t want to talk about it. He was never like, well, you’re digging too deep. It was more so, there would be certain periods of like a shutdown, a little bit, where it was just too painful for him to get back to. There was just the unconscious shutting down also in the fact that his mind and body just would not remember certain things. You know, there are just certain things that he just, still to this day, I’m like, you know, dad, there’s evidence that you were at this thing. And he’s like, I guess so. You know, there’s that part of it too.

Our relationship, I mean, dad and I got into a good place. You know, we were at a good place before the book. But we had gotten to a good place without speaking about getting to that good place. And so with the book we got to an even better place cause we were talking about that journey to how we got there.

Reckon: What was your favorite story that you learned about your dad while writing this book?

Dennis: My favorite story is them shutting down the state fair in Shreveport, because it’s just so ingenious. So Shreveport, the state fair was a huge deal. I mean, all the trade folks would come down and sell whatever. And it was a fair, right? But they would have like a Black Day, right. Had a lot of different names, Dog Day, Black Day, you know, N-Word Day, whatever. And it was just one day in the week where they would shut down some of the rides, some of the venues, that Black folks could just go and just be in the fair, like they got a watered down version of the fair, and it was just them.

And so they wanted to desegregate that fair. And so the first thing they did as a community was that they occupied all the kids during that day so the Black people would not go to that fair. So they would have Freeman & Harris, the chicken place, would have cooked fried chicken and the churches would have events at all the churches in the city. And everybody just spread the word not to go. But they wanted to take it a step further and just sort of ruin the fair for everybody. And what they did is they would just have a smattering of young Black kids amongst the white crowd that was sort of in the opening ceremony thing. They would just talk amongst themselves loud enough for the white folks who hear and be like, " those kids, they’re going to come over here and tear this place up. You heard about it, right?” You know, you heard that these rowdy Black kids... like they did it so much they even had flyers. So much that nobody showed up. The white folks did not show up because they were so scared about what these radical Black folks were going to do.

Meanwhile, dad and all his other friends, just sat, hanging out. You know, sitting around doing nothing. That level of just ingenuity and thinking outside the box about how to disrupt. It’s just so fascinating to me. These young folks who were just like, it was lots of sit-ins, lots of protests, lots of getting arrested, but they knew that there wasn’t the money to bail them out. They couldn’t get out of jail. They had lives to live. How can we disrupt this in a way that also keeps us safe, and use white fear of Black folks and weaponize it against themselves? And it was just such a brilliant idea. And there’s probably cities all across the South where the kids were just doing things like this that were just so brilliant. And so, yeah, I just love that story.

Reckon: The work that people were doing then and today to disrupt things, shows you how brilliant young people can be. How has your father changed in the process?

Dennis: I think he’s just generally happier. I think that he is happy to have gotten this off of his chest. I think that he’s happy that our relationship’s better. He feels open in a way that he was not before. You know, he does a lot of speaking engagements and a lot of times people know what notes to hit. You know, if he talks about it enough, he can go on autopilot. But this was a way for him to tell stories that he’d held so close to him, that he had forgotten that he was holding close to him. So it’s almost like a breath of fresh air, I think, for him.

Reckon: You know, what lessons can we learn from your dad’s generation and from the work that you’ve been covering for the last decade. And what’s the easiest way for young people to get involved today?

Dennis: Yeah, I think the lesson, like the thing that I wanted to press upon people is that these are real folk. These are just regular people who did tremendous things. And you should not feel so overcome by the massive inequality going on. Like as I was writing this book, George Floyd is happening, Donald Trump’s president, we have a pandemic that is killing Black folks at a rate that’s higher than everybody else, poverty, the income gap was growing. It just felt like too much.

And so what I want folks to think about is that like, don’t try to affect change thinking you’re going to be Martin Luther King, or Dave Dennis, or Bob Moses, or Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker or anything like that. Just do something. And if everybody does something, then it’ll work itself out. If everybody does something to create change, somebody will step up and be this person. Somebody will step up and do this. Somebody will be who they are. Like my dad was a masterful-- like the Shreveport story-- masterful community organizer. I am not. I can’t get people together to do nothing. But I can write. You know, I can write, I can chronicle. I can do that to try to do my part. I’m not going to try to community organize. I’ll leave that up to somebody else, but I’ve found what my part is. And maybe it’ll grow, you know, or maybe I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing, but I’m doing something. And I think if everybody has that mindset, that if I just do one thing, maybe it’ll be two things-- and maybe it’ll just be one thing-- but at least we’re doing something. So you don’t feel so over overwhelmed by the need to be either Medgar Evers or nobody.

Reckon: So how has your relationship with the South changed as you were working on this book and having to revisit some of these stories in Mississippi and Louisiana?

Dennis: I’ve always been proud. You know, I was never one of those people that felt like, “all right, I gotta get out of this.” I love Mississippi. And one of the reasons I love it is because we as a state have in many ways set a blueprint for getting Black folks free. Like, we are a state, much like Alabama in a lot of ways, that is the ground zero for the worst things that white supremacy can do to Black folks or could try to do to Black folks. But we’re also the blueprint of how you can fight it. And I went into it feeling a lot of pride about the South, but I feel even more.

What we did in Mississippi and Louisiana, especially, where a lot of this stuff is centered around, which are my two homes essentially, we did as the most set upon people. The most that they’ve tried to oppress folks in this country did the most to fight back and to change it. And I just have an immense amount of pride for what we were able to do. And continue to do. There’s just so many active movements in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, all across the south, especially the Deep, Deep South, that I just feel my chest getting bigger. Like I feel like I can walk my head high, because of what’s in this book.

“The Movement Made Us” is available to purchase here.

reckon interview newsletter

A newsletter that explores Southern culture without the cliches, and digs into the Southern roots of American culture, history and politics.

Brought to you each Wednesday by John Hammontree, host of the award-winning Reckon Interview podcast.

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.