Dave Dennis was a vital, but largely forgotten, organizer and activist in the early 1960’s. Raised in New Orleans, Dennis was expelled from historically black Dillard University for his activism. An original Freedom Rider, Dennis later became the Congress of Racial Equality’s (CORE) Mississippi field organizer in 1962. Simultaneously he served as the Council of Federated Organization’s (COFO) assistant program director in Mississippi. He worked intimately with program director Bob Moses, to organize numerous voting-related projects in the state. Dennis also actively participated in Jackson boycotts and protests during May and June 1963. Beyond movement protests and voting projects, Dennis was a firm believer in economic independence. Toward that end, he helped organize the Home Industry Cooperative in the Delta community of Ruleville, a North American variant of the Andean arpillera movement. Eighteen local women made quilts, aprons, and rugs in their homes to be sold to movement supporters in the North.
Along with Moses, Dennis helped lay the planning and organizational groundwork for what would become Freedom Summer in 1964. After the murders of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman, as well as the failures of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in August 1964, Dennis left Mississippi largely disillusioned. He would later get a law degree from the University of Michigan and a political science degree from Yale. In the 1990s Dennis reconnected with Bob Moses, and today Dennis is the director of the Southern Initiative of the Algebra Project, a program Moses initiated to teach algebra to at-risk black youth.
Dennis was a masters of ceremony for several Freedom Vote rallies held around the state of Mississippi in October and November 1963. The Freedom Vote, created by COFO leaders, was designed to show the nation that, if given the franchise, black Mississippians would turn out in large numbers to vote. It also had more local designs: perhaps blacks would see first-hand the power of the vote to effect change in their communities. As it turned out, the Freedom Vote was also a very important stage in the formation of the MFDP. At the head of the Freedom Vote ticket for governor was Clarksdale pharmacist and NAACP stalwart, Dr. Aaron Henry. Moses asked white Tougaloo College chaplain Edwin King to run as lieutenant governor. The Vicksburg native and Methodist activist eventually relented, despite significant opposition among clergy and his own family.
Always an impassioned and fiery orator, Dennis implores his Jackson audience not just to vote in the upcoming election, but he also has some sharp words for Mississippi whites. Perhaps more interesting is Dennis’s invective against the clergy (which clergy is not clear). It is clear, though, that an integrated society should not have to wait for heaven—not when blacks and whites in Mississippi frequently interact, even if on unequal terms. Given his impressive energy stores, Dennis’s frequent refrain of “we’re tired” is probably less a function of physical exhaustion and more of a righteous anger with white Mississippi hypocrisy—from the governor on down.