Remembering Head Start History: Mississippi, 1966

The Child Development Group of Mississippi, Head Start, 1965. Photographer: Bob Fletcher

Head Start was born out of the Civil Rights movement and the ties between Head Start and the Civil Rights Movement are perhaps most explicit in 1960s Mississippi. NHSA began this Black History Month with an exploration of the Child Development Group of Mississippi’s (CDGM) inaugural year, one full of obstacles but also strong Black leaders who persevered to bring Head Start to life.

As one CDGM teacher, Gaynette Flowers, wrote in 1966, “There was no way out before CDGM. For the children, CDGM has opened children’s minds and lifted the oppression of segregation from them. CDGM starts children off young seeing white people as friends rather than having the frustration of segregation placed on them later on in school.”

The program made an impact on staff, too. “If the Head Start center does not open back here, I have already planned to build an extra room onto my house and take in the little childrens and try to do something for them,” said Roxy Meredith from the Wesley Center in Kosciusko, Mississippi.

“I never did too much work but farm work because everytime I would go to the employment office and all they would offer was housework..I preferred to pick cotton, hoe and work by the day in the fields. Cotton picking opened up at $2.00 per day this fall. I just don’t see how I can make it, but still I’m just going to have to pick cotton if this program doesn’t continue…

Now I have heard many times here that even if I didn’t have an education, the way that we brought up our family was proof enough for me to work in Head Start. This was my chance to get sort of a Head Start too, and it really have helped me.”

Clearly, CDGM was making an impact, but it was not smooth sailing. In 1966, after that first challenging but successful year of supporting children and families, CDGM lost its Head Start funding through President Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). The program had challenged the status quo, disrupted the white power structures that were in place, and the political pressure to defund it mounted. But this was not the end. “October 15, 1966 [the day CDGM lost its federal grant] is significant because it marks the beginning of a grassroots organization of empowerment,” Friends of Children of Mississippi write in their program history. The CDGM staff who organized in response to losing their funding harnessed the power of their communities and pushed back. They moved forward with a model that not only focused on early childhood education, but also on family and community involvement as essential to success.

The Child Development Group of Mississippi, Head Start. Photographer: Bob Fletcher, 1965

After two months without funding, these efforts to demonstrate the program’s worth and keep the pressure on the administration appeared to pay off when officials at the OEO and CDGM reached an “Agreement in Principle.” The agreement was to provide funds for another full year’s operation in 19 counties, but, when finalized, six of the 19 counties were excluded. Wanting to deliver the same quality opportunities to children and families in those six counties, community leaders again stepped up, meeting in Jackson, Mississippi, to organize.

Despite the absence of resources, these six counties elected to organize an independent, community-based volunteer early childhood education program. From this decision, Friends of Children of Mississippi was born, and Dr. Marvin Hogan was one of the leaders responsible for bringing it to life. At the time, Dr. Hogan was coaching football in Clarksdale, Mississippi, but he came to Jackson at the request of his father, not knowing that he was about to step into a lifelong career with Head Start. “A group of people got together and they met on Fair Street, the mecca of where all civil rights efforts were generated at that time,” Dr. Hogan recalls. “When they got here to Jackson, they said well, what are we going to call ourselves? Everyone said, well we are all friends and we did come here to support children, so one lady said, that’s a good name right there — Friends of Children.”

Friends of Children operated for 13 weeks with no federal or state funding, relying on their own creativity and fundraising efforts to sustain the program. “The state was not supporting the effort of Head Start, and as a result of that, we started ‘begging,’ pleading with people for donations, contributions, and whatever,” Dr. Hogan says. And this was enough to carry out their mission until, in 1967, they began receiving funding as a delegate agency of Tougaloo College. Then, in 1980 Friends of Children Inc. became an independent Head Start grantee. Dr. Hogan led through it all until his well-earned retirement in 2020.

When we think about Dr. Hogan’s commitment to Head Start over the past 56 years, and of other leaders who have dedicated 30, 40, 50+ years to their programs, Friends of Children of Mississippi’s story helps us understand why. Head Start is an exceptional early childhood education program, but it is also a community institution built by neighbors and friends who had the heart and the will to organize. This Black History Month, we thank Dr. Hogan and the other early Head Start leaders who navigated deep turmoil in order to carry out their vision for Head Start — their vision for their communities.

NHSA is a nonprofit organization committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in life.