Eleven Black students pooled together near the sidewalk of Provine High School—fresh faced and pressed in crisp digs with notebooks in tow, looking up from the side of Robinson Road in Jackson toward the front door. Just ahead of them were wide, concrete steps tunneling up to a red, double-doored entrance.
They weren’t sure what to expect, but knew they should stay together. It was fall 1965 in a capital city filled with white resistance to public-school integration—the beginning of senior year for a small group of brave students who had completed three years at Jim Hill High School. The seniors had volunteered to integrate the then all-white John W. Provine High School, named after a white former Mississippi College president and chemistry professor.
Christopher Stevens. Don Gibson. Georgia Gustavis. Hazel Jordan-McLaurin. Melba Sue Chambliss. Vernon McLaurin. Louis Smith. Joe Ann Robinson. Morris Lewis. Roland Dotson. Jacqueline Crossley.
“Nobody wanted to go,” Crossley said in the opening of “The Fearless 11” documentary. “Somebody needs to represent. … After all this struggling and fighting, you want equal this and equal that, but nobody wants to pay the price. Nobody wanted to say, ‘OK, I’ll go,’” she continued.
“I was one of the nuts who said, ‘I’ll go.’” And so they went.
The 11 held tightly to their parents’ hands and walked up the stairs, one behind the other, with their heads held high.
A raging sea of white students, parents and teachers closed in from both sides of the entrance, seething with hate as they yelled insults and racial slurs, cursing and spitting just as white adults and young people did during integration attempts across the South and the nation.
The message was clear that day in West Jackson. Black students were not welcome at Provine High School.
Telling the Provine 11’s Story
Ashley E. Gibson’s father and inspiration, Dr. Don Albert Gibson, was one of those students—and he inspired her to tell the Provine desegregation pioneers’ story.
The Mississippi-born filmmaker created a documentary, “The Fearless 11,” after learning her father’s story. Previously, Gibson had no idea about the history of Provine. She only knew it as the predominantly Black high school that it is today.
“It was mind-blowing. I had no idea until I looked through my dad’s Provine yearbook one day and noticed there were white students,” Gibson said.
Gibson hopes the documentary will pique the interest of younger people by telling their elders’ stories. “I want to instill the importance of preserving and knowing our history, to recognize that the paths we’re taking now have been paved by our elders,” Gibson said.
Dr. Gibson, a long-time Mississippi physician, was proud that his daughter was interested in his legacy and took up the reins to make a documentary about the Provine 11.
”I’m glad that she told our story,” Dr. Gibson said, emphatically. “I feel like if she didn’t tell it, no one else would have. It’s an important part of history.”
He also spoke about his feelings as an unsung pioneer and the support he received back then from his family and the community during his potentially perilous journey of integrating an all-white public school.
“Segregation and everything else that was going on during that time was just a part of the culture. I didn’t feel like a hero. I felt like we were doing what needed to be done to show the rest of the world what was going on in the South,” Dr. Gibson explained.
“Making the decision to integrate the school was a way to express how we felt about segregation and our country. I felt it was our duty.”
“The Fearless 11” opens up with the voice of Rev. Al Sharpton as a timeline graphically evolves from 1960 to 1965. The somber but hopeful background music complements pictures from the Civil Rights Movement floating atop the year markers.
“George Floyd’s story has been the story of Black folks. … Ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being is (because) you kept your knee on our neck,” Sharpton exclaimed. “We were smarter than the underfunded schools you put us in, but you had your knee on our neck.”
Luminous music sets the tone as still images fade from 21st-century, lively color to vintage black-and-white. The looming montage starts with the “Welcome to Jackson” mural located downtown, to the white lettering of Provine High School, then to a Confederate flag waving in the breeze atop the Old Capitol Building off State Street. The montage ends by dropping the audience right into a racially charged and severely segregated Jackson in the 1960s.
Isolated and Alone on the Battlefield of Integration
Dr. Robert Luckett, a historian, civil-rights attorney and professor at Jackson State University, provides proper context in the film, explaining the “Freedom of Choice” law, a ploy Mississippi enacted after the 1954 Brown decision to avoid desegregating public schools, as the Jackson Free Press reported in 2014. Luckett explained how predominantly white schools only allowed a token number of Black students just so they could say they had “integrated.”
When the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed, Mississippi was at risk of losing its federal funding for public schools if it did not desegregate. In 1965, the state agreed to follow the act, but tried to avoid desegregation in other ways. School districts allowed parents to choose whatever school they wanted, but many Black parents did not agree with desegregation—they feared for their children’s lives. The families who sent their children to white schools lost jobs, were evicted, suffered cross burnings and racially charged harassment.
Dr. Don Gibson, Hazel Jordan-McLaurin and Vernon McLaurin—who were highschool sweethearts—along with Milton Chambliss and Louis Smith speak openly in the film about fighting back.
Gibson remembers how white students constantly berated them with racial slurs as they walked into school each day with their parents right beside them. “That first day, there was a line of Caucasians shouting names, and (they were) very, very ugly towards us,” he recalls. “We had that to experience really throughout the year.”
Hazel Jordan-McLaurin did not remember much about the first day, but says in the film that she will never forget how she felt. “First day at Provine to me was very scary, but exciting,” she recalls. “I remember my mom walking me up the steps and to the principal’s office, because that’s where we had to report to get our class assignments.”
She remembers her mom telling her, “You can do this,” as she took her by the hand and up to the steps into the building.
Each of the 11 were then categorized by color and height before going their separate ways to class. They were never allowed to be together, isolated from one another and excluded from all school activities, including their prom and graduation. Despite the push for integration and the surface-level superiority of the white schools, Hazel Jordan-McLaurin felt as though she had received a better quality education during her time at Jim Hill.
“I didn’t learn anything during my senior year in high school because my teachers didn’t even want to recognize I was in the classroom. They were failing us just because they could,” she reflects in the film. “I made a 100 on every test in my Spanish class and still failed.”
Hazel Jordan-McLaurin’s husband, Vernon, tells Gibson in the film that he remembers feeling like he had to adopt a more brazen personality at Provine to protect himself. He was not free to be the cool, laid-back student he was at Jim Hill.
Milton Chambliss remembers being at Isabel Elementary when his older sister Melba Sue Chambliss attended Provine. His mother would pick up most of the Black students for school, and he vividly remembers the tauntings from aggressive whites.
In the film, Louis Smith co-signs his classmates’ memories, saying that is just how it was back then.
“You just did what you had to do, and you didn’t worry about nobody else,” Smith stated. “We had a pretty good understanding: The Blacks stayed with the Blacks, and the whites stayed with the whites. And we didn’t have no problems.”
How White Flight Impacted Jackson, Miss.
Jackson has maintained a Black population of 80%, at a minimum, for the past decade. These statistics can be attributed to the “white flight” that occurred between the 1980s and early 2000s.
“From 1980 to 1990, the proportion of Jackson’s white population dropped from 52% to 43%. Then from 1990 to 2000, nearly 35,000 white residents left the city. Whites went from making up almost half of the city’s population to a little more than a quarter,” the Jackson Free Press reported in 2011. “The city lost 19,485 white residents from 2000 to 2010, even as it added 7,976 Black residents.”
This trend also coincides with the expansive development of surrounding counties and cities. Predominantly white cities like Flowood and Madison have exponentially grown in the past 30 years compared to the smaller-scale projects that remain incomplete in Jackson.
In addition, the largest amount of development in Jackson takes place in Fondren and the Eastover District, where many of the city’s remaining white population live.
However, in the 1950s and 1960s, many of the neighborhoods in North Jackson, West Jackson and South Jackson were all-white areas and only became mostly Black neighborhoods following patterns of white flight in subsequent decades. The white community started leaving Jackson, Miss., to start anew in other areas quickly in the early 1970s after putting up a decades-long and often-violent fight to keep Black residents out of certain areas of the city and to stop school integration.
West Jackson was known in the 1960s as a middle- and upper-middle class, all-white community situated near the heart of the capital city. Provine High School was one of numerous white-only schools in the city, but several landmark court cases changed that.
Black students were allowed to voluntarily integrate white schools in Jackson after Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. However, white communities were not enthusiastic about having their children share a classroom with Black children.
The white communities of Jackson were already up in arms following Brown v. Board of Education: “Soon after the 1954 Brown decision—a day many white Mississippians called ‘Black Monday’—a former Mississippi State University football star, Robert ‘Tut’ Patterson, started the Citizens’ Council in Indianola, Miss., to push back on integration,” then-reporter Arielle Dreher of the Jackson Free Press reported in 2017.
“The white-supremacist organization quickly attracted a strong membership of business owners and leaders from around the state, including Jackson,” she wrote. “It fought integration, through economic boycotts and intimidation of Black and white people who might go along with it, and eventually boasted more than 80,000 members in chapters across the South.”
Many Black families were understandably anxious about letting their children be the “pioneers” of this new era of racial integration. The students’ willingness to lead this fight during a racially turbulent environment speaks to their bravery.
‘The Fearless 11’ Embodied Black Resilience
Despite the daunting history of racism and segregation in Mississippi, Gibson did not want to create a film that was somber, instead setting out to uplift and inspire the viewer. “The Fearless 11” held its debut screening at Two Mississippi Museums in September 2021. It then went on to win Best Mississippi Film at the 2022 Oxford Film Festival and Best Home Grown at The Magnolia Film Festival.
“I was moved overall by the student’s stories of resilience,” Gibson told the Mississippi Free Press. “The film isn’t a pity story at all. It’s a story about being courageous and fighting back. They integrated the school during a time when people, especially civil-rights leaders, were getting killed for standing up for equal rights.”
Before testing her documentary production chops, Ashley and her twin sister, Amy Nicole, started a media company in 2014 called “The Double Scoop,” created out of their shared love for writing, music and film.
“It definitely helped with framing questions to get in-depth answers and stories. ‘Double Scoop’ started off as a blog where we would interview artists, creatives and other individuals,” Gibson says. She believes that preparing good questions in advance is key, which definitely helped with the documentary. “I also feel that writing articles for ‘Double Scoop’ helped me to organize the structure of the stories I wrote,” Gibson added. “Film is just a visual story.”
The film is not currently available to view publicly as Gibson is still submitting it to film festivals, but she plans for it to stream on Amazon by spring 2023. The film was also selected to screen at the Women of African Descent Film Festival, which took place virtually on June 11 via Facebook.
Similar to his daughter, Dr. Gibson hopes that this film can help society better realize that race should not separate us.
“We are all human beings in God’s sight. … We’re equal despite our differences and we all have a purpose,” Dr. Gibson says in the film. “As Christians and non-Christians we should respect each other. I do feel like society has gotten better in terms of racism, but we still have a long way to go.”