HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Born in 1941, Raylawni Branch grew to be a pioneer in the civil rights movement.
She’s known best for her role in the integration of the University of Southern Mississippi.
We sat in Branch’s living room as she recalled her experiences as she made history.
Branch and Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong were the first black students to enroll at Southern Miss.
In September 1965, to her, it was a golden opportunity.
“I would like to say I made Mississippi history, I made Hattiesburg history," Branch said. “I made history for my children. I didn’t think about it even as history when I was doing it.”
Branch said she was thinking about the fact that she had an opportunity to go to school. She said It was very important to her because she found herself struggling with only a high school education, without many skills or opportunities.
“Of course, I was thinking about James Meredith and all of the ugly things that happened to him. But we didn’t stay on campus so that helped us greatly,” Branch said.
Southern Miss’ integration process wasn’t as hostile for Branch as Ole Miss was years before for Meredith, but the process did come with resistance.
“The political climate was one where Dr. [William David] McCain, I understand, was told by the governor, who was [Ross] Barnett at the time, that if you let blacks come to this school, we’re going to shut it down,” said Branch.
But that didn’t stop Branch from pursuing her education at USM. If anything, it motivated her even more.
“Sometimes you have to kick down the door. You can’t be nice and stand on the outside and smile and that’s the way I felt about going to USM,” Branch said.
Branch knew she was capable of the task at hand and didn’t hesitate to take on the challenge.
“If anybody’s going to kick down the door, I would step up in a heartbeat,” said Branch.