Dave Dennis of Summerville was a young man when he first experienced Penn Center on St. Helena Island.
He returns today for the Penn Center Civil Rights Symposium as a 74-year-old man. Things may be more tranquil today for a civil rights worker, but Dennis still has some of the same concerns.
Dennis first came in 1962, a century after Penn was founded as a school for freedmen. He was a field secretary in the Deep South for CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. He was here for a voter-registration training session.
The previous spring, he was a freedom rider who was thrown into jail after a bus ride from Montgomery, Ala., to Jackson, Miss.
Dennis will be joined at the two-day symposium by Robert P. “Bob” Moses and Voorhees College president Cleveland Sellers Jr., among many others.
Moses was the “Freedom Summer” coordinator for CORE. A documentary about it produced this year will be aired at the symposium.
Sellers, then a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worker, was the only person convicted in the “Orangeburg Massacre” in 1968, when state troopers killed three people protesting the segregation of a bowling alley.
Penn offered a safe place for blacks and whites to gather in those days. Other civil rights organizations, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, took advantage of it.
“This weekend’s Civil Rights Symposium is an extraordinary opportunity for Penn Center to be recognized for its role in United States history and to commemorate national, regional and local stakeholders in their important role in the civil rights movement,” said Victoria A. Smalls, Penn’s director of history, art and culture.
Its more than 20 presentations and workshops are free and open to the public.
The symposium also will help launch Penn’s Civil Rights and Gullah Studies Institute set for this summer.
Dennis, who was raised by sharecropper grandparents, worked closely with Moses and Medgar Evers in Mississippi. Bronchitis kept him from being in the car when three civil rights workers he was training were killed by the Ku Klux Klan.
When he came to Penn Center 1962, the nation was three years away from the Voting Rights Act.
Today, Dennis is worried about fallout from the U.S. Supreme Court striking down two key sections of that act last year.
He also is worried about equal access to an appropriate public education in America. Dennis is working with the nonprofit Algebra Project founded by Moses to increase mathematics skills among minority students.
“We are still trying to make sure that the Constitution is of the people, by the people and for the people, and that all people have the same rights,” said Dennis, who has a degree in law.
“The Constitution remains the American dream, but it must be made into a reality. That’s a lifetime work.”