Mae Bertha Carter, 76, worked to integrate schools

May 07, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Mae Bertha Carter, a black Mississippian who defied gunfire and the loss of employment to send her children to previously all-white public schools, eventually winning a legal battle that confirmed their right to be there, died on April 28 at her home in Drew, Miss. She was 76.

The cause was cancer, said Francine E. Cheeks, a spokeswoman for the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia, a Quaker organization that supported Mrs. Carter and many other black families in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.

Mrs. Carter was born Jan. 13, 1923, in Sunflower County, in the heart of Mississippi Delta cotton country. She married Matthew Carter in 1939, and the couple became sharecroppers, raising 25 acres of cotton and sharing the income with the owner of Pemble Plantation, near Drew.

In fall 1965, just after the Carters had enrolled seven of their 13 children in white schools, the plantation owner told them to withdraw the children, saying they would receive a better education in a black school.

Mrs. Carter's response was to take an old phonograph onto the porch and play a recording of a speech by President John F. Kennedy on civil rights.

"I birthed those children and bore the pain," she said. Referring to the plantation owner, she said, "He cannot tell me what to do about my children."

Public schools throughout Mississippi were desegregated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but the state enacted what it called a freedom-of-choice law and used it to intimidate blacks into remaining at inferior black schools.

The Carters resolutely kept their children in the once-segregated white schools, even though their house was riddled with bullets in the middle of the night and they were evicted, losing their income and their house.

From 1965 to 1968, the Carters were the only black family to keep their children in the county's schools.

In 1967, the Carters and Marian Wright Edelman, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., sued the Drew school district, challenging the state freedom-of-choice law. They won the suit in 1969, removing the last legal hurdle to the desegregation of Mississippi's public schools.

Eight of the Carter children graduated from what had been all-white schools in Sunflower County. Five elder children graduated from local black schools. Eleven graduated from college -- seven from the once-white-only University of Mississippi.

The story of the Carter family's battle was recounted in a book, "Silver Rights" by Constance Curry, a field worker with the American Friends Service Committee in 1966, who worked closely with the family. The title is an old rural-black colloquial term for civil rights.

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