For the past 20 years, I have been savoring the second gift of my life — writing about some of the people that I met during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The first gift was to actually be part of that movement. I was associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating committee from 1960 until 1964 when I joined the staff of the American Friends Service Committee. As their Southern Field representative, I spent the next eleven years wandering around the South, following the wonderful tenet of the Quakers — "Proceed as way opens."
Some background is in order.
After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, where Title VI mandated a plan for school desegregation, many Southern schools, particularly in rural areas, submitted a "freedom of choice" plan to Washington. This scheme theoretically allowed all parents to send their child to the school of their choice. The white power structure knew full well that black parents, trapped in most Southern states, in the economic peonage of the sharecropping system would not dare choose a white school for their children.
However, there were black families who faced the challenge in every Southern state, and it was my pleasure and honor to meet and try to assist several of these "ordinary" people- — willing to make the choice and face the consequences. From 1965 until 1975 I worked closely with the Carter family of Sunflower County, Mississippi. Matthew and Mae Bertha Carter had 13 children and sharecropped on a cotton plantation not far from Drew, Mississippi, in the heart of the Delta. Drew is a few miles from Parchman Penitentiary, a few miles from Ruleville, home of Fannie Lou Hamer and not far from Senator James Eastland's 5,800-acre cotton plantation in Doddsville. Right outside Drew, the remnants of a barn mark the site of the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
The first five Carter children graduated from the ill-equipped "colored" school and left home immediately to join the military or to find jobs outside of the state. Mae Bertha and Matthew sought a better education for the rest of their children, filled out the "freedom of choice" forms, and, in the fall of 1965, sent their seven school-age children to the previously all-white schools in Drew. Joined a few years later by the youngest son, For five years, the eight Carter children remained the only blacks in these schools and were subjected to insults, harassment, and humiliation until the courts ordered full desegregation in 1970. That suit, filed by Marian Wright Edelman and others with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Jackson, asked for injunctive relief against the operation of a racially segregated system that placed a "cruel and intolerable burden" on black pupils and parents.
In the meantime, the Carter's house was shot at, their crops were plowed under, their credit was cut off, they were evicted from the plantation, and they could not find jobs for some time. The children were called names, white children threw spitballs at them, would not sit near them in class or the lunch room, but they endured. Finally, with the help of ASFC and other groups, the family was able to find a house in Drew, jobs with Head Start, and better treatment in general when the white elite in Drew realized that the Carters had support from the outside world.
I lost track of the Carters in 1975 when I left AFSC and went to work for Atlanta city government, but I ran into Mae Bertha in 1988 at the King Center when she attended a conference on Women in the Civil Rights Movement. We hugged each other and in answer to my question about the family she told me that Matthew had died earlier that year, the children had graduated from the Drew High School, all eight had gone on to college, and seven of them had graduated from Ole Miss.
I realized then that I wanted to tell their story and Silver Rights was published in 1996. Aaron Henry, another and better-known civil rights leader in Mississippi, read Silver Rights and asked me to help tell his story, and The Fire Ever Burning was published in 2000. Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement was also published in 2000, and I wrote a chapter and was facilitator for this book. In 1994, at the thirtieth anniversary celebration of 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi, Bob Moses had encouraged us all to tell our own stories, so that history might be more accurate. In 2002, Mississippi Harmony, was published. I collaborated with Mrs. Winson Hudson of Leake County, Mississippi, to finish her memoirs.
After Silver Rights was published, several people asked Mae Bertha to tell her story on video and film, and what an experience to watch! All of her humor, vitality and courage come shining through, and with the help of Chea Prince, an associate here in Atlanta, we finished a documentary, The Intolerable Burden, in the spring of 2003. Initially, we had planned to tell the Carter story and show the success the Carter children had made of their lives in spite of the trauma of earlier years. We interviewed all eight of them, and I was amazed at some of the stories they told — stories that they had not told me in the interviews for Silver Rights. Beverly, who desegregated A.W. James Elementary school as the lone black third grader, cries in the film, as she tells of having no one to play with — ever — standing alone against the school wall during play period, watching the little white girls jump rope — wishing that she could jump, because she was good. One day they approached her, but she found that they would only allow her to throw the rope.
We interviewed white people from Drew, some who had attended school with the Carters and who are now sorry for their ignorance of what was taking place or for their silence if they did know. Other whites remain adamant today in their belief that the civil rights movement ruined "the Southern way of life." The head mistress of the all white private North Sunflower Academy told us the history of its establishment, and the assistant school superintendent spoke of the high dropout, expulsion and suspension rates in the now mostly black Drew High School. Senator Willie Simmons, the first black state senator from the Delta since reconstruction, decried the enormous state allocations for prisons/corrections rather than education.
As we developed the documentary, we tried to look at it through the eyes of Mae Bertha Carter. She passed away in 1999, and as we worked it became clear to us that as a fighter in the struggle for justice until she drew her last breath she would want us to tell the whole and continuing story of racism. Thus, the film is divided into three parts: segregation, desegregation and resegregation. There is a fourth step, however: incarceration.
The film ends with an epilogue, "Education vs. Incarceration," and points out that the Sunflower County pattern of failing public education for blacks and minorities, and poor people in general, and the fast track to prison is being replicated throughout the United States. It is sobering indeed to see that one of Mae Bertha's grandchildren, Lorenzo, son of one of the older Carter men, raised by his maternal grandmother in Drew, was just paroled from a long prison term in Parchman Penitentiary for dealing drugs. It took a great deal of working together from the outside and intervention with the prison system in Mississippi to accomplish this.
The film reflects the current dismal conditions of these poor rural towns such as Drew, with zero tolerance policies in the schools, no jobs, no industry, and deserted streets. One young black man we interviewed says in the documentary, "Can't go to school, no jobs, no way to get to the next nearest town to work — nothing to do but get caught up in the street life."
Reactions to the documentary have been a revelation. We have shown it in venues from Ithaca, N.Y., to Harvard, from South Carolina to California, to AFSC groups, universities, history associations and high schools and a corporate diversity training group. I suppose one pervasive reaction of note is the general lack of knowledge of the civil rights movement and the conditions that prompted the struggle of the 1960s. This was, after all, only 50 years ago — we are not talking about ancient Roman history here. This comes mostly from younger people, but surprise at the treatment of the family and the lives of blacks in general is expressed often by adult audiences from outside the South. We find this ironic, since the situation in public education, the statistics on black students' learning levels, lack of books, teachers and many other factors exist now throughout the country.
The film is generally accepted with warmth and enthusiasm by black audiences, and I have noticed tears on people's faces who have told me that it brought back their own experience as the first black child in a white school in Tallahassee, or Florence, South Carolina, or Richmond and other places. In one audience that was mostly white, I was told that it was too depressing and was asked why I couldn't just end with the Carters all graduating from Ole Miss?
In an all-black high school in Jackson, Mississippi, the students cheered when Mae Bertha Carter says it's useless to be afraid to die — that you are already dead if you let people control your lives. Many black activists after viewing the film have said that just having their children in integrated schools won't ever make any difference as long as the curriculum and testing are geared to a world where success and achievement are judged by white standards. Little by little people are recognizing the reverberations of "resegregation" in their own communities, where those who can afford it (mostly white) are sending their children to private academies. They talk of "desegregated schools, where more specious segregation occurs in honor programs or advanced placement classes that are almost always majority white. We are continuing to create a "better-educated" white elite.
On the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown decision, I received many invitations to show The Intolerable Burden in commemorative events, including the conference at the University of Illinois. I remember thinking when I was working in Mississippi in 1964, that it was ten years after Brown , and there were still no black children in the public schools in the state, except for the few that had been placed by court order in Biloxi, Jackson and Leake County.
This was a general pattern in most southern states. White resistance to following the ruling, which included the harassment and violence that the Carters and many other families faced, came up in all of the conferences and panels on the Brown anniversary. I learned many things in these discussions of Brown and its aftermath. One historian pointed out that we had totally underestimated the massive resistance that implementation of the decision would face. The White Citizens' Councils were born in Mississippi and quickly spread the most feared of all messages behind racism — that black and white children attending school together would lead to the mongrelization of the white race. And of course, the ensuing message from the courts that the decision must be implemented "with all deliberate speed," played out with lots of deliberation and little speed.
There was little to no planning on "how" to implement the decision in terms of human relationships. Children of both races who had been "separated" all their lives were suddenly in the same classes and usually in schools where the school personnel was all white. Was the decision partially just political in the aftermath of our "world leadership" recognition following World War II — an attempt to live up to our reputation of a nation of freedom and justice? At one conference on the Brown decision, I heard a black man talk about the closing of his high school in North Carolina in 1969 and of his being transferred to the previously all-white school. "It was like our school and history had never existed — we had no past. None of our trophies or photos or black history books came with us. Our principal was sent to the desegregated schools to become the assistant to the assistant to the white principal."
Almost all audiences viewing the film have been surprised at the direct connection between the failure of public education and the fast track to prison for youth of color. They are quite willing to admit that the issue of education versus incarceration exists everywhere and to acknowledge the vast sums of money is being spent on building prisons and keeping them filled. They are stunned, however, to learn that with more than two million people in prison, the United States has the world's highest incarceration rate. If you add those on probation and parole, the figure is 6.5 million, or one in every 32 adults. The majority of U.S. inmates are black males, but prison populations increasingly include Latinos, other minorities, and poor people in general. The elements of racism and discrimination cover a broad spectrum ranging from police profiling to disproportionate death penalty convictions. In between are the issues of prison privatization, mandatory sentencing, lack of indigent defense, prison sentences instead of drug treatment, abominable prison conditions, and lack of reentry or aftercare programs.
My own civil rights orientation makes me outraged over statistics concerning felony disfranchisement. More than 4.6 million Americans, or two percent of the voting-age populations, are barred from voting because of past criminal convictions (even if they have completely served their sentences and are not on probation or parole). Because more than 60 percent of the prison population is black or Latino, the voting power of these groups is disproportionately diluted.
On a nationwide basis, one in eight African American men is denied the right to vote. This translates to about 1.4 million black men. The number of Latino voters similarly disfranchised is approaching 15 percent.
Whose interest does this serve? Depriving convicted felons of the vote is done on a state-by-state basis and the method for reinstatement varies. There is movement in several states to do away with these laws. As Mae Bertha Carter used to say in an irate voice, "People died so black people could vote."
So here we are today, still bearing the burden of a majority that does not want to see minorities receive a quality education, if any. In addition, particularly in the South we are reaping the results of criminal justice concepts and policies from thirty years ago. We have been surrounded by messages of "get tough on crime," "three strikes and you're out," mandatory sentencing, disparities in drug sentencing for crack and for cocaine, and the media portrayal of "young black predators." Most of the southern states now spend more on incarceration than on education, and George Bush's application of the under funded "Leave No Child Behind" program takes a great toll on children who don't test well and feeds right into the school-to-prison pipeline. Also, under Bush and the Republicans, private prisons are flourishing, often in poor rural areas where people welcome them, hoping it will improve the local economy. The number of beds for prisoners in each institution determines the income for these private corporations. One can see the analogy of a system where people are traded on Wall Street instead of off a slave block in Charleston, South Carolina.
These public education and criminal justice injustices, hidden and ignored, now infect present-day America. Remedying them must become the cutting edge of the human rights movement in this country. I was in the Mississippi legislature several years ago and overheard a white man say to a colleague that he had been reading about the rise in population in the U.S. of non- whites and how they would soon be in the majority. He suggested that if we can continue to put all the blacks and other minority males in prison, they "won't be able to have babies, and we can stay in the majority."
Copyright © Connie Curry, 2011
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