In the summer of 1965, Drew, Mississippi, with its roughly two thousand citizens, was like dozens of other sleepy Delta cotton towns—one Main Street with all the retail establishments, its few residential streets, segregated by race originating at Main, and playing out like Main Street itself, into endless cotton fields surrounding the town. Unchanged even by the tumult of the Freedom Summer Project the previous year. Drew and Sunflower County dozed under a blanket of heat.
Some nine miles away on the Pemble Plantation, Matthew and Mae Bertha Carter, along with their 13 children had sharecropped on Delta plantations for 25 years. The first five of the children, two boys and three girls, had attended the “Negro school,” which operated on a “split session” familiar to Delta residents. School was scheduled according to the cotton crop’s needs, turning out in the early spring— “choppin’ time”—resuming in the broiling summer months and turning out again in September and October—”pickin’ time.” The five oldest Carter children completed their educations in this school and soon fled north—the young men to the armed services and the women to live with relatives.
On Aug. 11, 1965, Mr. and Mrs. Carter enrolled seven of their eight children still living at home in the previously all-white school system of Drew, beginning what was to change their lives, Sunflower County, and the town of Drew forever.
Sunflower County is a long, narrow county located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. No part of the county is further than 30 miles away from the Mississippi River, and its history revolves around its fertile cotton plantations as the main source of life for almost everyone.
This county was the subject of two studies written in the 1930’s, both of which describe in detail life in the county for both the white and black populations. Both researchers actually lived for at least five months in Sunflower, and each book particularly notes the relationship between the races. In After Freedom, Dr. Hortense Powdermaker observed in 1933:
John Dollard’s description of race relations in Sunflower in 1937 was, “Whites are not satisfied if Negroes are cool, reserved and self-possessed, though polite; they must be actively obliging and submissive.”
“The emotions that accompany white attitudes toward the Negro run a gamut including affection, kindliness, pity, indulgence, fear, hostility. The one thing no white man will overtly give a Negro is respect.”
In the 1950’s, Sunflower blacks comprised almost 75 percent of the population, but only .03 percent were registered to vote, and in 1954, two months after the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision, the first Citizens Council was formed in Indianola, the Sunflower County seat, a movement dedicated to the protection and promotion of white supremacy and later funded by a branch of state government.
This county is also the site of former U. S. Senator James O. Eastland’s 5800-acre cotton plantation—the base from which he would call in 1955 for a “great crusade . . .an organization to fight the CIO . . .the NAACP . . .the conscienceless pressure groups who are attempting our destruction,” through “. . .the illegal, immoral and sinful doctrine of school desegregation.”
In the early 1960’s, Bob Moses came to Mississippi as the first Civil Rights organizer from the Atlanta-based Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He worked mainly out of Cleveland, Mississippi, the home of Amzie Moore, the local NAACP leader. Cleveland is in Bolivar County and only 13 miles from Drew, but from the beginning, civil rights workers considered Drew beyond their reach.
During “Freedom Summer” of 1964 when students from all over the country came to organize in Mississippi, the movement office in Sunflower County was located in Ruleville, six miles away from Drew. Ruleville was very similar to Drew in size and economy, but it was the home of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, who by then was a well-known civil rights leader. (Mrs. Carter remembers chopping cotton with Mrs. Hamer in the same fields in the 50’s and that Mrs. Hamer chopped the best row in the field.) Working out of Ruleville, workers attempted to contact black sharecroppers on surrounding plantations. On July 3 of that summer, at a mass rally in Ruleville, the “highlight of the meeting came when six individuals were introduced from the nearby Delta town of Drew.” Charles McLaurin, the local black SNCC organizer, explained that they had been working in Drew to overcome the fear and intimidation there. Mike Yarrow, a young white worker from Pennsylvania, based in Ruleville, wrote to his parents of the difficulties in working in Drew in voter registration. In mid-July 1964, at their first attempt to hold a mass meeting, he and seven other workers were arrested for handing out mimeographed song sheets, and a larger group was arrested the following night while attempting to hold a mass meeting.
In August 1964, Drew’s mayor, W. O. Williford, better known as “Snake,” wrote and distributed a news story saying that “leftist” lawyers were defending civil rights workers. He also proclaimed that “any civil rights worker found within the city limits at the close of a normal working day would be placed in jail “for their own protection.”“
In August 1965, more than a year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Prathia Hall Wynn, a black SNCC worker, observing school desegregation progress in the Delta, reported that civil rights workers “have had a very difficult time trying to work in Drew. They have not been able to go into town without being arrested.”
This then was the historical context of the town and county where Matthew and Mae Bertha Carter made the choice to send their seven children to white schools. Legally, what made that choice possible was the enforcement machinery for school desegregation in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under the Act, school districts that received federal funds and operated segregated systems could comply only by showing they were under federal court order or by adopting a desegregation plan acceptable to the U.S. Commissioner of Education.
The federal guidelines for the implementation of Title VI, issued in April 1965, permitted a school district to offer a “Freedom of Choice” plan. Generally, this plan provided that the parents of black children could send them to the school of their choice, and this was the approach of most of the school districts in the Deep South. It appeared that the white opposition assumed that black families would not dare choose to send their children to an all-white school. In fact the Drew School System was so sure of their control of the situation that they opened up all twelve grades to freedom of choice, while many neighboring systems began with only one or two grades, adding on each year.
Five days after the Carters returned the freedom of choice forms registering their children in the white school system, on Aug. 16, 1965, shots were fired into their house on the Pemble Plantation, their credit was stopped at the plantation store, and the next few months became a nightmare for the family.
Mrs. Carter later recalled that she was visiting relatives in St. Louis in August 1965 when the freedom of choice papers were sent to parents in the Drew school system. She received a letter from Ruth, her 11th grader and oldest of the school-age children—”come home—you have some papers to sign saying what school we want to go to and we want to go to the all-white school.” When she came home, all of the children said that they indeed wanted to go. Their parents responded, “If you want to go. We want you to go.”
In making that decision, Mrs. Carter said, “Why I decided that I wanted them to go was I was tired of my kids coming home with worn out books, pages torn out coming from this white school. I was tired of them riding on these old-raggedy buses after the white children didn’t want to ride on them any more. I was just tired, and I thought if they go to this all-white school they will get a better education there. Plus the school board is all white and over both the white and black schools but that school board was concerned about their kids more than they were about black kids. In fact, when you would go to the black school, the kids were eating lunch once or maybe twice a week. The teacher would get just so many tickets to issue out, and I would hear my kids say something like, “Well maybe I’ll get a ticket today to eat,” and then sometimes they’d come home and say “Well I done lucky today—I got a ticket to eat.” And see—them white children was eating lunch every day.
“So that’s why we signed the papers and my husband and myself, we brought the papers to the principal’s office the next day and put them on his desk, and he looked at them and he got red all over. We had seven children to go—three to the elementary school and four to the high school, so we had integrated both of those schools.”
The Carters were sure that word spread quickly and that someone called from Drew to tell Mr. Pemble, the plantation owner. The next morning, Mr. Thornton, the plantation overseer—called “riders” back in plantation days because they rode on horses—drove in his pick-up truck and blew his horn in front of the Carters house. He told Mr. Carter that he’d heard about the enrollment and then proceeded to say why it would be best to go back to Drew and withdraw the children—that they could get a better education in the black school and that they would have no friends at the white school and that neither black folks nor white folks would have anything to do with the Carters. Then he offered to go to Drew with them and help “withdraw ‘em out.” Mr. Carter told Mr. Thornton that he didn’t need the help and that if he decided to withdraw the children, he would go himself.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Carter was standing on the porch listening. She went into the house and got a record of the June 11, 1963 speech that President Kennedy had given on national radio and television calling for what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a speech delivered just a few hours before Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers was slain outside his Jackson home just after midnight on June 12. She put the record on a little player on the porch and turned it up—”And when Americans are sent to Vietnam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only. It ought to be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select without having to be backed up by troops. We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.” Mrs. Carter stood by the door—Kennedy was talking about what it was like to be a black person if you lived in America, and he was saying “. . .all except the black child.” “And it was just playing and playing, and my husband stood out there, and Mr. Thornton said he would go to the barn and give Matthew time to talk to me about this. My husband told me everything, and I said, you go out there and you tell Mr. Thornton that them are my children and he cannot tell me what to do about my children—like withdrawing my children out, and I’d be a fool to try and tell him where to send his kids to.” And my husband said, “Well, I’m not going to tell him all that.” Instead they told Mr. Thornton that they had decided to keep the children in the white school.
About three o’clock a. m. , several days later, Mr. Carter heard some noise, looked out the window and by the time he said “what are all these cars doing coming in here?” gunshots were fired into all the windows, on top of the house, and on the porch. Bullets hit right above the bed where some of the children were sleeping. Miraculously, no one was hurt—and everyone moved bedding on to the floor below window level in the back room to wait for daylight.
When day came, Mrs. Carter went to Cleveland, Mississippi, 15 miles away, to see Amzie Moore and Charles McLaurin, who called the FBI in Jackson. The FBI came and wondered why Mrs. Carter had to go all the way to Cleveland to call when she could have gone to some of the houses right there—where the white people lived—they had phones. Mrs. Carter said, “Go where? Let me tell you one thing, man, I ain’t got confidence in a white man living in Mississippi.” She laughed, “I wasn’t going to no white folks’ house calling, ‘cause that’s probably the ones who shot into the house. So, they looked all around, and Mr. Thornton came in the house to help ‘em look for the bullets, and they got ‘em out the wall, and that’s it—that’s the last I heard from the FBI.”
It was at this juncture that the American Friends Service Committee, (AFSC), a Quaker service organization based in Philadelphia, Pa., learned of the Carter situation and of hundreds of other similar cases throughout the South. In one Mississippi school district alone (Issaquena-Sharkey Joint District) 37 families enrolled their children in white schools, but there, too, retribution was strong and speedy. Openly threatened by various segments of the white community those who refused to withdraw their children, within a week, were either cut off from welfare, evicted from plantation homes and jobs, or fired from other employment. Thirty-three families sent their children back to the black schools.
As a partial response, the AFSC established the Family Aid Fund to make survival loans and grants to individuals and families who were seeking to exercise their rights under federal law. Between 1965 and 1975, I worked as Southern Field Representative for the AFSC and part of my work was to administer the Family Aid Fund. I traveled in the Southern states, working with families, learning of the problems on a first-hand basis, assessing need, and making the proper contacts (Justice Dept, HEW, etc.) to bring federal protection and resources to bear on the situation. Because the hardcore resistance and reprisals were most rampant in Mississippi, my travels and work there were the most intense and lasted the longest. I was closest to the Carter family and was in weekly contact with them, through letters and visits, for seven years.
My first visit to the Carters was in January 1966, four months after the children entered school. By that time, the extra cotton they usually got to pick had been mysteriously plowed under one night, and their barn, the shelter for their cow and pig, had been destroyed. They still could get no credit at the stores where they bought food and supplies, and when cotton crop accounts were settled in December with the plantation owner, the Carters had ended up owing him $97.00. They had been given an eviction notice, and no one would consider either giving them work or helping them find another place to stay. Mrs. Carter told me that her children had done well in the schools and that they really wanted to continue but that things were just too hard. It was on this visit, that I asked Mr. Carter why he and Mrs. Carter had decided to sign those choice forms. He looked me right in the eye and said, “We thought they meant it,” referring to the notice from the school on freedom of choice. My closing paragraph in the report to the AFSC on that first Carter visit was:
“Well, on this dismal note, we left, wanting to strangle HEW, the Justice Department, and all of the people who passed the Civil Rights Bill and everybody else who had allowed this kind of hope to be followed by such a wondering kind of disappointment.”
Carl Carter, the youngest child, entered the first grade in 1968. The eight Carter children remained the only black children in the system until the fall of 1969 when two black children entered the eighth grade and when the elementary school was desegregated under court order. Finally, after five years of litigation, in the fall of 1970, the complete school system was ordered to desegregate. During those years, the Carter children were subjected to ridicule, name-calling and harassment. Weekly letters from Mrs. Carter to the AFSC and the recollections of the children in their oral history interviews reflect some of the pain.
Pearl, who entered the fifth grade of the white school talks of her experience.
Stanley Carter was in the eighth grade in Drew High School.
“They always said we had an odor, so my father used to get up every morning and would run that bath water and get that soap and that deodorant and that perfume and make sure our clothes was clean and he would just rub and scrub us down because he just wanted to make sure that they was just lying . . .and when I’d go to school she (the teacher) would say she wouldn’t let any white child sit by me more than a week; so every week she would move the child in front of me and behind . . .she would take them out in the hall . . .she would have a talk with them . . . I guess she just kept a list, cause you know some of them had to come back around before the year was ended.”
Beverly entered the third grade in the white school and recalls:
“Now the main thing about then—you knew after the first year, see, what they were trying to do was to get you out of the school. So you couldn’t let ‘em defeat you, so you had to stick it out. . .cause you didn’t want them to feel like they had won and all that stuff they did to you would have been in vain. They think you’ll get so disgusted you’ll leave and that will be it, and they’d have won . . .so it was sort of like a contest between you know, us and them.”
“Kids would come by and call me names from nigger to walking tootsie roll. God, I wanted to cry, to disappear, to go home. I never cried, at least not until I was older . . . when I was in the fifth grade I did cry. We had just moved into the city limits of Drew and now I had a chance to meet some black children my own age. Somehow they could not understand why I was going to an all white school. They said that I thought I was white . . .that hurt more than any of the bad names the white kids had called me, and I cried . . . .”
Beverly is referring to the move from the plantation in November 1966 to 166 Broadway in Drew itself. Since no one in the school district was willing to consider renting or selling to the Carters, Allen Black, worker for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, put himself forth as a newly arrived black minister in need of a house. He was able to buy the house in his name, and then to the great surprise of the Drew community, the Carters moved in.
Each of the eight children have their story to tell, but a constant theme in each is Mrs. Carter’s reminder, “that’s not a white school . . .it’s your school. . . You have a right to be there . . .that school belongs to you as well as it belongs to them and you need to always remember that.”
Their stories are not without ambiguities. Ruth Carter, the oldest child, who entered the llth grade received a letter, slipped into her hand in the hall, saying, “We are all very much in sympathy with you. We hate the way some people have been treating you. We all love you very much.” It was signed by six white male classmates, but all in the same handwriting, and she never heard another word or saw any type of different behavior from any of them.
When I saw Mrs. Carter at a conference in Atlanta in the fall of 1988 and asked about the family, she told me that all eight children had graduated from Drew High School and that seven of them had gone on to graduate from the University of Mississippi.
Five of the children have remained in Mississippi, and Beverly now serves on the Drew School Board. One son lives in Longview, Texas, another is in the Air Force in Turkey and Ruth, the oldest who was most discouraged by the experience moved to Toledo, Ohio, after graduating from high school.
Matthew Carter died in 1988 at the age of 78. Mae Bertha Carter still lives at 166 Broadway in Drew. This past year Mrs. Carter received a call from Ms. Ruby Nell Stancill, the white math teacher who had taught seven of the Carter children—they all recall her as the only one that was consistently “fair.” She asked Mrs. Carter if she could name the Carter children as examples of her good teaching, in her nomination for Mississippi Math Teacher of the Year.
Ex-Mayor, “Snake” Williford, who now lives in Jackson, sees Mrs. Carter there from time to time and is always friendly and cordial, and Burner Smith, a young black man who grew up in Drew, is now chief of police.
This is just a part of the Carter story. The full story spins a thread that ties the beginnings and ends of the Civil Rights Movement to places traditionally unrecognized by its chroniclers. Part of the thread spins to Mae Bertha and Matthew Carter in a Mississippi cotton field in 1955, when a young black minister came to them, “writing people up for the NAACP.” “Advancement for colored people!” said Mrs. Carter—”We’re for that. Sign us up.” The thread does not break after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 nor after the Meredith March on the roads of Mississippi in 1966. In fact, the thread is just then being woven into the lives of the hundreds of families who, like the Carters, over the next decade risked their livelihoods and lives to provide their children with a better education.
The AFSC Family Aid Fund probably helped 100 of these families across the South who sent their children to the white schools. There are hundreds of others we never even knew. In the earlier years of school desegregation, particularly in court-ordered cases in urban areas, (Little Rock, New Orleans and even Jackson), there had been visible community support and often federal protection and widespread media coverage. For the Carters and those many other families, there were no federal troops to guard them and no reporters to tell the story of their suffering. They faced mostly danger from the white community and often rejection by the black community. Abandoned by the federal government and forgotten by the American people, the children went anyway.
As I was working with many of the Mississippi families in the rural areas, I was interested in their talking about their “silver rights.” I had noticed before that sometimes black people who had no formal education, would take an unfamiliar expression and translate it into a phrase or concept familiar to them. Oftentimes, this concept would contain a pleasing or beautiful image. As Alice Walker also observed, the term “civil rights has no music, it has no poetry. It makes one think of bureaucrats, rather than of sweaty faces, eyes bright and big for Freedom! marching feet.” And “Silver Rights, Silver Rights”—indeed, like the metal, for the Carter family and many others, the dreams they sought were bright, shining, and precious.