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Profiles In Courage

ISSUE:  Summer 1996
Silver Rights. By Constance Curry. Algonquin Books. $21. 95.

Silver Rights is a tale of three women. At the center is Mae Bertha Carter, a cotton picker and sharecropper’s wife on the T.E. Pemble Plantation near Merigold, Mississippi, who advised seven of her children to be the first to break the color barrier and attend the all-white schools in the town of Drew. In the background is her mother, Luvenia Slaughter, who pioneered into the Mississippi Delta in 1908 and raised 12 children there before leaving it for an easier life of work in Toledo, Ohio. Then there is the author herself, Constance Curry, who under the auspices of the American Friends Service Committee funneled limited but meaningful monetary support to the Carter family during the years of their dramatic and lonely struggle and forged an attachment to the family that spanned 30 years.

The seven Carter children, who ranged in age from six to 16 in 1965, played their small but heroic role in the American civil rights struggle. They elected to go to white schools as soon as “Freedom of Choice” was extended by the county in response to a decade of legislation and litigation, primarily by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Five of their older siblings had already graduated from the part-time black school system, which ran according to the cotton season, and they were well aware of its deficiencies. The family was isolated, but not totally removed from the “silver rights” movement. Mae Bertha had been for ten years a member of the beleaguered Sunflower County chapter of the NAACP, while her husband Matthew, worked steadily for the Pemble family as a sharecropper. All were surprised to learn, when the schools prepared to open in August 1965, that the Carter children were the only blacks in the entire county with the pluck and rashness to exercise the option to attend the county’s white schools.

Thus the Carters joined a small number of families scattered about the Delta who undertook to integrate the schools—a number that shrank precipitously within a few weeks of opening day as the white reaction became felt. The reasons given by the Carters for their audacity do not seem to rise to the occasion. “We thought they meant it,” Mae Bertha said, referring to the letter from the Drew Municipal Separate School District declaring that children might freely select which school to attend. Daughter Ruth, who commenced her junior year at Drew High, said she just had to get out of the cotton fields. But for the entire family to survive the ordeal bespeaks as much a streak of stubbornness as it does a quest for better education.

Curry was alerted to the family’s precarious situation after the school year began, and she first visited the Carter family in January 1966. “The Carters’ house had five rooms and eleven doors,” she reported. “The floors were bare, and blue plastic curtains hung at the two windows.” Color photographs of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King were beside the living room couch. Mae Bertha Carter, “all of five feet two” and “almost almond colored,” greeted Curry and her coworker, Winifred Green, and told them about the escalating terror in their community.

In August, gunshots had come through the windows and into the bedrooms. The FBI had been to the house to investigate, but without any result. The family’s credit had been cut off at the store. Their garden had been plowed up and their acreage cut. Their cows and pigs were stolen. They would have been forced to leave their home but for the surprising intervention of the Justice Department. The children were taunted daily in school and had taken to eating by themselves outside on the steps.

The family persevered though not without scars. “During that time, it seemed like I was filled up with hate,” Ruth Carter told Curry. “I hated Mississippi. I hated the white man. I hated my teachers. I hated everything.” “How can I describe it?” her sister Pearl asked. “Five years of hell?” Yet the children gave high marks to a math teacher, Ruby Nell Stancill, because she was “fair”, and two of them later credited her as the reason they chose careers in accounting. Curry does a commendable job of capturing these contrasts in the fabric of the Delta, “a place complex almost beyond description.”

Predictably, after the Carter children’s entrance into the school system, and after further litigation forced a merger of the dual schools, all-white Christian academies sprang up and siphoned off almost all of the whites. Only in the 1990’s has the public school system of Sunflower County begun to attract a more balanced mix of students and approach true integration.

The strength of Silver Rights is that the author pursues the questions “where” and “why.” Where did Matthew and Mae Bertha Carter derive the determination to suffer economically and stand up to physical intimidation in order to send their entire brood into alien and hostile schools? Where did 16-year-old Ruth get the “stubborn seriousness” required to hold her head up as the one totally ostracized child in her junior class? Why did every one of these children turn out “well,” in the sense that they went on to finish college, mainly at Ole Miss, or went into careers in education or the service? During this pursuit, the reader learns some interesting history, such as the impact upon grandmother Luvenia of the Quakers’ Southland Institute in West Helena, Arkansas, which she attended, at age 12, in 1915. It was the first permanent school for blacks west of the Mississippi. And the philanthropic Anna T. Jeanes Program which, before World War II, essentially built and staffed what schools there were for blacks in rural Sunflower County.

The book is elevated beyond an account of one family’s proud moment by the greater context Curry gives us—going back a generation to Luvenia Slaughter; looking forward a generation to see where the seven Carter children have gone. It is the story we would like to know about so many of those courageous “average” people who, in the 1960’s, shaped the future of the South.


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