A Right to Be There
By Constance Curry
Vol. 14, No. 1, 1992, pp.18-23, 25
It was Mae Bertha Carter on the phone. “I’m on my way to raise hell with the Mayor,” she told me. “The City Council didn’t reappoint Beverly to the School Board.”
In 1986, Beverly Carter, daughter of Mae Bertha and Matthew Carter, was the first African American to be appointed to the Drew, Mississippi, school board. Drew, with a population of 2,000, is in Sunflower County in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Sunflower is the home of Senator James 0. Eastland and the birthplace of the White Citizens’ Council in 1954—two months after the Brown decision. In the 1950s, Sunflower black people comprised almost 75 percent of the total population of 56,000, but only 0.3 percent were registered to vote. The number of black registered voters has increased dramatically over the years, but old arrangements and the power of intimidation and violence linger. Even with a majority black population in both the town of Drew and in the county, registered black voters make up only 50 percent of the electorate.
“And just being registered doesn’t make the difference,” says Mae Bertha Carter. ‘People don’t know how important it is to vote. There’s strength in voting. Voting is hiring and firing power. But some of ’em can’t read the names or the offices. We need some voter education. People aren’t scared any more, they just aren’t in the habit.”
Beverly and Mae Bertha spent the month of June
canvassing door-to-door and taking people to register. As a result of this year’s redistricting, a special election on August 4 sent the first black senator from the Sunflower area to the state legislature—Willie Simmons.
Bringing change to Sunflower County is not a new thing for Beverly Carter or her family. Matthew and Mae Bertha Carter joined the NAACP in 1955, a very risky act for the era that began with Brown. At the time, they and their families before them had been sharecropping on various Delta plantations for fifty years. By 1965, they were living on the Pemble Plantation, nine miles from Drew, and were the first black family to enroll all seven of their school-age children in the town’s previously all-white schools. Carl Carter, the youngest child, entered the first grade in 1967. The eight Carter children remained the only African American children in the system until the fall of 1969 when others 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 Drew school system was ordered to desegregate. All eight of the Carter children graduated from Drew High School and went to college; seven of them graduated from the University of Mississippi.
Beverly majored in journalism and returned to Drew after graduation in 1979. Today she works, as she has for the past twelve years, as office assistant at the Kroger’s in Cleveland, Mississippi. She is a single mother of Kerry, age ten—who attends Hunter Middle School—and Shayla, age three. Since her return to Drew, Beverly has worked with her mother fighting for improvements in the public school system.
When a member of the Drew school board resigned in 1986, the black community realized that this was a chance to get a black person on the all-white school board. Beverly recalls telling her mother that she was going to write a letter of interest. “I didn’t really mean it at the time, because I just knew for sure that they weren’t going to pick Mae Bertha Carter’s daughter. I would be the last person they would pick. But I put my letter in just to show that there were black people interested. And believe it or not, I was appointed.” A City Council member later told Mae Bertha that they might as well appoint Beverly and make it official because they knew Mae Bertha would be at all the meetings anyway.
Beverly was the only African American and the only woman on the five member board. Several of the men on the board remained from the years when the Carters had filed suits against them ranging from dress code issues to workbook fee violations. Beverly arrived as the lone voice on many issues such as maintenance of high standards for teacher hiring and public advertising of jobs as required by law. Her consistent questioning and unwillingness to rubber stamp school board decisions is what led to her not being reappointed.
When Mae Bertha and Beverly talk about the problems with today’s Delta schools, I am taken back to the 60s when the Carters desegregated the Drew system. At that time I made many visits to Drew as Southern Field Representative for the American Friends Service Committee. Also, over a ten-year period, Mae Bertha Carter wrote weekly letters reporting on their ordeal. Then, as now, the issue was the struggle of parents to get a better education for their children. In the 60s, black parents were fighting against a hundred-year history of racism and segregation by law. Often, they were also fighting for their livelihood and their lives.
Under Title Vl of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, school districts were mandated to provide plans for desegregation, and the U. S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare was the designated agency for enforcement. There was general confusion on how to enforce Title VI. Local school officials were told to develop a desegregation plan, but they wanted to know exactly what constituted compliance.
School systems, particularly in poor southern rural areas, knew that they could not operate their schools without the help of federal funds, but many of their board members were convinced that integration would destroy public education in their district. Systems capitalized on the confusion and lack of clarity in Washington and submitted “freedom of choice” plans which provided that all parents could send their children to the school of their choice.
Lloyd Henderson, an HEW staff person assigned to Mississippi in 1965, for a time believed that “if they were given the opportunity to choose, and if the plans were administered honestly, black children would enroll in the white schools in droves, thus causing white children to be assigned to the black schools.
In fact, ‘freedom of choice’ was conceived as a means of achieving tokenism in the rural areas. Washington officials knew that they would get no more desegregation than had been gained through the ponderous process of the courts. Ten years later, in 1975, Lloyd Henderson wondered aloud how federal officials could expect black families caught in a century of racism and violence to choose to send their children to an all-white school. “How could anyone have seriously believed that an economically dependent class of people could assume the burden
of bringing about compliance with the federal law. Under such circumstances choice could never be free.”
The five white men who constituted the board of trustees of the Drew Municipal Separate School District in 1964 knew that failure to obey the federal law would mean the loss of several million dollars. They knew that the Drew system could not operate without this money. Throughout the 1964-65 school year, they calculated a plan that would result in the least amount of desegregation and yet be acceptable to HEW.
The first signs of impending change in Drew came in May of 1965. Black children brought notices home from school which their parents were to sign and return if they wanted their children to attend class straight through from September to May. This would mean the end of the split sessions in which school was scheduled according to the needs of the cotton crops. The children of sharecroppers were let out of school to chop cotton in the early spring; they returned to school in the “laying-by time” of summer months, and then went back to the fields in September and October to pick the cotton.
Mae Bertha and Matthew signed the notices with little hesitation. Later the children told them they were the only parents to do so. Other parents said their children had to chop and pick cotton.
If their seven children did indeed attend school for nine months straight, Mae Bertha did not know how their family was going to survive the following year. It would severely limit their capacity for chopping and picking the cotton on their twenty-five acres.
The family heard nothing more from the school system. The summer heat returned to the Delta. Then, on July 12, the Drew school board unanimously adopted a resolution outlining the desegregation plan accepted by HEW. Federal guidelines mandated that the plan be published in the local papers and that parents be given adequate notice. The full text of the July school board resolution appeared in the Sunflower County News on Thursday, August 5, 1965. It began:
“WHEREAS, as the result of judicial decisions and statutes enacted by the Congress of the United States, it is without question that enforced racial segregation in the public schools of Mississippi and other States is illegal, and that compulsory separate but equal school systems for the white and negro races will no longer permitted….”
The rest of the resolution outlined the Drew Plan in detail. Parents or guardians of pupils must exercise their choice by returning a registration form to any of the five schools in the district. So sure was the Drew School System of their control of the situation that they opened up all twelve grades to freedom of choice, rather than the minimum of three required by HEW.
August came, and Drew waited like dozens of other Delta towns. Main Street was only a few blocks long with its one-story businesses only on one side of the street. Fifteen diagonal parking places stretched in front of Timberlake’s Pharmacy, Fred’s Five and Dime. two office fronts, Western Auto, and Miller’s Furniture. The other side of the street was the frontage for the tracks where the trains came to pick up the cotton at the Sunflower Gin. Drew’s few residential streets, segregated by race, originated at Main and played out like Main Street itself in cotton fields surrounding the town. Seemingly unchanged by any Washington directives, or by the tumult of the Freedom Summer Project the previous summer, Drew and Sunflower County dozed under a blanket of heat.
Mae Bertha Carter understood politics well. “You have to live in Mississippi to really know about Mississippi. Now the white folk think they know black people and the black people think they know the white people. Now the black people know what the white man likes before he tells them and some things he don’t even have to be told. White man didn’t even have to go to the black’s house and say don’t send your child to the school, cause we know what the white man likes. So we know one another. And they were sure that they had everything around Drew so no blacks would be coming around their schools. They were so sure of that. But they didn’t know about us out there on the farm.”
On August 6th, the Drew Municipal School District mailed out “freedom of choice” notices to all parents of school-age children in the district. Ruth, entering the eleventh grade, was the oldest of the school-age Carter children. She knew it would be difficult to leave her friends in the black school, but she jumped at the chance to go to the white school. Not only could she get away from the cotton fields, she believed that eventually her family’s choice might change a social order that she had hated since she was a young girl. Larry and Stanley, also entering the high school, along with Ruth, sensed what their actions could mean. They discussed going to the “white school” with the four younger children. The children kept telling each other it was the right thing to do.
Mae Bertha was visiting relatives in St. Louis in August of 1965 when the freedom of choice papers arrived. She received a letter from Ruth. “Come home. You have some papers to sign saying what school we want to go to. We want to go to the all-white school.” When she came home, all seven of the children said that they indeed wanted to go. Matthew and Mae Bertha told their children, “If you want to go, we want you to go.”
It was clear to Mae Bertha. “Why I decided that I wanted them to go was I was tired of my kids coming home with pages torn out of worn out books that come from this white school. I was tired of them riding on these 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. The school board was all white and over both the white and black schools, but it 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 saying something like, ‘Well maybe I’ll get a ticket today to eat,’ and then sometimes they’d come home and say ‘Well I was 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. We had seven children to go, three to the elementary school and four to the high school. So we integrated both of those schools.”
News of the enrollment of the Carter children spread throughout Sunflower County. The next morning, Mr. Thornton, the plantation overseer drove up in his pickup truck and blew his horn in front of the Carter’s house.
“Mae,” Matthew called as he went out to the truck, “it’s starting.”
He went out to the pickup truck. Thornton told Matthew that he’d heard about the enrollment. He proceeded to say why it would be best to go back to Drew and withdraw the children. They could get a better education at the black school. They would have no friends at the white school. Neither black folks nor white folks would have anything to do with the Carters any more. Besides, those poor whites who lived over on the federal land unit real near the Carters could cause them a lot of trouble. Then he offered to go to Drew with Matthew and “withdraw ’em out.”
Matthew said he didn’t need the help and that if he decided to withdraw the children, he would go himself.
Meanwhile, Mae Bertha who had been standing on the porch listening, 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. The speech was delivered just a few hours before Mississippi NAACP leader was slain outside his Jackson home shortly after midnight on June 12. Mae Bertha 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 Scripture and as clear as the American Constitution.”
Mae Bertha stood by the door. Kennedy was talking as Matthew stood out by the truck. Finally Thornton said he would go down to the barn and give Matthew time to talk to Mae Bertha. “You go out there,” Mae Bertha said with resolution, “and you tell Mr. Thornton that I am a grown woman. 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.”
“Well, Mae, I’m not going to tell him all that.” They
told Thornton that they had decided to keep the children in the white school.
The next morning about three o’clock, Matthew heard a noise. He looked out the window and by the time he said “What are all those cars doing coming in here,” gunshots were being fired into the windows, on top of the house and across the porch. Bullets hit above a bed where children were sleeping. No one was hurt. Everyone moved to the floor below the window in the back room to wait for daylight.
In the morning, Mae Bertha went to Cleveland to see Amzie Moore and Charles McLaurin, SNCC project director. They called the FBI office in Jackson. When the FBI and the high sheriff arrived, they wondered why Mae Bertha had gone all the way to Cleveland to call when she could have gone to some of the white people’s houses nearby.
“Go where?” asked Mae Bertha. “Let me tell you one thing, man, I ain’t go no confidence in a white man living in Mississippi.”
Today, she laughs, “I wasn’t going to no white folks’ house calling. 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. They took bullets out of the wall, and that’s the last I heard from the FBI or anybody about that shootin’.”
The news of the shooting spread as quickly in the black community as word of the enrollment had spread in the white. When the forms first arrived, black families had discussed the matter of transferring their children to the white schools.
They had been afraid of reprisals. The shooting incident ruled out the choice completely.
The Carters had no money. The peonage of the sharecropping system meant buying food and supplies on credit from the plantation store, paying when you had a little money and always staying beholden to the plantation owner and in debt to the store. A few days after the enrollment, Matthew went to Bob’s, the store that usually gave him credit. Had he heard right, the owner asked. Had Matthew been over to Drew and enrolled his kids in the all-white school? He said Matthew had until three o’clock that afternoon to take the children out of the school. Rather than the weekly order of staples needed to feed ten people, Matthew went home with only a little package of food.
“Mae,” he said, “I’m catching hell everywhere I go.”
“But you know, we was crazy,” Mae Bertha recalls. “We was going to stand up for it. I didn’t care and I didn’t know what the end was going to be. We was so afraid after the shooting. We slept on the floor for three nights and then I thought about wheat the preacher had said at one of them mass meetings in Cleveland-that everybody’s afraid and it’s okay to be afraid but you can’t let it stop you. And a coverin’ came over me, and we got up off the floor and we have never been on the floor no more.”
SNCC worker, Prathia Hall Wynn, who was monitoring school desegregation in the Delta for the American Friends Service Committee, sent a report on the Carter family to Jean Fairfax at the AFSC office in Philadelphia. Fairfax called John Doar at the Department of Justice to ask for help.
Friday, August 31, 1965, was the first day of school in the Drew Municipal School District. Matthew was up at 5:30 to get water from the pump, heat up the kettle and the big dishpan on the stove, and fill the tub in the bedroom. He bathed and dressed Deborah and Beverly, the two youngest girls.
The older children quietly got themselves ready. Mrs. Carter lay in bed wondering if she had the strength and will to face the fear that pressed in upon her. It was the first day in Drew that black children would attend public school with white children. Those seven children were hers. They would be desegregating both the Drew High School and the A. W. James Elementary School. But the principles of “freedom of choice” and “desegregation” seemed high-flown and irrelevant as Mae Bertha thought of the day that faced her children: Deborah, 6; Beverly, 8; Pearl, 9; Gloria, 11; Stanley, 13; Larry, 15; and Ruth, 16.
After breakfast, the children got their quarters for lunch and went with Mae Bertha out on the front porch to wait for the school bus. By 7:30 the sun was out in strength. The bus that had picked them. up in previous years normally wended its way through the cotton fields, down dirt roads stopping at the sharecropper houses. Would this bus driver know where to pick them up? Would he stop? Would they be the first on the bus? Where would they sit? How would they know where to go when they got to school?
The bus stopped at the house and the children left the porch and got on. They were the first to be picked up. They sat two by two near the front, with Ruth taking a seat by herself. Mae Bertha watched until the bus was out of sight. Her eyes filled and she took baby Carl back into the house.
“When the bus pulled off, I went in and fell down cross the bed and prayed. I stayed on that bed and didn’t do no work that day. I didn’t feel good and stayed cross the bed and when I heard the bus coming, I went back to the porch. When they came off one by one, then I was released until the next morning. But the next morning I felt the same way, depressed, nervous, praying to God. I wasn’t saying a whole lot of words; just saying, ‘take care of my kids—no time for all those other words. And I didn’t do housecleaning until the children came home. After about a month, I started easing up a little bit. I had prayed to God so much! I had been going to church and talking about trusting in Jesus, but I never trusted Jesus until my children went to that all-white school. That school brought me to God!”
Each of the eight children have a story to tell about their experiences in school, but a constant theme in each is Mae Bertha’s reminder, “That’s not a white school. It’s your school as well as theirs. You have a right to be there. Always remember that.”
Today, four of the Carter children, besides Beverly, remain in Mississippi. One son lives in Longview, Texas, another is in the Air Force in Turkey. Ruth, the oldest, who was the most discouraged by the experience moved to Toledo, Ohio, after graduating from Drew High School. Mae Bertha has thirty-six grandchildren and thirteen great grandchildren, including the offspring of her first five children who left before school desegregation.
Matthew Carter died in 1988 at the age of seventy-eight. Mae Bertha still lives at 166 Broadway. Drew is now a very poor town with a majority black population most of whom are on welfare. Main Street in Drew looks much the same except for the boarded-up stores. Cleve McDowell, the first black man to enroll at the University of Missis-
sippi Law School, hangs his shingle in front of a Main Street office. Burner Smith, who grew up in Drew, is the first black chief of police.
However, the greatest sense of change once again is coming from the public school system. While the public schools have remained almost all black since 1971, by the 1980s some white parents could not afford tuition ($1800 per child) at private segregated academies, and their children began entering back to public education. In the 1991-92 school year, 40 percent of the children in the city system were white.
As white parents realized the shocking state of the Drew schools, they began to join with black parents to work for change. The failure to reappoint Beverly without giving any reasons is one of the causes taken up by an integrated group who call themselves The Drew Concerned Citizens Group (DCCG).
Janet Free, a young white woman, is one of the DCCG leaders. Janet’s maternal grandfather was a sharecropper in Sunflower County. Janet’s parents have always believed that the public school system belongs to everyone and that Christian duty commands people to work together. Although in 1970, Janet was the only white student in her seventh grade class, she and her three sisters never fled to the private academy.
Today, she works as a bookkeeper in a Cleveland bank. She is married to Reverend Lonnie Free, pastor of the Church of God in Ruleville, four miles from Drew. Lonnie Free also stayed in the public schools when they integrated. Now, their two children attend public school in Drew.
Since most of their concerns could be remedied with proper expenditures, the Drew Concerned Citizens Group is trying to learn how school tax money and federal funds are being spent. For three years, there have been no new library books. Substitute teachers are used in place of regular teachers. Band uniforms are ten years old. Restrooms are unsanitary and often without toilet paper. School buses are old and unsafe, and the school buildings are not in good repair.
In the past, several school board members had sent their children to the all-white private academy, yet they continued to control the public school system. DCCG members seek to be part of the decision-making process affecting the education of their children. In the past a lack of knowledge of the workings of the political system has hampered change. Three of the school board members are appointed by the City Council and two are elected from the rural areas surrounding Drew. These selections are made at staggered times and with rules that remain confusing to many parents. DCCG wants to educate and mobilize parents for future city council and school board elections.
“Sounds just like the 60s sometimes,” Beverly and Mae Bertha say, as they talk about the task before them. “But you know, we won and kept our children in the white schools in the 60s by the help of God and hard work. Now we’ll just have to set these schools straight.”
Constance Curry lives in Atlanta where she is currently writing a book about the Carters of Sunflower County.