BOOKS: Shining in Sunflower

Shining in Sunflower
Reviewed by Casey Hayden

Vol. 17, No. 3-4, 1995 pp. 22-23

Silver Rights by Constance Curry (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1995, 258 pages).

In the dialect of local black Mississippians in the Freedom Movement of the 1960s, civil rights were “silver rights.” This book is the story of one family who went after those rights.

Matthew and Mae Bertha Carter, sharecroppers in Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta, and parents of thirteen children, sent their kids to the white schools in Drew in 1965. They did so because the black schools didn’t operate all year, closing twice to allow black children to chop down the weeds in the cotton fields and then pick the cotton. And the black schools were inferior; Matthew and Mae Bertha Carter knew that because they went to segregated schools themselves. Drew was known among civil rights workers as one of the most dangerous towns in the state.

Immediately upon the Carters’ making their intentions known, the plantation overseer drove up in front of their home and honked. Matthew looked out her front window and said over his shoulder to Mae Bertha, “It’s started.” Matthew went out to talk to the overseer. Mae Bertha put their old phonograph on a chair on her porch and played a record of John Kennedy’s 1963 speech in support of a civil rights bill. She turned it up loud.

The overseer sent Matthew in to talk some sense into her and Mae Bertha said, “You tell Mr. Thornton I am a grown woman. I birthed those children and bore the pain. 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,” said Matthew, “I’m not going to tell him all that.” But Matthew Carter did tell Mr. Thornton they weren’t moving their children.

What follows is a story of terror and nobility of character. In its intimacy Silver Rights brings to mind James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But Connie Curry’s book is a product of its time. At its center is the love and trust between Curry and the Carters. As field secretary for the American Friends Service Committee during the 1960s and ’70s, Connie supported this family throughout their struggle. She draws not only from her weekly correspondence with Mae Bertha Carter, but on intensely honest and beautifully edited oral inter-

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views with the whole family (see “Son Ham’s Hat” in Southern Changes, Spring 1992, and “A Right to Be There,” Fall 1992).

Agee wrote about his characters, but Connie writes with her friends. And where Agee embroidered, Connie pares away. She knows these words and facts hold their own power. It’s a deceptively slender book. Woven around the story are glimpses into numerous underreported areas of African American, Southern, and Movement history. We learn of the work of many devoted organizations and individuals in support of the Carters during their years of struggle.

We experience the personal meaning of Mississippi education statistics, rural sharecropper economics, and the way cotton bolls cut your fingers when you pick. We learn about the American Friends Service Committee with its person-to-person, no-nonsense style, as well as the other predominantly white religious groups which supported the frontline civil rights organizations. We witness the impact of the organizing work of SNCC and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party on a single family. We follow the lives of the Carter children that result from their courage in integrating all-white schools. The era appears in human scale and in microcosm.

Marion Wright Edelman, who wrote the substantial introduction to Silver Rights, suggests that we hold the Carter family in our hearts. I find I do, without effort, especially Mrs. Mae Bertha Carter, splendid in her fear and courage.

The first day Mrs. Carter sent her children off on the school bus to the white schools, she felt sick, and she lay on her bed all day and prayed. But when the kids came home from school, that day and every day, their parents were there to talk it over, to help their children process the heavy load of loneliness and insult the children were carrying, to come through without hatred or self-destruction. Despite all the support and later accolades, and despite the wider life that opened to her as a result of the decision she and Mr. Carter made, it was a hard row Mae Bertha Carter had to hoe: lonely, long, loving, and shining like silver in the sun. Silver Rights will light your path.

Casey Hayden entered the Southern movement during the 1960 sit-ins and worked with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee during the same period Connie Curry worked with AFSC.