My Mind Stayed on Freedom Mae Bertha Carter, 1903-1999

“My Mind Stayed on Freedom”
Mae Bertha Carter, 1903-1999
By Connie Curry

Vol. 21, No. 2, 1999, pp. 29-30

Down the aisle they came. They were her thirteen children and their spouses, thirty-six grandchildren and spouses, thirty-five great grandchildren, godchildren, sisters and cousins, aunts and uncles, and nieces and nephews. They ranged in age from seven months to eighty years, over a hundred strong-the family of Mae Bertha Carter-there to celebrate her life and to say goodbye.

The funeral service was held on May lst in the gymnasium of Drew High School, Sunflower County, Mississippi. Thirty-four years ago, Mae Bertha and her husband Matthew enrolled four of their children-the first black students-in that previously all-white school. Their four younger children desegregated the elementary school. The eight Carter children graduated from Drew High School. Seven of them later graduated from the University of Mississippi. Eviction from their sharecropper’s house, job loss, and years of harassment and intimidation preceded their ultimate triumph. (See “A Right To Be There,” Southern Changes, August/September, 1992).

At Mae Bertha’s funeral, Senator Willie Simmons, the first African American since Reconstruction to be elected from the Delta to the state legislature, thanked her for helping in his campaign. Congressman Bennie Thompson, and representatives from the American Friends Service Committee and the Children’s Defense Fund paid tribute to her leadership and dedication to justice and equal education. The family had asked me to speak as well and I was hard put to talk about a friendship that went back to 1966, when I first met the family. The friendship with Mae Bertha was renewed in 1988 and blossomed in my recording the story of the Carter family in Silver Rights (1995, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill), and then in travelling with her as she spoke in over a hundred cities across the country.

At her funeral, I needed to talk about the Mae Bertha I knew personally and loved deeply. I spoke of her being the wisest woman I have ever known and of her words that echo over the years to us:

A letter to the American Friends Service Committee when she was fighting for Head Start money in the ’60s: “Richard Nixon doesn’t need to be president of anything.”

A newspaper story: “Why must they send my son to Vietnam when they won’t let him in the schools?”

To a university audience: “Clinton should be ashamed of himself for that welfare reform. Makin’ it so we all have to lock our doors and be afraid of each other.”

To a very upper-middle class, well-educated black audience: “You have forgotten how to talk to poor people. If you forget where you came from, you ain’t going nowhere.”

To me one day when she observed someone talking on the phone too long: “If you be talking that long, you GOT to be lying.”

Giving advice to my sister Ann on how she had raised her thirteen children and related to her grandchildren and great grandchildren: “You got to love ’em. You got to see each one as a person. And you got to listen to ’em.”

On Trent Lott: “Well he’s just crazy. If it’s the last thing I do, I’m gonna picket if they try to honor him at Ole Miss

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with that department or building or something.”

In the past year: “You know, you can’t let this cancer get you down.”

And she didn’t. She told us, “I’ve got my little angels and the covering that comes over me to keep me safe. You know we’re all going to Chicago-just some of us are gonna get there first.”

She went to Baskin Robbins for ice cream the day before she died, telling the home healthcare service to just “take me off the list,” when they explained that she had to be at home to get the health care.

Mae Bertha loved to tell her story and, a few weeks before she died, she gave a three hour interview for use by the Children’s Defense Fund. In an earlier video interview, she stands in her yard in a red and white polka dot dress and a straw hat with a flower in the middle, talking about the state of the world and people not voting when “folks died so we could vote.” She raises her hand and says, “If you ain’t doing nothing to change things, you are guilty, guilty, guilty.”

Writing here of Mae Bertha gives me the opportunity to tell perhaps my favorite tale, about the accompanying photograph.

It took Mae Bertha and me thirty-three years to discover that we both loved Elvis Presley. On a trip to the Delta in 1995, my sister Ann and I saw a yard full of plywood cut-outs, figures of all kinds–leprechauns, football helmets, musical instruments, blues singers. I bought an Elvis figure and took it to Drew where we were to visit Mae Bertha. I was going to ask her to keep it for me until I brought my car to take it back to Atlanta.

We put the figure in the carport and Mae Bertha sat down, strummed her hairbrush and sang, “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog” to his image. Ann, who is a photographer, told me to pull up a chair and sit with the two of them.

Next time I went to Drew in my car, Mae Bertha said to me, “Now, you haven’t come to take my man.” And I didn’t. “You know Elvis loved all of the people,” she once told me.

Feeling low in her final months, she would play her tape of Elvis singing “How Great Thou Art,” and other gospel songs and “it would lift me up.”

“St. Augustine reminds us,” I said at Mae Bertha’s funeral, “that we are drawn to a god-shaped vacancy and we spend our lives trying to fill that vacancy.” Mae Bertha Carter helped thousands of people from Maine to California from age five to ninety-five to fill that vacancy with a vibrant spirit of love and unwavering devotion to justice.

Mae Bertha, we carry your spirit in our hearts and pray that you will keep singing to us to wake up each morning–as you–with “our minds stayed on freedom.”

It was her favorite song and we sang it again there in the school before she was laid to rest beside Matthew at the Union Grove Cemetery, out in the country on a bright and soft spring Delta afternoon.

Connie Curry lives in Atlanta. In the spring of 2000, the University Press of Mississippi will publish her book on civil rights leader Aaron Henry.