By Marian Wright Edelman
Transforming movements towards social justice depend on the work of a core group of committed and persistent and not always frontline soldiers — women and men who seize the moment and choose to stand up for what is right. My beloved friend and longtime Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) board member Winifred Green, who died February 6, 2016, was one of those unsung heroines. Born White and privileged in Jackson, Mississippi, I first met her during Freedom Summer 1964, when I was a young civil rights lawyer and she was one of a handful of prominent White women who were supporting school desegregation and working tirelessly to keep public schools in Jackson open. Her stance alienated her from many family members and friends. Winifred recounted: “Once my mother said to me, ‘What did we do wrong?’ I remember saying to her, ‘Granny taught me, ‘Red and Yellow, Black and White, they are precious in his sight,’ and I didn’t know that she didn’t really mean Black people.”
Winifred Green’s family worshiped in an all-White church but she reached an early turning point at age fourteen when she was a youth delegate to a national Episcopal convention in Boston. The mixed race conference was her first time interacting with Black people as peers and equals, and she had an epiphany when she suddenly realized the segregation her entire culture in Mississippi was built on was wrong: “It was revolutionary. I knew somebody had not been telling me the truth.” After learning the truth for herself she was unwavering in standing up for racial justice the rest of her life.
She became politically active at Millsaps College and shortly after graduating in 1963 organized Mississippians for Public Education, a group of women who effectively protested the Mississippi legislature’s attempts to close the public schools to avoid integration. She soon became a participant along with her good friend Patt Derian in the Wednesdays in Mississippi movement, a moral witness of prominent White and Black northern women who traveled to Mississippi on Wednesdays to create bridges of understanding between northern and southern women across racial and class lines in Mississippi’s closed society. Wednesdays in Mississippi, organized by Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women and her friend Polly Cowan, wife of the former president of CBS television network, recognized the need for privileged women to speak up for and with less privileged ones.
Working with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Winifred Green traveled throughout the South to recruit civil rights activists, including Black families willing to enroll their children in White schools. She was one of the few homegrown, grassroots White activists in the Mississippi movement. She spoke up and marched and did whatever it took working with her Black sisters in the movement including Unita Blackwell, who became the first Black woman mayor in Mississippi after a life of cotton picking, Fannie Lou Hamer, and lesser known but equally courageous women like Mrs. Mae Bertha Carter, who with her husband Matthew Carter enrolled seven of their thirteen children in local White schools in Sunflower County, Mississippi in the fall of 1965. I was privileged to be their attorney. The owner of the local plantation where the Carters lived and worked as sharecroppers ordered the Carters to withdraw their children or be evicted. The Carters did not back down and were evicted and harassed and shot at. Winifred Green stood with Mrs. Carter to give those children support to achieve a better future. Eight of the Carter children graduated from what had been all-White schools in Sunflower County. Eleven of them graduated from college—seven from the once rigidly segregated University of Mississippi.
Winifred never hesitated to do whatever task was needed however challenging. In a vivid example of unsung servant leadership she was the person charged with finding and purchasing the mules for the Mule Train that left Marks, Mississippi in May 1968 to be part of the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was planning at his death. She remembered she had to travel to Alabama to buy mules as she couldn’t find any for sale in Mississippi. When she arrived the mule seller had his Confederate flag prominently displayed. On the advice of a Black farmer Winifred studied the mules’ teeth to see if they were strong and as if she knew something about mules, bought them and brought them to Mississippi. She always took care of business—willing to do whatever was needed.
Winifred Green served many years on CDF’s Board of Directors and I relied on her sound historic context for current problems and strategic leadership to make progress for poor children, especially children of color and their families. Before CDF began Winifred helped our parent organization, the Washington Research Project (WRP), which grew out of the Poor People’s Campaign after Dr. King’s death, research and expose widespread illegal diversion of federal money designed to close educational inequities across the South for WRP’s and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s 1969 report Title I: Is It Helping Poor Children? She went with Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, longtime Director of CDF’s Southern Regional Office, door to door to find out why children were out of school in Georgia for our groundbreaking 1974 report Children Out of School in America. And in 1980 she started her non-profit organization, the Southern Coalition for Educational Equity. Our partnership with her and others led to the founding of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice to pursue solutions to poverty and injustice in the poorest counties in southern rural America.
Throughout it all she mentored many next generation leaders, especially young women. Anat Kelman Shaw, CDF-Texas’s communications director, met and was impacted by Winifred at a training session for young leaders where she encouraged young people “not to be afraid to speak up about how we felt: She left a lasting impression on me… as a woman with a lot of heart, compassion, integrity, earthy humility, and strength. She seemed to possess that rare combination of being both young and old at the same time.” In her last two and half years despite severe health problems, she was always on the other end of the phone to offer ideas, insights and support to me and many others.
Making our nation and world fit for our children and grandchildren is a task for marathoners – not sprinters or dabblers or showboaters who are here today and gone tomorrow. Transforming change is a complex, long-term and never-ending struggle that must be pursued with urgency and persistence. The German playwright Bertold Brecht wrote: “There are those who struggle for a day and they are good. There are those who struggle for a year and they are better. There are those who struggle all their lives. These are the indispensable ones.” Winifred Green was an indispensable one and all the lives she touched and our nation are the better because she lived.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.