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Winifred Green: An unsung warrior

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 2/22/2016, 6:20 a.m.
Transforming movements toward social justice depend on the work of a core group of committed and persistent and not always ...

(George Curry Media) – Transforming movements toward 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 board member Winifred Green, who died Feb. 6, 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.”

Green’s family worshiped in an all-White church but she reached an early turning point at age 14 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.

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.

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 such as Mrs. Mae Bertha Carter, who with her husband Matthew Carter enrolled seven of their 13 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. 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.