Mae Bertha Carter was born on 13 January 1923 to a family of cotton sharecroppers on the Smith and Wiggins Plantation in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. She married Matthew Carter in 1939 and raised their thirteen children, sharecropping on the Pemble Plantation in Sunflower County, about fourteen miles from Drew.
Matthew and Mae Bertha Carter joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1955 and went to meetings in Cleveland for several years. Her children were active in the Freedom Summer in 1964, and two of her daughters went to jail for marching for voting rights. In the summer of 1965 the Carters enrolled their seven school-age children in previously all-white schools. As Mae Bertha Carter said, “I was tired of the old worn-out books and raggedy buses at the black schools, and as I told my first born, Edna, when I looked at her little hand, ‘These tiny fingers won’t pick cotton forever.’”
In response to their insistence on integrating the schools, the Carters’ house was shot into, their credit was cut off, and they were evicted from the plantation. However, their children became the first African Americans to attend Drew’s formerly all-white schools. The Carters were also plaintiffs in NAACP-backed lawsuit that led to the abolition of Mississippi’s dual school system in 1970. Eight of the Carter children graduated from Drew High School, and seven went on to graduate from the University of Mississippi.
Mae Bertha Carter remained a community and civil rights activist. She worked in a local Head Start program for twenty years and continued to push for quality public education in Drew. She was active in voter registration, served as an officer in the local NAACP, and helped elect several black candidates to state and local office.
The University of Mississippi honored Carter with its Award of Distinction in 1993, and in February 1996, Marian Wright Edelman, the NAACP attorney who represented the Carters nearly three decades earlier, presented Mae Bertha Carter with an award for moral leadership from the Children’s Defense Fund. She was interviewed on National Public Radio and appeared on CBS This Morning, and in May 1996 she received the NAACP’s Equal Justice Award.
Mae Bertha Carter died on 28 April 1999, eleven years after her husband. The University of Mississippi has honored her with a red leaf maple tree and a plaque noting that seven of her children graduated from the school.
- Constance Curry, Silver Rights (1995)
- New York Times (6 May 1999)