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Jean Fairfax, Undeterred in Integrating Schools,Dies at 98

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Jean Fairfax, Undeterred in Integrating Schools,Dies at 98
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Jean Fairfax, Unsung but Undeterred in Integrating Schools, Dies at 98

By Katharine Q. Seelye

March 1, 2019

It was a dramatic moment in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and a pivotal one for Jean Fairfax, then a community organizer in Mississippi.

Ten years after Brown v. Board of Education, which declared racial segregation in the nation’s public schools unconstitutional, many schools were still segregated.

Under federal court order in 1964, the all-white Carthage Elementary School in rural Leake County, Miss., was forced to accept black students. Eight enrolled.

But whites were pressuring them to stay home. They threatened to remove the black families from their sharecropper shanties, fire them from their jobs and call their loans due if their children went to school.

The night before the school year started, Ms. Fairfax drove around the county, rousing the families of the enrolled black students from bed and urging them by the glow of kerosene lamps not to be intimidated. Early the next morning, she and lawyers from the Justice Department met with more families at the cotton fields and assured them that the black students would be protected.

Tensions rose as the police, lawyers and federal marshals gathered by the school. Ms. Fairfax saw tear gas canisters and rifles in the trunk of a marshal’s car.

Most black families stayed away. Ms. Fairfax stood at the home of A. J. and Minnie Lewis, who were debating what to do, when their daughter stepped up.

“I shall never forget the moment,” Ms. Fairfax said many times, “when 6-year-old Debra Lewis impatiently cried out, ‘What’s everybody waiting for? I’m ready to go.’”

The girl put her hand in Ms. Fairfax’s. Ms. Fairfax and Derrick Bell, then a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and later a prominent Harvard law professor, drove Debra to school. They escorted her safely to the front door, where the girl single-handedly integrated her first-grade class.

The girl’s bravery in the midst of anticipated violence — whites in a nearby town had fired shots into the homes of blacks when they expected their school to be integrated — stayed with Ms. Fairfax.

Ms. Fairfax — who died on Feb. 12 in Phoenix at 98 — was working for the American Friends Service Committee at the time and soon joined the Legal Defense Fund.

Driven by her Christian faith, her commitment to service and her passion for social justice, she became legendary within the Legal Defense Fund, though she remained largely unsung in the overall civil rights movement.

Ms. Fairfax created the Legal Defense Fund’s division of legal information and community service and was its director from 1965 to 1984. In that post she helped black families wrestle with whether and how to enroll in white schools, where they would face certain hostility.

Beyond that, she documented the white resistance to school integration, wrote reports that helped direct federal funds from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” to poor black families and that helped black workers challenge discrimination in employment.

Ms. Fairfax helped protect historically black colleges from being downgraded in the face of cutbacks, and she helped overhaul the National School Lunch Program to serve poor children more fairly.

“She was an organizer at heart, and her signature work always included reports and analyses that told the story of how racism is really experienced in communities,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the Legal Defense Fund, which announced her death, said in a statement.

Ms. Fairfax with Jack Greenberg, a director-counsel of the defense fund, at the organization’s New York office in the late 1970s or early ’80s. He praised her in his book “Crusaders in the Courts.”

Ms. Fairfax understood how racism worked and how the federal government worked, Ms. Ifill said, and she knew how to influence funding decisions, sometimes with the threat of litigation. Though Ms. Fairfax was not a lawyer, she helped set the defense fund’s legal agenda.

“She understood you couldn’t wait for the powers that be to decide how they would run a program,” Ms. Ifill said in a telephone interview.

In his book, “Crusaders in the Courts” (1994), Jack Greenberg, a former director-counsel of the Legal Defense Fund, wrote that Ms. Fairfax did it all: forged new links between the organization and blacks; organized groups to demand desegregated schools and fair employment; and published pamphlets about busing, the treatment of Native Americans and the exclusion of women from private clubs.

“She became the most influential single staff member in determining the direction we took on such issues as the integration of black colleges and which industries we should target in employment cases,” Mr. Greenberg, who died in 2016, wrote.

But the experience that Ms. Fairfax always pinpointed as the most memorable of her career was when little Debra Lewis stepped forward and integrated the Carthage school.

The atmosphere was especially tense at the time because the bodies of three civil rights workers, killed several weeks before, had just been discovered near Carthage. Passions were inflamed as the so-called “Freedom Summer” of registering blacks to vote had become preoccupied with what became known as the “Mississippi Burning” murders of the three — James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman.

“Someone had to break the pattern,” Ms. Fairfax told The Christian Science Monitor in 1984. “Very often, the civil rights revolution was initiated by the most vulnerable black persons. Many of them were women and many of them were children — tough, resilient, hopeful, beautiful children. The greatest experience of my life was standing with them as they took the risks.”

The day after Debra walked into the Carthage school, her father was fired from his job at a lumber yard. Someone tried to set fire to their home. But Debra did well in school and graduated. She died in 2011.

Jean Emily Fairfax was born on Oct. 20, 1920, in Cleveland. Her mother, Inez Elizabeth (Wood) Fairfax, and her father, Dan Robert Fairfax, were the first members of their families to be born legally free in the United States and both attended college; he became a city employee, and she was a social worker.

Jean attended public schools in Cleveland and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Michigan in 1941. She received a master’s degree in 1944 in world religions at Union Theological Seminary, where she studied under Reinhold Niebuhr.

She served as dean of women at Kentucky State College and then in the same capacity at Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, in Alabama. She also became involved with the Y.W.C.A.

After World War II, she joined the American Friends Service Committee and undertook missionary and relief work in Austria. She worked briefly in New England before moving to Mississippi and becoming the committee’s director of Southern Civil Rights.

After she retired from the Legal Defense Fund in 1984, she moved to Phoenix to be with her sister, Betty, a longtime educator, who died in 2010. There was no immediate information on her survivors.

In Phoenix, the sisters focused on civic-oriented philanthropy, supporting nonprofit organizations that addressed social equity, housing, health care, criminal justice issues and especially education.

Their projects included a foundation through which they adopted an 8th-grade class at Mary McLeod Bethune School in Phoenix, promising each graduate $1,000 for finishing high school and attending college.

Jean Fairfax wrote in an article in 1995 that she had initially been under the impression that philanthropists were white people with inherited wealth. But by creating endowments and living frugally, she said, she and her sister were able to donate more than $100,000 a year to their causes.

In its obituary, The Arizona Republic said that Jean Fairfax believed that “anyone and everyone” can be a philanthropist, and that by giving, ordinary people can change the world.
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