Jean Fairfax, civil rights activist who helped integrate Southern schools, dies at 98

WASHINGTON — One late-summer morning in 1964, when the sun had not yet risen and many schools in Mississippi had still not enrolled black students, Jean Fairfax crisscrossed rural Leake County, bearing a kerosene lamp and a message of integration.

Meeting with black parents, some of whom were still in bed when she knocked on the doors of their sharecropper shanties, Ms. Fairfax spoke of court orders, the Constitution, and Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court ruled a decade earlier that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

Send your children to the all-white elementary school in Carthage, she urged, standing alongside representatives of the Justice Department. Send your children, and you will be protected.


It was the morning of school registration day, and Ms. Fairfax — an organizer with the Quaker group American Friends Service Committee — knew it was a weighty request. The previous day, a group of white men had made the rounds, threatening black parents who were considering sending their children to the Carthage school.

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If the children enrolled, the men said, loans would be called in and their parents would be fired from their jobs or forced from their homes.

The threats came two weeks after the bodies of three slain civil rights workers were discovered near Leake County, buried under an earthen dam. The men — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — had been registering black voters. They were found to have been killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, in what came to be known as the ‘‘Mississippi Burning’’ case.

‘‘I was aware that trouble, even violence, was anticipated,’’ Ms. Fairfax, who was black, once recalled. Nine black families were supposed to enroll children at Carthage that year, but one by one, the parents told Ms. Fairfax they simply couldn’t do it. Then, at her last stop, a 6-year-old named Debra Lewis took Ms. Fairfax’s hand. ‘‘What’s everybody waiting for?’’ she asked. ‘‘I’m ready to go.’’

‘‘That was glorious,’’ Ms. Fairfax later said.


With an entourage that included Debra’s mother, lawyer Derrick Bell of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and about 80 police officers, highway patrol officers, US marshals and FBI agents, Ms. Fairfax and Debra Lewis headed to school and registered for class. When the bell rang one day later, Debra became the first black student in the history of Carthage Elementary.

For Ms. Fairfax, the event was a defining moment in ‘‘a life of chaos, troubles, and uncertainty,’’ as she once described the path of civil rights activists like herself. An organizer and policy advocate, religious scholar, college administrator, and philanthropist, she was 98 when she died Feb. 12 in Phoenix.

From 1965 to 1984, Ms. Fairfax served as the founding director of the Legal Defense Fund’s legal information and community services division, where she shaped legal efforts such as Adams v. Richardson (1972), which forced 10 states to desegregate their public schools or lose federal funding.

‘‘She became the most influential single staff member in determining the direction we took on such issues as integration of black colleges and which industries we should target in employment cases,’’ Jack Greenberg, the group’s longtime director-counsel, wrote in a 1994 memoir, ‘‘Crusaders in the Courts.’’

Supported by a $300,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1967, she helped black workers submit more than 1,800 discrimination complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. According to the LDF, she also met with the commission’s chairman, Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. — son of the former president — to persuade him to strengthen the EEOC’s anti-discrimination guidelines.


In large part, however, her focus was on research reports, in which she meticulously detailed the plight of poor black families, the failure of states such as Virginia and North Carolina to integrate their higher-education systems, the dearth of state funding for historically black institutions, white resistance to school busing, and discrimination against black job-seekers.

Her research spurred increased federal funding to high-poverty schools and education programs. And after testifying before Congress in 1969, where she estimated that 20 million children who needed free or reduced-rate lunches were not getting them, she helped galvanize support for an expanded National School Lunch Program.

Ms. Fairfax was a ‘‘master strategist’’ and ‘‘an absolute legend at LDF,’’ the organization’s president and director-counsel, Sherrilyn Ifill, said in a statement. ‘‘She came to LDF at precisely the moment that President Johnson was launching his ‘Great Society,’ ” Ifill said, ‘‘and her steady hand, towering intellect, and relentless advocacy shaped many of its most important programs focused on poor children.’’

Jean Emily Fairfax was born in Cleveland on Oct. 20, 1920. Her father was a water department administrator, and her mother was a social worker; both parents were the first members of their families to be born legally free in the United States, and both graduated from college.

Ms. Fairfax graduated from the University of Michigan in 1941 and was inducted into the honor society Phi Beta Kappa. In 1944, she received a master’s degree in comparative religions, studying under theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in a joint degree program at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University.

She then served as dean of women at two historically black institutions, Kentucky State College (now Kentucky State University) in Frankfort, and the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama, while working on civil rights programs with Nelle Morton and the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen.

Ms. Fairfax went to Austria as a postwar relief worker with the American Friends Service Committee, and she served as the organization’s director of college programs in New England and director of Southern Civil Rights. When Prince Edward County, Va., closed its public schools in 1959 to protest court-ordered integration, Fairfax moved black students to homes in other states so they could continue their education.

She moved to Arizona in 1986 to join her sister, Betty Fairfax, a teacher and counselor, and focus on philanthropy. Together, they formed endowments worth more than $1 million and channeled money into social justice programs and scholarships for poor students.

In 1987, they ‘‘adopted’’ an entire eighth-grade class at a school in Phoenix, giving $1,000 scholarships each year to those who graduated high school and enrolled in a four-year college.

Ms. Fairfax leaves no immediate survivors. She served on the board of groups including the World Council of Churches and was a founder of the Black Women’s Community Development Foundation, a precursor to the National Black Child Development Institute.

In interviews, she often returned to that day when she took the hand of Debra Lewis and marched off to integrate a school. According to Charles Bolton’s integration history ‘‘The Hardest Deal of All,’’ Lewis’s father went on to lose his job, and the family’s home was firebombed twice before they were evicted by their landlord. They ultimately received financial support from the NAACP, and a street in Carthage was named in Lewis’s honor.

‘‘Very often the civil rights revolution was initiated by the most vulnerable black persons,’’ Ms. Fairfax told The Christian Science Monitor in 1984. ‘‘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.’’