LDF celebrates the life and work of Jean Fairfax, one of the unsung heroines of civil rights movement. A great humanitarian, organizer, strategist and activist, Mrs. Fairfax served as the Director of Community Services at LDF from the 1960s through 1984, where she was instrumental in organizing among black families and parents in school desegregation cases. Her work also focused on the role of HBCUs, and she vigorously fought to prevent the downgrading or closing of historically black colleges which had been consistently short-changed by southern states in funding resources and programs.
For decades, Fairfax worked on the ground with black families in school desegregation cases. During her time as the Director of the Southern Civil Rights Program at the American Friends Service Committee, she helped ensure that black families suffering economic reprisals for participation in desegregation litigation received modest financial support. It was Fairfax who drove LDF attorneys through rural Leake County, Mississippi to meet with parents as they faced the decision about whether to send their children to potentially hostile white schools. She was intimately involved in the first desegregation of schools throughout Mississippi, and the integration of higher education systems throughout the region.
Jean Fairfax grew up in Cleveland, Ohio; her parents were the first in their families to be born legally free. She attended the University of Michigan, from which she graduated Phi Beta Kappa. She then matriculated to Union Theological Seminary.
After college, she worked as the Dean of Women at Kentucky State College and then held the same post at Tuskeege University. She was actively involved in religious organizations on both campuses, and became particularly familiar with the Student Christian Movement in the South.
Fairfax lived a life of steadfast commitment to civil rights and social justice. Jean organized youth programs in civil rights, social justice, peace, and community service in Europe, Mexico, and Israel. Jean also organized a group of church women from across many denominations to agitate for a school lunch program for needy children. This lead to reform of the National School Lunch program.
But Fairfax’s greatest contribution to civil rights was her work as an organizer with black schoolchildren and their parents in the South. She advised the parents of six-year-olds living in rural Mississippi about their inalienable rights to a free education. In an interview, she recalls traveling to cotton fields by the light of kerosene lamps as she talked with families about school integration.
As she said in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor: “[s]omeone had to break the pattern, and 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.”