Interview with Mary Campbell Martin
The phrase “civil rights” likely evokes images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the March on Washington, the Montgomery bus boycott, or the Greensboro sit-ins. The 1954 Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision and Dr. King’s assassination in 1968 neatly bookend the civil rights movement in the popular imagination, but the history of the struggle for civil rights goes far beyond these important events. The “long” civil rights movement is rooted in the early twentieth century and extends to the present as we still struggle for equality in the overlapping realms of race, socioeconomics, gender, and politics. These struggles affected the nation on a broader scale as well as the day-to-day lives of Americans. Thus, it is important to consider the stories of individuals whose experiences illuminate the long civil rights movement timeline in significant ways.1
As Coordinator of Collections for the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I offer an edited excerpt from one American’s inspiring story. This 2008 interview with Mary Campbell Martin, conducted by Kieran Walsh Taylor for the Southern Oral History Program’s project on Economic Justice in Charlotte, North Carolina, contains one African American woman’s personal narrative that reveals institutional and systemic racial discrimination as well as the power, pain, and deep impact of the struggle for civil rights over the past fifty years. Indeed, Mary Campbell Martin’s experiences show that the 1964 Civil Rights Act, while a major achievement, was not a flawless solution nor a real end point in the battle.
Martin is a North Carolina native and has spent much of her life in the state, where she has served thirty-two years at the NC Agricultural Extension Service. During her career, she and many of the families with whom she worked experienced racial discrimination. She was a plaintiff in the Bazemore v. Friday case in which Extension Service employees filed suit against local and federal officials, charging the agency with violating Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.2 The case ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986 and the employees received a favorable ruling, but it took several more years for North Carolina to make amends to the surviving plaintiffs and beneficiaries.
Throughout this interview, Martin reflects on particular instances of prejudicial treatment as well as other life experiences. For the complete interview, please see: Interview with Mary Campbell Martin by Kieran Walsh Taylor, 13 May 2008 (U-0374), in the Southern Oral History Program Collection #4007, Southern Historical Collection, The Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, UNC-Chapel Hill (http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/sohp/id/5714/rec/3).
Excerpts from an Interview with Mary Campbell Martin
When I was growing up, my brother and I would go to the movies and there was a separate door for colored people. That was the name then, “colored people.” So at that time, we would venture to go into the door that said “white.” They would always have a fit, calling us back, and we would rush right in because that’s what we wanted to do. At the train station, the water fountains were white and colored. We’d always drink from the white fountain.
It was in me all the time that I was equal and I was as good as anybody. I always demanded the kind of respect that I thought all people should be given.
When I was at A&T, there were some students who wanted to go to the library in Greensboro and they kept being told that the book and this, that, and the other was not in. They came to me and they said, “Mary, would you call up there? Your voice sounds like you’re white. Would you call up there and see if that book is there?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” I called and the book was there and they were able to get it.
I came to Charlotte in 1960 as a home economics extension [agent]. The title was “home demonstration agent—negro work.” It had changed from “colored” to “negro.” We must always have had “negro work” behind us, but in 1964, all of that had to be done away with, so that title was dropped. I was working with Mecklenburg County Fair administration that summer, and they called and asked if I had any changes to the brochure that they printed up. I said, “Well, I believe everything should be about the same.” Then I said, “Oh, one thing. We have to have all the booths integrated.” So they said, “Fine.” I said, “And drop ‘negro,’ none of that.” So then it went to the state level that I was an integrationist, and I was informed that my title was educator, not integrationist. I said, “No, I am an educator, and I do not consider myself to be an integrationist, but whatever the law of the land is.” I told them I would not supervise a single booth and I would have nothing to do with the fair unless it was totally integrated. So my director called me in and said, “Mary, I don’t know why you don’t leave it like it is because you know the blacks can’t come up to the whites.” I said, “Well, you know what? We’ll just see, because with every change in history, there has been progress and pain. So we are going to see.” That wasn’t well accepted by the state level. I was marked. I was very much marked.
When I was about to have my third child in 1969, all the white women were given maternity leave, and I asked about one and I couldn’t get one. I went to Julius Chambers, who was a part of the busing system, and I told him that I was having some trouble. I didn’t want to go out and not legally know what my rights were. He said, “Well, ask them again in writing, and if you don’t get a response, let me know.” I let him know, and he sat down and he wrote [two] sentences: “I represent Mrs. Mary Martin who is interested in knowing how much time she would have for maternity leave. Please advise her.” Oh, it went all over the state. I had supervisors coming here saying to me, “This is not the way we do business in Extension.” I said, “Well, you didn’t answer my letter. You didn’t respond to my requests.”
At that time, I worked everything in Extension—community development, 4-H, economics programs, everything. But white women had a specialty. They either were clothing and textiles, or they were food and nutrition, or they did 4-H. They all had a specialty, but as a black agent, I did everything. We came into a conference one day, and I asked, “Why is it that I’m doing 4-H and clothing and nutrition? Why am I doing everything?” Right at that very moment, my supervisor said, “You don’t have to. You don’t have to do everything.” I said, “Okay, I’m not doing everything.” The only problem, the only concern I had was the poor 4-H’ers because nobody cared about them, I can promise you. I worked hard with the 4-H’ers. I took county winners who were super in public speaking and demonstrating to the district level, and not a single black was a judge. One time—I never will forget, it just rings in my head so hard—I took them to the district level, and this little girl was perfect in her speech. Somewhere during the course of the day, she ran around and finally found me, and she was crying. She cried, “Mrs. Martin, I don’t mind losing. I don’t mind losing. But the girl that they pulled in forgot her speech three times, Mrs. Martin, three times, and they took it from me and gave it to her. I will not participate in 4-H anymore.” I would try to get them to participate and they’d say, “For what? We’re not going to win. They’re not going to let us win.” So we had all of these problems. As far as my salary is concerned, I was the whipping boy out in the backyard.
In the white [Extension] office, they had at least three ag agents, they had a horticulturist, and they had a dairy man. The black offices basically had one black home agent and one black farm agent, and he did everything [for the whole county]. Now, some of the more agricultural counties had a few more, maybe two or maybe three for the whole county. I had a little cubby hole for an office, and we didn’t have a kitchen or anything like that. All the white offices had big labs. They always had nice facilities. But by the end of the 1960s, the demand came for contiguous offices. In the late 1960s, maybe early 1970s, they were mostly still contiguous. Then they finally integrated. It wasn’t a difficult process then to first make them contiguous and then to integrate because they began to drop off the black agents, the men. I can’t remember the year we filed that suit, and that went on and on and on for eighteen years. Eighteen years. They tried to do different little things to appease us. I was one of the very first plaintiffs with D. O. Ivy and P. E. Bazemore. [The suit] forced [the NC Agricultural Extension Service] to do a lot of things, but a lot of things it didn’t force them to do because they started hiring black women into directors’ positions more so than black men. That’s the thing: black women always got off better than the black men. It’s like a white man against a black man: don’t elevate him. Do not elevate him because the woman is the weaker sex. You can elevate her and still deal with her [more than] you felt than you could a black man.
[I stayed with the Extension] thirty-two years. Dr. Eloise Coffer, who was the head of home economics for the state, came here several times and said to me, “Mary, I don’t know how you get the strength to get up and go to work.” I said, “I get mine from above.” I have people say, “You come to work every day smiling.” I said, “Yes, I know how to throw off that which I do not like and cling to that which I like.”
I was suggested to apply for the distinguished service award. The committees met and I was passed. I was to go to national and receive a distinguished service award, but Dr. Black refused to sign it. I asked him why, and he said, “Mary, you know why.” I said, “No, I really don’t know why. You tell me.” He never answered. It was because I was the foremost fighter for civil rights, for our rights.
By this time, we had integrated offices, and I always said to everyone, “Whites are indifferent because they do not know about us. They do not know about our work because they have not been with us, but I’m sure it’ll be different now.” We got down to where you go to Raleigh and walk down the hall and face your coworkers that you work with in Mecklenburg County. Their heads were stuck in the air and they did not see us; they never saw us. That was a very inhuman thing. I just don’t know how anybody—that’s a lack of intelligence. It’s a lack of humanity. So I got a chance to see what some people are like, really face me right in the middle of [the] eyes. They came around, not for a long time, but it’s a human thing. It’s a sad thing, but it’s a human thing. There were always ways to try to make you feel that you were not equal, always. I came to the county with $4,000 in 1960, a year, and I finished with a master’s degree from UNC-G that I had to work out with my hands and feet, and I finished with a salary of $32,000. Whites came in with a regular B.S. degree, no master’s degree, and they would come in making what you made and in just a little while, they would surpass you. [That inequality led to a loss of] tens of thousands, and thousands of dollars out of your pocket.
We knew that we were part of the civil rights struggle. We started out with Julius Chambers and Ferguson as our attorneys. We would meet together as black agents occasionally and I think we were calling that organization the 1890. [P. E. Bazemore] and D. O. Ivy and some other agents were the spearheaders. They did a lot of stuff that we simply supported and cooperated with and worked with. They always had to meet with attorneys. They did a lot of big-time legwork. They really were the spearheaders, the executive committee. [The suit] took so long. I’m sure [Bazemore felt like it wasn’t worth it] because D. O. Ivy was his best friend, and he died. When he died, on his deathbed he told those guys, “Don’t give up. Keep working at it.” It was sad. It was really, really sad. The settlement, it was like peanuts to what it should have been. It just felt like peanuts. The survivors were the beneficiaries.
Even with equal opportunity, when it came into play, a lot of people applied and registered complaints, but it was basically sort of like a pincushion where you could just stick pins and you didn’t get a whole lot out of it. It didn’t do much at all, I don’t think. That was a farce.
You know why I stayed thirty-two years? I could have gone out at thirty, fully retired. I stayed thirty-two years to let them know that whatever they did, I was going home when I got ready. That’s what I did because they tried to fire me several times, several times, because I was a fighter for what was right.
I know now, my final thoughts are like this. Had Extension not fought black agents all through those years, it would not be diminishing now. We would have been able to keep up with the computer trend and meet the needs of the people in the computer age now. We would not be diminished. When you look at the mothers out there and the drug situation, we would have been able to help this situation, but now it’s gone wild. Drugs, promiscuity, immorality, the lack of parenting, the lack of care, the lack of love, it’s gone, it’s gone, because they were more interested in keeping the blacks down instead of advancing everybody. To hold somebody down, you’ve got to get down there with them to hold them down; so that’s what they did. [Racism] crippled the whole thing. And you know what? I just decided I was not going to let Extension or anybody else hold me down. I was going on to do what I need to do and be of service because that’s what we are here for. I come out here because I will take a child in that corner and talk to him or I’ll take him outside that door and talk to them and find out what is your problem. “Why can’t you come in here and do what you’re supposed to do?”
- For an early and thorough examination of the movement’s roots and threads in the present, see Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “Long Civil Rights Movement and Political Uses of the Past,” Journal of American History 91, no. 4 (March 2005): 1233–1263.
- For an additional oral history about this case, see Kieran Walsh Taylor’s interview with Philip E. Bazemore, 23 March 2002, U-0100 in the Southern Oral History Program collection #4007 in the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; P. E. Bazemore and Kieran Walsh Taylor, “‘I Played by the Rules, and I Lost’: The Fight for Racial Equality in the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service,” Southern Cultures 9, no. 4 (Winter 2003): 66–72. (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/southern_cultures/toc/scu9.4.html).