By Tom Lawrence
In every generation and in every society there are those who make a difference—without recognition or fame. Mostly, they are just plain folks, leading ordinary lives, who find themselves thrust into a situation that demands courage, integrity and solid common sense. At that crucial moment, these average citizens rise to the occasion. They do what needs to be done, then fade back into ordinary lives. These special people deserve our thanks and respect. Here is the story of one of them.
I first met Winnie Green during the holiday season in 1956. Her younger sister, Missy, and I were good friends, and she invited me to a party at the Green home. Winnie had just announced her engagement to Sammy Falls, and the house was over-flowing with well-wishers and wedding gifts. The Green family had recently moved from the old Belhaven area in Jackson, MIssissippi to a new home on the lake in Eastover. Missy had shared with me enough about her family for me to know that the family was old Jackson, and old money.
Sometime during the evening, I found myself alone with Winnie, and she began to question me about my family and my background. When she discovered that I was an Episcopalian, she immediately asked me if I’d ever taken communion with a black person. When I replied that I couldn’t remember for sure, but I doubted that I had, she quickly said,
“Why not? Have you ever gone to school with a black person?”
I replied that I couldn’t remember any black Episcopalians, but yes, I’d gone to school with black people while growing up as an Air Force brat.
She then said,
“Then you ought to be offended by the racial situation in Mississippi. You should try to do something about it.”
After this encounter, I said to Missy,
“What’s with your sister?”
“Oh, don’t pay any attention to Winnie. She’s just going through a liberal phase. She’ll get over it.”
Winnie Green never got over it, but rather fought for justice and fair treatment of oppressed people for the next fifty years.
The next time I heard anything about Winnie, she had caused quite a stir in Canton, Mississippi. It seems that Billy Noble, the longtime sheriff of Madison County, had arrested one of Sammy Fall’s black workers, and was holding him in the Canton jail.
It was hunting season, and Winnie’s husband, Sammy was at deer camp, so it fell to Winnie to go to Canton to bail the guy out. Billy Noble would have done himself a favor if he’d just delivered the man to Jackson, because when Winnie saw the conditions in the Canton jail, she went ballistic. She was incensed that the black prisoners were treated much differently than the whites, and she ranted to everyone she knew.
Shortly after the incident in Canton, Winnie and Sammy were divorced, and Winnie began to be involved with supporting the de-segregation of Mississippi’s public schools. She helped form several groups that were dedicated to preserving public education and making it available to all, regardless of race.
In 1963, my wife Nancy and I moved back to Jackson, and Missy invited us to a party at her parents’ home. Winnie was there, and I noticed that no one seemed to be including her in conversation, so I eased over and said hello.
We talked casually, and finally I asked just what she expected to be the outcome of all of her work against the prevailing system. Winnie looked me dead in the eye and replied,
“I only have one objective and that’s to see the U.S. Constitution applied to all Americans. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Later that night, I told Nancy that for the very first time, I understood what all the turmoil was about. Winnie Green had explained it in a way I could understand. It was hard to oppose that goal. Winnie became active in Alabama during the Rosa Parks arrest, and she subsequently struggled for black voting rights.
I happened to be coming to Montgomery on business, and called Winnie and suggested that we visit while I was in town. She agreed, but invited me to accompany her to the home of one of her friends for dinner. Thanks to Winnie, I had the privilege and great pleasure of being a guest in the home of Cliff and Virginia Durr. Clifford Durr was a prominent young lawyer in Montgomery when Roosevelt was first elected President in 1932. FDR invited Durr to join his New Deal as head of the agency reforming the banking system.
Later, Durr and Virginia had returned to Montgomery, and he had resumed his law practice, while Virginia became an active advocate for equal rights. Cliff Durr was the lawyer whom Martin Luther King called to defend Rosa Parks after her arrest. I was fascinated by the evening, and forever grateful to Winnie for making it possible.
Winnie went on to champion the cause of oppressed people for the rest of her life. She served with the American Friends and the Children’s Defense Fund until her death. Winnie’s voice was always just inside my head. When our son Sam was about to enter the first grade, Nancy and I had to make a decision. Would we allow him to go to an integrated school, or would we put him in the fast growing private school system. I called Winnie and asked for her advice.
She quickly replied,
“You must do what you think best for your son, but bear in mind, he will be living in a multi-cultural world that will be open to all of our people.”
Nancy and I chose to keep our children in the public school system, and Winnie had a lot to do with that decision.
In addition to her work with the Friends and the CDF, Winnie found time to be the primary care provider when her sister, Missy became too ill to care for herself. After the death of her longtime companion, Jane Petty, Winnie moved to New Orleans, where she bought a home on Esplanade, on the edge of the French Quarter. She continued to work until she was no longer able, and America is a better place for having Winifred Green around to help make the U.S. Constitution a reality for all of our citizens. Winnie, we thank you and we will miss you.
The photo of Winifred Green was printed in the Jackson Free Press
To read their article on Winifred Green, go to http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2016/feb/12/winifred-green/