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Constance Curry, 86, Civil Rights ally and author, dies
An image provided by Billy Howard, Constance Curry at her home in Atlanta, 2017. Curry, who spent her entire adult life committed to social justice, died on June 20 at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta. She was 86. Billy Howard/The New York Times.

by Steven Kurutz



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- As a white Southern woman working to end racial segregation in the 1950s and ’60s, Constance Curry at once stood out among Black activists and, at least by appearances, blended in with white Southern society.

“She could move comfortably anywhere in the South,” Andrew Young, a civil rights era leader and former mayor of Atlanta, said in a phone interview. “She was one of the few people that could go to an NAACP meeting or a revival and be at home, and at the same time go to the upper-crust Episcopal Church and hold her own.”

Outgoing and determined, Curry was a bridge between Black activists and white Southerners who wouldn’t often talk openly about their feelings about integration. “But they would with Connie,” said Young, who first met her in 1961 and for whom she worked in his administration. “She could move in and out of the white community and gain a sense of what’s really going on.”

Curry, who spent her entire adult life committed to social justice, died June 20 at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta. She was 86. The cause was complications of sepsis, her half sister, Ann Curry, said.

Like Ella Baker, the Black civil rights activist with whom she worked closely, Curry didn’t appear on television or feature in news articles. She wasn’t arrested protesting and thrown in jail like so many others. Her role as a field organizer, adviser and liaison was behind the scenes.

Only in the 1990s did she emerge into the limelight, with “Silver Rights,” a well-received book drawn from her experiences in segregated Mississippi about a Black family’s struggle after enrolling their children in a previously all-white school.

When in 1960 sit-ins began taking place at lunch counters across the South, Curry, then working for the National Student Association in Atlanta, put out a newsletter listing the places where demonstrations were taking place.

As director of the student group’s Southern Student Human Relations Project, Curry brought together Black and white college students aligned in the struggle for racial justice. And she gave financial support to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an influential group for which she, along with Baker, served as an adviser.

Some of Curry’s contributions were small but crucial to the movement. Julian Bond, a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, once recalled how Curry had given him a key to her office to use a mimeograph machine. The fundraising letters he printed, along with the student association network generally, were “an invaluable resource for recruiting money and political support,” he said.

In 1964, working as a Southern field representative for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group, Curry traveled to counties in Mississippi that were under court order to desegregate schools. Working covertly (she pretended to be the visiting college roommate of a local organizer), she sought to convince the local white community to accept desegregation and investigated cases of reprisals against Black families.




Decades later, Curry returned to Mississippi to interview Matthew and Mae Bertha Carter, Black sharecroppers who, despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, encountered vicious bigotry after their children began attending a recently desegregated school in 1965. The Carters were taunted, denied credit by shopkeepers and kicked off the land they worked, but they persisted, winning a lawsuit that confirmed their children’s right to attend the school.

It is their story that Curry tells in “Silver Rights” (1995), which takes its title from the way elderly Black Southerners had phrased the word “civil.” It was named a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times and a finalist for the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. (Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, wrote the introduction.) And it gave Curry a new, public-facing role in the fight for equality.

Constance Winifred Curry was born on July 19, 1933, in Paterson, New Jersey. Her parents, Ernest and Hazel (Richmond) Curry, were immigrants from Belfast, Northern Ireland. They settled in the Northeast and then relocated to Greensboro, North Carolina, when Constance was in the third grade. Her father went to work in the textile industry.

In “Deep in Our Hearts” (2000), a book that Curry co-authored about the lives of white women in the freedom movement, she credited her parents’ history with her social consciousness.

“It is clear to me that the Irish struggle got planted deep in my heart and soul at an early age,” she wrote, “and that its lessons and music and poetry were easily transferred to the Southern freedom struggle.”

She went on to graduate from Agnes Scott College, a Presbyterian women’s college in Decatur, Georgia, where she was elected chair of the Southern region of the National Student Association, which championed integration. Her former college roommate, Donna McGinty, said in a phone interview that at a time when tensions and emotions ran high, Curry “was able to bring humor to everything.” After studying in Europe on a Fulbright Scholarship and attending graduate school at Columbia University, Curry returned to the South, where she worked on behalf of racial equality throughout the 1960s and for decades after.

In 1975, Mayor Maynard Jackson Jr. of Atlanta appointed her director of the city’s Office of Human Services, a community outreach role she helped carve out and which she continued to hold under Young, Jackson’s successor.

Later, she taught women’s studies at Emory University in Atlanta and, at 50, earned a law degree from the since-closed Woodrow Wilson College of Law, not because she intended to practice, she said, but “just because I wanted to.”

In addition to her half sister, Curry is survived by two stepbrothers, Ian Holloway and William Holloway.

Reflecting on her experience in the civil rights movement, Curry wrote in “Deep in Our Hearts,” “I just sort of barreled my way into a place where my heart felt right.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company










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