In Mississippi, throughout its history of oppression of Black people – whether through slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow Laws, poll taxes, unfair practices, intimidation, and any other tactics used to tyrannize – doors, or access to opportunities that would bring about a better quality of life, have always seemed to fuse shut. Over time, women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Ida B. Wells, Unita Blackwell, Peggy Jean Connor, and many unsung Mississippi sheroes began to use their voices to fight for justice and equality, especially as it pertains to Black people’s rights to vote and be counted. Their actions ultimately led to doors being kicked down or, at the very least, pried open.
One of the voices that has fought to keep those doors open is Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, Southern Regional Director for the Children’s Defense Fund, located here in Jackson, MS. Her tireless work as an organizer, campaigner, and children’s advocate – and her superpowered propensity to connect people from all walks of life – make her Jackson Advocate’s Woman of the Year as we celebrate “Valiant Women of the Vote” who refuse to be silenced.
“Oleta always has an open door. She’s one of those people who is always accessible and always open to anybody, regardless of what they had done. She’s compassionate and gracious, and I learned from her to also have an open door policy in life. You don’t know how you can benefit that person or how that person will be a benefit to you. You don’t know what kind of relationship you will leave that experience with,” conveys LaToya Thompson, who worked with Fitzgerald during Mike Espy’s 2018 campaign for U.S. Senator.
For Fitzgerald, opening doors started on the open roads of Madison County, Mississippi. Fitzgerald was born in 1948 and grew up, with her seven sisters and brothers, on her family farm – back when 70% of Madison County’s land was owned by Black people. Her father, W.E. Garrett, was a second-generation business owner, who operated a saw mill. Fitzgerald’s mother, Zenova Davis Garrett, was a school teacher.
In addition to their day jobs, the Garrett family was socially and politically active in the community. “I don’t remember a time when something about voting was not part of my being or my presence,” expresses Fitzgerald. Her father was committed to his work as a part of the NAACP and ran for Madison County supervisor at various times over the years; her mother would ultimately run for public office as well, becoming one of the first Black justice court judges in Madison County.
Fitzgerald came of age in Mississippi during the time when advocacy surrounding education was the vehicle to effectuate change in the Black community. Court cases like Brown vs. Board of Education (1951) were important catalysts for desegregating schools and actualizing access to vital resources for Black children in the 1950s, while, in real time, Fitzgerald witnessed her mother and other community members struggle to obtain resources for Black children to acquire a first-rate education. She also saw the community unite to build the local school in Madison for Black children.
During the time when integration was a topic of discussion at the dinner table, Fitzgerald’s mother and father made the decision to enroll her, and eventually three of her other siblings, at Piney Woods School, a national treasure in regard to educating Black minds for the future. “Piney Woods offered an education that was not available widely in the States for black children,” says Fitzgerald.
Activism surrounding education morphed into organized activities to create equality and justice through the transportation systems – through federal means – during the late 1950s and 1960s, i.e. Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Then, the middle to late 1960s saw activists and organizers rally around registering Black people to vote as the world witnessed the passing of the 1964 and 1965 voting rights acts.
During this time, Fitzgerald was gearing up to attend Tougaloo College, the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, and also the place where her mother traversed to earn her teaching degree. She was immersed in college life around the same time Congressman Bennie Thompson, Constance Slaughter Harvey, and other Mississippi greats were also walking the hallowed grounds where the moss hangs low.
Martin Luther King, Jr. visited the campus. Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks, who were leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), met students and stayed on the Garrett property when organizing in Mississippi. Civil rights activist Hollis Watkins taught a community organizing class at the institution, and Fitzgerald credits this class as an invaluable asset to her work over the years.
“I travelled with Hollis. It was the first time I had really known about welfare. We were up in Lee County, and we were challenging something around aid to families with dependent children. And he explained it to me all the way up there and all the way back. And then we would also go out and try to register people to vote around the Madison County community because Madison County was such a fertile area for voter registration. So many people own where they lived, and folks didn’t have to risk losing their lives or the place where they lived [to register to vote],” Fitzgerald recalls.
In 1970, Mississippi Highway Patrol officers, Jackson police, and other law enforcement fired dozens of rounds of ammunition at Jackson State College, killing Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, a 21-year-old prelaw student, and James Earl Green, a 17-year-old Jim Hill High School student. Tougaloo students, including Fitzgerald, joined the protests against these heinous actions by way of a commandeered Tougaloo bus driven by future Congressman Thompson. Fitzgerald notes that her father was so angry at the events surrounding this tragedy that, as soon as she graduated from Tougaloo, she moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where she stayed for 15 years.
Women have been leaders in front of the camera and behind the scenes of every social justice movement in the history of man. If it were not for Mahalia Jackson crying out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream,” Martin Luther King would have continued on with his speech about the “bad check” America had written – in regards to its promise to deliver freedom, equality, and justice to African Americans – instead of inspiring generations with his “I Have a Dream” speech. If it were not for Marian Wright Edelman, a mother of the Civil Rights Movement and children’s advocacy, the Poor People’s March nor the Poor People’s platform would have come to fruition in the manner that it did.
Fitzgerald is just as influential in her methods as these aforementioned women are. She was involved in the political campaigns of Andrew Young, Julian Bond, and Atlanta’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson. After returning to Mississippi in the 1980s (due to divorce and her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis), Fitzgerald became an organizer for the Mississippi Democratic Party at a time when the party was in the midst of monumental restructuring.
During the time, Fitzgerald worked in Atlanta, the political landscape of Mississippi was changing. Not only were Blacks voting but they were being elected to public office. Charles Evers became mayor of Fayette, Mississippi. Unita Blackwell became mayor of Mayersville, Mississippi. And due to efforts on the part of Henry Kirksey and others to end gerrymandering and galvanize support for fair and just reapportionment in Mississippi, many more African Americans were obtaining positions of power in the state.
Before, Black Mississippians had to create their own political parties, such as the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that Fannie Lou Hamer fought hard to be recognized at the 1964 Democratic Convention. In the 1980s, Black Mississippians demanded representation in the major political parties. Adversely, the MS Democratic Party saw more and more of its previous supporters joining the Republican Party as the Black voice became stronger. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald was tasked to organize in the Black community and galvanize the Black vote for the MS Democratic Party.
In 1986, Mike Espy was seeking to make Mississippi and U.S. history as the first African American to represent Mississippi on a federal level since Reconstruction. The one who helped him get there – Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald. She then worked with Mike Espy during the Clinton Administration when he was Secretary of Agriculture.
What Fitzgerald learned from her father, Hollis Watkins, Marian Wright Edelman, and others was the impetus for her success in that race, and she has maintained those values for over forty years. “Having the ability to do community work; to commit to bond with people; to know how to engage in conversation and to actually hear folks on the ground; to build that respect, and, at the same time, hone your knowledge about how systems work, and sharing – that is the DNA of all the work I’ve ever done,” expresses Fitzgerald.
Jarvis Dortch, Executive Director of the Mississippi American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says, “Over the last few years, no one did more to engage Black Mississippians on the importance of voting than Oleta Fitzgerald. Whether she’s talking to advocates, lawmakers, or clergy, Ms. Oleta spent much of 2020 talking about the urgency of ‘ginning folks up’ to vote. Not to vote for an individual, party or ideology. No, she wanted voters to understand that their schools, their roads, their health care and childcare were all issues on the ballot.
“But the reason legislators, mayors, preachers, and advocates all listen when Ms. Oleta speaks is because she has lived and worked her entire career with the purpose of advancing Mississippi and improving the lives of Mississippi’s children.
“We all listen when she talks. Many advocates joke that ‘we all work for Oleta.’ And none of us will ever have a better boss or mentor. She is a consistent source of knowledge, experience, and encouragement for the next generation of Mississippi’s young leaders. I am incredibly thankful to have and continue to learn from her.”
Fitzgerald’s legacy is the impact that she has made and will make in the lives of children. This includes her community children like Jarvis Dortch and LaToya Thompson. It includes the four children she birthed – Rashida, Yusef, Layla, and Joi – and her grandkids. And it includes the children she impacts through her work at the Children’s Defense Fund.
“Unless you can protect the viability of the race, you don’t protect yourself. And the viability of the race is, and always has been, making sure your children were able to function. And that they got a good education,” expresses Fitzgerald.
She continues, “Think about back in slavery time where they taught somebody how to read under the bushes in the middle of the night with candles or lanterns. You might get your hand chopped off for being caught teaching us how to read. Wonder why that was? Black people have brilliant minds. We’re just different. We know how to figure stuff out. We know how to make something out of nothing. And we just keep rising.”
Fitzgerald’s policy work includes leading CDF’s Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic & Social Justice (SRBWI) where they work in rural communities with 2,500 Black women and girls from Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia that are often left behind. It is a part of the CDF Freedom Schools which provides “summer and after-school enrichment through a research-based and multicultural program model that supports K-12 scholars and their families through five essential components: high quality academic and character-building enrichment; parent and family involvement; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational servant leadership development; and nutrition, health, and mental health.” And she has worked in childhood education for decades where the fruits of its labor are now beginning to show.
Fitzgerald can now look back and see how her work has influenced generations of policy-makers, organizers, and politicians in the making. “At this stage in life, I can look back and I can see people who I’ve touched. I can see them doing great things and picking up the mantle,” Fitzgerald notes. Her daughter, Rashida Walker, says, “She wants to leave a legacy of people wanting to serve others and taking care of others.”
The biggest lesson Rashida says she’s learned from her mother is to treat everybody with dignity and respect. “She always instilled in me to never think I was any better than the next person…She believes that we were all one with God, and she really believes in taking care of and treating people, who didn’t have what you had, as if they were on the same playing field.” Walker continues, “No matter if I’m talking to somebody who is an affluent person or if I’m talking to someone who is in the trenches of the lowest poverty level they can be in, [she taught me to] never treat them any different and provide the same service to that person as anybody else.”
The Jackson Advocate salutes Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald for the tireless work that she has done over the years and the continued work will be indispensable to our communities in the future. Thank you for being a valiant woman with your eyes on the prize for education and representation for Black people and children.