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SLU Professor Talks Civil Rights Movement, ‘Freedom of Choice,’ and Family’s Fight for Educational Opportunity

by Bridjes O'Neil
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Bridjes O'Neil
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ST. LOUIS – A Saint Louis University professor recounts his family’s pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement. 

Travis Threats, Ph.D., professor and chair of SLU’s Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, traces his roots back to Drew, Mississippi, where his grandparents, the late Mae Bertha and Matthew Carter, and their children were Delta sharecroppers. They lived on the Pemble plantation nine miles outside Drew in Sunflower County. 

Travis Threats takes a photo outoors.

Travis Threats, Ph.D. Photo by Sarah Conroy.

Viewing education as a way out of the fields, Threats’s grandparents dared to sign freedom of choice papers and end segregation in the town’s public schools. In 1965, Threats’ mother’s younger siblings became the first Black students to attend Drew High School and A.W. James Elementary.

Most Mississippi school districts adopted freedom of choice plans to comply with federal desegregation mandates. In theory, “freedom of choice” allowed parents and students (over fifteen) to choose the school they or their children would attend. Local school boards were charged with administering the freedom of choice plans with clear directions about how this was to be accomplished, including developing community support and taking the steps necessary to protect all persons exercising their rights under the plan.

However, when Black parents like the Carters tried to file freedom of choice forms on behalf of their children, they often faced immediate economic repercussions and emotional and physical harassment. The Carters faced much opposition not just from the plantation owner but also from the community. Their home was shot up in the middle of the night. They were even kicked off the plantation. 

Education was the way out of the cotton fields, and they would not be intimidated, Threats said. He fondly remembers his grandmother’s presence at his graduation from Northwestern University, where he had earned a doctorate in speech-language pathology. To his grandmother, Threats said his achievement marked the ultimate pinnacle of academic success. His grandparents had a third-grade education and were taught only enough to read the Bible, he said.  

“There were these limits on how many tickets you could get, and they tried to stop them at the door,” he recalled of his graduation. “My late wife at the time said, ‘This woman was a sharecropper in Mississippi, and you’re going to deny this woman the ability to see her grandson get his Ph.D.?’ And they said, ‘Okay, they can go in.’”

The Carter family’s lawsuit against Drew, Mississippi, schools in 1967, with the help of an NAACP legal team, struck final blows to segregation in Mississippi. The court decision came down in 1969, throwing out freedom of choice plans and ordering the schools’ desegregation. The family’s story was chronicled in national news reports and is also the focus of the book Silver Rights by Constance Curry.

Silver Rights won the Lillian Smith Book Award for nonfiction in 1996 and was a 1996 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award finalist. The book was named the Outstanding Book on Human Rights in North America by the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights.

The book is prominently displayed in Threats’ office next to another about his family – this one, a children’s book entitled The School, is Not White! by Doreen Rappaport – and a photo of former President Bill Clinton and the Carters at an awards ceremony held in their honor.  

Threats has made history as only the second African American to rise in rank from assistant to full professor at SLU. He has served as the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s (ASHA) liaison to the World Health Organization (WHO) since 1999.  In 2022, he was awarded the highest ASHA bestows award, Honors of the Association

Threats emphasizes the silent yet pivotal role his grandfather played in the family’s struggle for educational opportunity. 

“My grandfather didn’t get a write-up in the New York Times, like my grandmother did upon her passing, but he is central to the story,” Threats said. “He was in the most danger; without him, none of this would’ve been possible.”