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Mary Fair Burks

  • An old-school professor who shaped the civil rights movement

    Wednesday, March 13, 2019

    1 Mary Fair Burks - low rezEnglish professor Mary Fair Burks was an imposing, willful presence on the University of Maryland Eastern Shore campus for more than a quarter century.

    No shrinking violet was she, the late Rosa Parks and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as legions of students all could attest.

    Dr. Burks came to Princess Anne after being pressured to resign from Alabama State College, her alma mater in Montgomery, where she had been a prominent activist on the front lines of the nascent civil rights movement that emerged in the 1950s.

    A decade earlier, she co-founded and led the Women’s Political Council, a group that historians credit as a driving force behind a municipal bus boycott in 1955 that focused national attention on the day-to-day indignities of segregation in the Jim Crow south.

    The face of the Montgomery bus boycott was Parks, who Congress eventually would acknowledge as the “mother of the freedom movement.” And one of the boycott’s biggest advocates was the young, charismatic minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Burks was a parishioner.

    According to Coretta Scott King’s book, “My Life with Martin Luther King,” upon meeting her husband, Burks reportedly said: "You mean that little boy is my pastor? He looks like he ought to be home with his mamma."

    Burks “thought he could not possibly have anything to say that would interest her,” Mrs. King wrote, “but when she heard him, she was deeply impressed.”

    The Kings and Burks forged a bond that became a catalyst for change, but not without sacrifices.

    Burks’ role in the bus boycott and her support for sit-ins and other protests that followed angered white civic leaders across Alabama, who pressed Alabama State President H. Councill Trenholm in 1960 to oust the college’s “disloyal faculty members.”(*)  Burks reached out to King in a letter that spring seeking help in finding other employment.

    King wrote back from Atlanta a few days later, addressing Burks as “Dear Frankie,” an apparent reference to her childhood middle name, Frances.

    The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University maintains an online archive where a copy of that letter reads, in part, “… I will do all that I possibly can to assist you and your colleagues in getting work for the Fall. My contacts are not great,” he wrote, “but at least I do have some and I will be using the contacts I have to the highest degree.

    How Burks found her way to Maryland State College, as it was known in the fall of 1960, is unclear. But the previous spring, King had been the school’s commencement speaker and was an acquaintance of Maryland State President John Taylor Williams.

    Burks was Alabama State’s English department chairwoman for more than a decade before being forced out.  She apparently considered going to Ghana to teach, but instead started anew at Maryland State, where she became a faculty fixture.

    LeRoy Wainwright - 2019“She was very fair – a caring, sharing person,” said LeRoy Wainwright (1965). “She knew each of us as individuals. You could go to her at any point and talk with her.”

    Pat Hopkins Alexander (1969) used three words to describe Burks: “tough as nails.”

    Alexander then smiled and added, “But you knew she cared about you, and she had our respect.”

    Viola Hall Mason (1967) described Burks as a “no nonsense person (who) believed strongly we need to have the skills to function beyond the campus.”

    To that end, Mason recalls Burks taking students to New York to see Broadway plays. Others said Burks was known for inviting women students to her home near campus on Sunday afternoons where etiquette lessons were the order of the day.

    Mason’s classmate Daniel Savoy said Burks “ruled the roost, but she wanted us to excel.”

    Savoy’s wife, Loretta Booth Savoy (1974), described Burks as a passionate educator who “came across as though there was no other subject more important than what she was teaching.”

    “You were on time,” she said. “And you brought all of your books” to class.

    Maryland State’s football team occasionally played opponents in nearby Salisbury. Wainwright said Burks would drive some students to the games so they could cheer on the Hawks.

    “We had the best of the best,” Wainwright said. “Mary Fair Burks – what a lady.”

    Charles Gregg (1968) remembers Burks with fondness and respect; “She was compassionate. Hard on students, but fair.  She exposed us to the most important education around, and for that I will be forever grateful.”

    UMES alumni who had Burks as a teacher don’t recall her sharing much in classroom settings about her previous life as a civil rights activist who traveled in the same circles as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.

    In 1978, however, Burks was instrumental in bringing Mrs. King to Princess Anne to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority’s founding. Those in the Fitzgerald Center for the Performing Arts that memorable day fondly tell stories of Burks reminiscing about the shared path they forged.

    Burks retired from UMES in 1986; her July 21, 1991 obituary says the university awarded her professor emeritus status in recognition of her long, distinguished career. She was believed to be in her late 70s.

    (*) Montgomery Advertiser, March 27, 1960