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A day like a dream

Times Staff Writer

Who can say for certain where the tears came from? There were the days picking cotton as a girl, her legs scratched and bleeding from the plants’ sharp spurs. There were the restaurants that wouldn’t take her order, the credit union that wouldn’t accept her application and, later, the swimming hole where her kids weren’t allowed to swim with the white children.

The barriers of segregation came down so gradually that Bertha Means never experienced an epiphany -- one defining moment to celebrate freedom’s progress. But the African American great-grandmother and civil rights pioneer finally had that moment Thursday night a long way from her Texas home.

The 88-year-old delegate to the Democratic National Convention said she felt in her bones what Michelle Obama called “the current of history [meeting] this new tide of hope.” She found herself crying, uncharacteristically, first when she listened to the candidate’s wife’s speech Monday night. When Hillary Rodham Clinton moved to make Barack Obama the unanimous choice of the convention during the delegate roll call, tears again streamed down her face.

As Means watched a 47-year-old black man hurdle over one of the highest barriers in American life -- nomination as a major party’s presidential candidate -- she applauded and laughed and waved an American flag. “Isn’t it fantastic? Isn’t it fantastic?” she called out as fireworks exploded overhead.

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A night earlier, the retired school administrator explained her week of high emotion.

“I was remembering the people who died to get where we are right now,” she said. “People who gave their lives to be able to vote, to be able to own a home, to be able to live where they wanted to live. . . . All of that just came back, and it brought tears to my eyes. It’s a new day. It’s a new day. And I’m just so pleased.”

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Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois still must win over millions of Americans to take the White House. Even fervent supporters acknowledge that he has a long way to go to persuade many voters, particularly those who worry about his relative youth and inexperience.

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But Means and other African Americans who lived through much bleaker times chose on this night to think about the distance already traveled, the slights overcome, and to celebrate an achievement some weren’t sure they would ever see. A tribute earlier in the evening ensured no one would forget that Obama’s 44-minute acceptance speech came 45 years to the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told the nation: “I have a dream.”

Means overcame a childhood of near-poverty and uneven schooling to become a teacher, marry a college professor and raise five children.

Her paternal grandfather, James B. Sadler, was believed to be the son of a slave and her white master. That relationship made him relatively privileged, for a slave. He received $500 along with his freedom after the Civil War, according to a family history.

Sadler used the money to buy 545 acres not far from what is now Crawford, Texas, where the family farmed and Sadler founded one of the state’s earliest African American churches. He also began a tradition of scholarship that has carried through to many of Means’ 13 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.

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But the relative privilege disintegrated when her father died. She was just 4, yet old enough to join her brothers and sisters and their mother traveling around Texas each fall to pick cotton.

“I always said, ‘Whatever job you do, do the best you can,’ so I was good at picking cotton,” Means recalled this week.

“But when I saw the white man weighing the cotton, I said, ‘I got to get that position.’ I was always looking to change things.”

The Sadler children missed months of classes while they were in the fields, but Bertha took her books along and managed to graduate from high school on time. She enrolled in a small black liberal arts college, Huston-Tillotson College, where she fell in love with a young mathematics professor, James H. Means.

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Maybe it was her solid upbringing or a personal ethic of self-respect, but Means was one black woman who didn’t always remain silent in the face of ethnic slurs.

When a cook at a cafe called her a nigger, she taunted him in a Stepin Fetchit-style accent, then left him with a grill full of burgers she would not pay for.

Her family’s defiance of the old ways began in earnest in 1960 when her oldest daughter, Joan, one of the first black students at Austin High School, was told she wouldn’t be able to attend the senior class picnic, which was being held at Barton Springs, then a segregated swimming hole in a city park.

Joan Means was an outstanding student who would go on to the University of Chicago. Her exclusion from Barton Springs infuriated many of her classmates, including whites and Latinos. Joan and the other students, along with a group of parents, decided they would not accept the ban.

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The teenagers mounted a series of “swim-ins” -- kids of all colors storming the springs by the dozen. They would be thrown out, only to return. The protest continued for days, until school officials relented and allowed the eight graduating African Americans to attend the picnic.

Another breakthrough came a couple of years later, when Bertha Means and a friend were turned away at a public golf driving range. “We’re segregated,” the man at the desk told Means.

Already angry, her emotions boiled over when she picked up her boys from a rink where they had tried to go ice skating, only to learn they too were barred.

“I went home and told my husband: ‘Enough is enough. We have been discriminated against all our lives, and I’m not going to see it happen to my children too,’ ” recalled Means.

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“I said, ‘We are going to get organized until we get this town straight.’ ”

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Protests and picketing began at the driving range and the skating rink, led by Means and a group that came to call itself the Mothers Action Council. Both the range and the rink refused to open to blacks; they lost so much business that they were forced to close.

Means and her allies were not done. They would protest to open a diner, a credit union and city parks. And after her personal lobbying with top administrators, the University of Texas admitted her son to the track team in 1964, the first black athlete at the school and the first varsity black athlete in the Southwest Conference.

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“Bertha is not to be beaten down,” said Willie M. Kirk, a friend and fellow activist whose son Ron served as mayor of Dallas.

“She is going to hold out for what she thinks needs to be done.”

While Means, Kirk and their friends struggled in Austin, the national Democratic Party was locked in a long, painful slog toward integration. The first black delegates attended a party convention in 1936, but as late as 1964, protesters failed in a bid to seat a slate of black delegates in place of Mississippi’s all-white convention slate.

Not long after the Freedom Summer, in which three civil rights workers were slain, Fannie Lou Hamer captivated the nation when she testified before officials of the 1964 convention in Atlantic City, N.J., about how she had been beaten and abused merely for trying to register to vote.

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Hamer and the rest of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party were not seated.

Still, times had changed enough by 1972 that a black woman, Rep. Shirley Chisholm, had her name placed in nomination by the Democrats.

A dozen years later, the Rev. Jesse Jackson would win a handful of Southern primaries and wow the 1984 San Francisco convention. “God is not done with me yet,” he said. Four years later, he finished second in the delegate count to the Democratic nominee, Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts.

Even before Obama declared his candidacy, Means met him at a fundraiser in Austin. She was immediately taken.

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“What he is doing now is what I have been trying to do all of my life,” she said. “Making changes not just for the betterment of black people, but for all people.

“Are we ready for a black president? I think we definitely are ready,” she concluded. “We are all human beings. We are all children of God. That is my belief.”

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james.rainey@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.


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