Effie Burt, the sixth of 12 children, grew from a muted childhood into vocal womanhood within the borders of Lafayette County. Forced to leave high school before graduation due to a pregnancy, Burt moved to Iowa to finish her education and would go on to earn a degree in police science. She worked at John Deere for 27 years, while also fighting civil rights violations in court time and time again. She eventually returned to Oxford to take care of her mother.
Now in her 60s and a renowned blues and jazz singer who has performed for notable officials and politicians – including President Barack Obama, Burt recounts her experience as an activist during some of Mississippi’s desegregation efforts and discusses her hopes for the future.
Mississippi Today: What are the biggest differences you see when you think about how modern Oxford compares to the one you grew up in?
Effie Burt: What’s different is that, first of all, I actually have white friends. Second of all, I actually see black people walking on this (Oxford) Square and eating out anywhere and going anywhere on the Square. I feel comfortable going there now. … But, I understand that a lot of black people that are my age that don’t go there. And it could also be parking.
Mississippi Today: What drives you to be an activist?
Effie Burt: My father told me that nobody is better than me and I’m no better than anyone else. … You might have more money, but it doesn’t make you a better person. So, be the best she can be with what you have, but don’t feel that you are less of a person because of the color of your skin. So when I have to deal with racist white people I have to ask them that question. What makes you any better than me? They haven’t had an answer.
Mississippi Today: Could you tell us about your experience being in the first desegregated class at Lafayette High School?
Effie Burt: We couldn’t wear afros because the person behind you couldn’t see the bulletin board so my mom bought me a long, blonde wig and I just wore it and shook it all week until the principal said if I take off the damn wig, we could wear our afros. My mom brought the blonde wig all the way down to my butt and she wanted to prove that hair was hair. I would spread it out and I would get it and flip it around my neck.
Mississippi Today: You mentioned taking your granddaughter on a two-week trip through the Mississippi Delta and parts of Alabama. Could you explain the significance of that trip?
Effie Burt: I believe it’s important because … they have to know where we are. They have to know where we are, what happened to us and to try not to let some of the same things happen to them. They have to know what life was like and my granddaughter … said that it was important that she took this trip. It was one of the most important trips to just look at how a lot of black people (are) still living the poor part … of their life.