Boston — Twenty years later, Jean Fairfax still counts it as the most memorable experience of her life. As director of the Southern Civil Rights Program of the American Friends Service Committee, it was her job to advise parents of six-year-olds living in a rural, largely black Mississippi county of their rights to education under the Constitution and under a court desegregation order.
Two weeks before schools opened, however, the bodies of three slain civil rights workers were found just 18 miles away from where Miss Fairfax was working. The day before the opening of schools, white men covered the county with threats to call in loans and to fire or dispossess from sharecropper shanties any blacks who enrolled their children in the all-white schools.
Miss Fairfax remembers driving around that dark county all night, getting people out of bed and talking with them about the Constitution by kerosene lamp glow. Early in the morning she and representatives of the Justice Department met with families at the edge of cotton fields to assure them that they would be protected.
Faced with the threats, most families had no choice but to withdraw their children from school enrollment. But as her parents debated whether to exercise their civil rights, six-year-old Deborah put her hand in Miss Fairfax's and said , ''What's everybody waiting for? I'm ready.''
Off to school they went - Deborah and her mother, a lawyer, 26 riot-ready federal marshals, and Miss Fairfax. The father was fired from his job, and arson on the home was attempted. But Deborah did well in school and graduated.
Today, says Miss Fairfax, rural counties of the Deep South have some of the most integrated school systems in the nation.
''But someone had to break the pattern, and very often the civil rights revolution was initiated by the most vulnerable black persons. Many of them were women and many of them were children - tough, resilient, hopeful, beautiful children. The greatest experience of my life was standing with them as they took the risks.''
To hear her talk about risks is to suspect that she has taken more than her share in the years she has devoted to proving the truth of her parents' axiom: Justice is possible. Her mother and father were the first of their families to be born legally free, and Jean Fairfax has carried the tradition forward.
She led the drive to include more poor children in the national school lunch program, and she helped to change the racial composition of the governing body of the World Council of Churches. She's been dean of women at two leading universities and a founding leader of Women in Foundation and Corporate Philanthropy. Lecture tours have taken her to 16 African countries, and she's been to Australia and New Zealand to study race relations. Recently she was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from Radcliffe College, in company with such example-setters as Georgia O'Keeffe, the artist, Barbara Tuchman, the historian, Esther Peterson, the consumer advocate, and Eudora Welty, the author.
Says a researcher at Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, ''Long before I met Jean Fairfax, I had heard of her reputation for being committed to equal rights. She has quite a following in black professional and human rights circles.''
In her current position as a division director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Miss Fairfax continues to be an influential voice on behalf of minorities, particularly black women and children. At a time when the definition of the traditional American family is changing faster than sociologists can turn out background papers, she says there's a lot to be learned from the black experience in this country. Despite the increasing numbers of single-parent black households today, Miss Fairfax points to a long tradition of strengths.
''I think our expectations of what a family is are very different from those of most white Americans,'' she explains. ''In my parents' generation, for example, one of the stable jobs for a man was working on the railroad. That took him away from home for long periods of time. And although many of us in my generation grew up in families where the mother and father worked in different cities, they were very solid families. Both parents shared in producing income, and other responsibilities were democratically shared as well.''
The challenges that many white families now are facing have been part of black family life for generations, Miss Fairfax adds. Black women have always worked, for example, while the numbers of white women joining the labor force is a fairly new development. ''. . . Most of us have mothers and grandmothers who always worked, and we've grown up knowing what it was like to juggle work, home, love, kids, care for the elderly, and civic and church responsibilities.''
When she is asked how white women can learn from their black sisters, Miss Fairfax takes a characteristically frank approach. The issue that will have to be addressed first, she says, is the tension between white women and black women , which has been simmering for years and now is surfacing more and more.
''Unfortunately, there's a tendency on the part of some white women to speak for all women and to make sweeping conclusions about the roles and needs of women in American society that do not include the black experience - and that's deeply resented by black women.
''We want white women to listen to us, and to include our problems and our approaches in the total approaches toward ending discrimination. We have a rich heritage we want to share, but we want to share it on the basis of equality.''