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Marnesba Tillmon Tackett, 1908 - 2007

Activist helped desegregate L.A. schools

January 31, 2008|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Marnesba Tillmon Tackett, a civil rights activist who worked to eliminate inequities in education and played a key role in the battle over desegregation in Los Angeles public schools, died Dec. 17 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 99.

Tackett, who came to Los Angeles in 1952, was less than two months shy of her 100th birthday and died in her sleep of natural causes, said her granddaughter, Michelle Cole.

"She was committed to quality education in the public sphere, but it was always in the context of a just society," said state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), who served as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference/West after Tackett left the post in 1981. "She did not feel that a just society could be realized absent equity in the educational process."

Tackett held the position with the SCLC/West in the 1970s and early '80s. Beginning in the late '70s she also helped create and promote Accelerating Home Education and Development, which encouraged parental involvement in education as a means of helping students achieve.

"Education is our No. 1 problem and must have priority," Tackett said in a 1981 Times article.

In the 1950s, black students in Los Angeles were forced to learn in segregated public schools so overcrowded they offered only half-day sessions, while white classrooms had empty chairs. Few minority teachers held permanent positions. In meetings with the school board and in marches, Tackett and others demanded an end to discriminatory practices.

But school integration, in her view, was key to equity in education. In 1963, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People filed a lawsuit on behalf of African American and Latino students, accusing the district of segregating students. Such discrimination is a violation of the state and federal constitutions. The lawsuit focused on Jordan High School in Watts and South Gate High School, a few miles away. South Gate High School, which was mostly white, offered a superior education and was largely closed to black students.

Tackett, who was chairwoman of the United Civil Rights Council, an umbrella organization, and who worked with the NAACP, helped lay the groundwork for the lawsuit.

"We got some of the children special permits to go to South Gate, and the white citizens of South Gate threw eggs at them," Tackett told The Times in 1989. "We noticed that the school board kept expanding Jordan's boundary as more black children moved into it instead of sending them to South Gate. On that basis we felt Jordan was the strategic school to target for the suit."

During the 26-year legal battle that followed, the court ordered the desegregation of Los Angeles schools, which led to a short period of mandatory busing and an anti-busing campaign. Detractors called Tackett a communist and threatened her life. Those years also saw the birth of voluntary integration programs such as magnet schools and improvements in the quality of education.

"She was persistent," said Rita Walters, a former member of the Los Angeles Board of Education. "She did not give up. She did not back down."

Tackett was born Marnesba Adkins on Feb. 4, 1908, in St. Louis and grew up in Kansas City, Kan. Her father died when she was young, and Tackett was raised by her mother and stepfather, whose name she took. Inspired by the leaders of the day, some of whom would visit the all-black high school she attended, Tackett joined the NAACP as a student.

In 1926, during her senior year at Sumner High School, she married Joseph Tackett, who would later become a minister. The couple had one child, Hazel, who died in 1988. Tackett is survived by a sister, Rachel Poindexter, of Houston; a brother, Edward Tillmon, of Santa Monica; seven grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.

At the Negro branch of Kansas City College, Tackett earned a degree in social sciences in the 1930s. In Kansas, she participated in sit-ins to integrate lunch counters and theaters, and sold insurance. After a stint in the South, the couple moved in 1952 to Los Angeles, where Joseph Tackett served as an associate minister at Second Baptist Church. Over the years Tackett sold insurance and real estate. But her concern for social justice was constant.

"The first visit that Martin Luther King made to Los Angeles for a mass meeting, she organized the meeting," Walters said. "It was at the old Wrigley Field that was then on Avalon Boulevard. . . . It just lit up the city."

Tackett participated in the historic march to Selma, Ala., in 1965. In her work with civil rights organizations in Los Angeles she applied the philosophy of nonviolent action to vexing issues such as discrimination in housing.

"She felt that discrimination was a threat in a fundamental way to a just society," Ridley-Thomas said.

A memorial service for Tackett will be held Sunday at 4 p.m. at Eternal Promise Baptist Church, 2057 W. Century Blvd., Los Angeles.

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jocelyn.stewart@latimes.com

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