As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was coming onto the national scene demanding equal rights for African Americans, Mattie Meyers was helping lead the fight in the central San Joaquin Valley as president of the Fresno branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Family and friends remember a bold, beautiful, intelligent woman who worked tirelessly to give a voice to those who felt they had none.
The Fresno civil rights activist and educator died Aug. 16 at a Fresno retirement residence holding the hand of her eldest son, Earl Meyers Jr. She was 92.
“It’s a real loss for our community,” says Fresno State professor Kris Clarke. “She was a real giant.”
Mrs. Meyers helped bring King to Fresno in June of 1964. The civil rights leader led a march and rally advocating for fair housing conditions for African Americans while denouncing racial segregation. She received an honorary mayor citation from then-Mayor Arthur Selland, then ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1965.
“She was always a woman that was ahead of her time. … She was extremely tenacious,” Earl Meyers Jr. says. “She was a fighter and she did not back down from anyone.”
And she could talk. Oh my goodness, she could talk.
Earl Meyers Jr.
She worked as an elementary and middle school teacher in Fresno and Kerman for more than 30 years, and was appointed by the Fresno Board of Education to a study committee in the early 1960s to investigate school conditions. Clarke says there was a sense at the time that students were getting varying levels of education in different parts of town. Mrs. Meyers was not satisfied with the report issued by the Study Committee on Patterns of Education.
“Mrs. Meyers wrote a fiery dissent that claimed that the SCOPE report had not taken up the issue of de facto segregation in Fresno schools and how that is a barrier to African American student success,” Clarke says. “She called for the desegregation of schools, integration of teaching faculty, and greater equity in education. She called for a multiracial Human Relations Council.”
No one fought harder or advocated more for education for all.
Nadar Ali Sr., a retired Fresno principal and the first black teacher at Bullard High School, says Mrs. Meyers’ advocacy helped Fresno schools make strides towards reaching those goals, along with allowing some students to transfer to different schools.
“She was like a magnet,” Ali says. “People would listen to her because she was a very beautiful woman, number one, and she was articulate and she was well-known because her husband was one of the few African American physicians in the county, so she had the stature of that, and she was approachable. … She had a very pleasant personality. It felt good to be around her. She made you feel comfortable and she would listen.”
Mrs. Meyers came to Fresno in the late 1940s with her then-husband, the late Dr. Earl Meyers, who ran the only medical practice in West Fresno at that time that accepted black patients. She worked alongside her husband as an administrative assistant until their marriage ended in the 1960s.
She was a very strong woman. She didn’t back down.
Nadar Ali Sr.
Mrs. Meyers was born into poverty in North Carolina, but went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and chemistry from North Carolina Central University with the help of a family friend, who paid for her tuition, and later earned a master’s degree in education from Fresno State. Clarke recalls Mrs. Meyers as a lifelong learner who never lost her intellect. During one of their visits a few years ago, Mrs. Meyers started the conversation with the question, “What do you think of Obama’s Iran policy?”
Mrs. Meyers also worked as a real estate agent, hosted events for the Democratic Party in Fresno County, was a staff writer for Grapevine Magazine, taught sociology at Lincoln Hospital nursing school in Durham, North Carolina, and was a tutor-instructor for Fresno State’s Center for Urban Education.
She once ran a nursing home ministry, was a volunteer at St. Agnes Medical Center and Fresno Westside Seventh-day Adventist Church, and helped start an African American educators group. She published a memoir, “Seven Houses.” She received a number of honorary awards, including from Fresno State and the African American Historical & Cultural Museum of the San Joaquin.
“She was like a pathfinder,” Ali says. “She was paving the way and showing African Americans that these things are achievable.”
Mattie Douglas Burton Meyers
Born: Dec. 10, 1924
Died: Aug. 16, 2017
Occupation: Civil rights activist and educator
Survivors: Sons Earl Meyers Jr., Eric Meyers, Michael Meyers, and David Meyers.
Funeral service and visitation: Visitation 5-8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 24 at Farewell Funeral Services, 660 W. Locust Ave., Suite 101, Fresno. Funeral service 11 a.m. Friday, Aug. 25 at Fresno Westside Seventh-day Adventist Church, 2750 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Fresno.