Don’t let the spelling fool you. There is no “I” in Millie Charles.
Whenever the legendary social worker talks about her long life, in which she has confronted the forces of segregation, taught generations of students and done as much as she could to ensure that poor people got a fair shake, it’s always in terms of a group.
“We always did things as a group,” she said on a recent afternoon. “It was never an ‘I’; it was always a ‘we.’ . . . I didn’t do any of this by myself. Not any. . . . We had to work together to accomplish things. One person can’t do it alone.”
That statement is typical of her attitude, said Ronald McClain, president and chief executive officer of Family Service of Greater New Orleans, who earned a master’s degree in social work when Charles was dean of the School of Social Work at Southern University at New Orleans.
“It’s never about her,” he said.
But this time, it is about her because Charles, 90, has been chosen to receive The Times-Picayune Loving Cup for 2013. The Loving Cup has been awarded since 1901 to men and women who have worked unselfishly for the community without expectation of public recognition or material reward.
“I was really surprised” by the accolade, Charles said. “I appreciate that so much, but there were so many of us together. It wasn’t just one person; it was the togetherness we had.”
Throughout Charles’ career, “her commitment to children and families and vulnerable populations has been amazing,” McClain said. “For a long, long time, she has been committed to being a change agent, to committing her life to changing things for the better.”
The New Orleans-born daughter of a Baptist preacher and a woman who believed in the value of education, Millie Ruth McClelland entered Dillard University when she was only 15 and graduated with a degree in secondary education.
But after a few years of teaching in north Louisiana and loving the children in her classes, she said she realized could find more fulfillment in social work because she would be able to help children and their families find ways to solve problems. So she earned a master’s degree in the subject at the University of Southern California in the mid-1950s.
This happened when buses and streetcars had bars denoting where black patrons were to sit – at the back.
Charles, who seethed at such restrictions, had her own way of combatting them when she grew up, when segregation still had the force of law. Sometimes, she said, she and her friends would sit by themselves in a seat meant for two, implicitly forcing white passengers to sit next to them if the bus was crowded. Or, she said, they would stand and glower at white riders to make them feel uncomfortable.
“Life was exciting then,” she said with a broad smile.
On one occasion, Charles said, she and her friend simply pitched the offending bar out the window.
“That sounds like Millie – unlike Rosa Parks, who just sat quietly,” Gloria Moultrie said, chuckling. Moultrie, SUNO’s vice chancellor for community outreach and university advancement, has known Charles since they were volunteers in the Urban League in the 1960s.
“Millie has always been an outspoken person and tried to be on the right side of what would benefit those who could not speak for themselves or be heard by the powers that be,” Moultrie said.
Though the civil-rights movement has become a subject of scrutiny for historians, Charles said she and her fellow activists didn’t think of themselves as participating in the great sweep of history.
“We didn’t think we were doing something historic,” she said. “We weren’t thinking from that point of view We wanted people to have things that other people had and not have to sit on the sidelines.”
“She’s very outspoken,” said Harry Doughty, an assistant professor of social worker at SUNO. “You always know where you stand with Millie because she’ll always let you know.”
The woman who was celebrated as a passionate firebrand in her heyday has mellowed into a gentle, soft-spoken individual in a bright flower-print blouse. She has a frizzy corona of white hair, and she smiles frequently and laughs loudly. Her eyesight is poor and her gait is unsteady, but she still enjoys visiting with children, who call her Mama Millie.
“They love me,” she said. “I’ll ask them what they’re doing and encourage them to join with others to effect change.”
It’s a continuation of what she has been doing throughout her adult life.
Charles was married briefly, to Charles Carrol Charles, in 1950, while she was working in the city welfare department. He died while she was pregnant with her only child, who goes by the name H.M.K. Amen.
“When my daughter was in school, I was always at the PTA meetings,” Charles said, “and I was always wanting to organize people at the PTA meetings, and I have done it.”
These days, the lack of such passion, especially among poor people who need help the most, worries her.
“Poor people are struggling to make it,” she said. “They have to work day and night, and they don’t get a chance to involve themselves in things. . . .
“I think most people think we’ve reached the stage where we don’t need to do that anymore, but they do. . . . They aren’t involved in social change, and that’s unfortunate. . . . There’s nowhere that I see the ferment occurring that says things can be different. Things can be better.”
That was the kind of zeal she brought to SUNO in 1965, when Chancellor Emmett Bashful asked her to form the School of Social Work.
“When she started out, she was a one-person department. Now there are 20 professors in the department,” said Doughty, who met Charles when he was majoring in social work at Grambling State University.
When Charles hired him in 2003, “I knew my profession had come full circle because she’s so highly respected in the profession,” Doughty said. “People who knew her best know that if she thinks enough of you to hire you, they know you’re in the same ballpark with her – maybe in the bleachers, but in the same ballpark.”
She could be tough. “She will confront you when she feels you’re not acting in the best interest of the client or the profession,” Doughty said.
Her work has been recognized. The National Association of Social Workers named her Social Worker of the Year. SUNO has a Millie McClelland Charles Endowed Chair of Social Work, and the Legislature passed a special resolution to name SUNO’s School of Social Work building after her, making an exception to a state law requiring that a person be dead for five years before becoming a building’s namesake.
The building is scheduled to open in 2016. “The fact that she has a building named in her honor is testament to the type of person she is,” Moultrie said, “and it represents her work.”
Charles, who retired in 2006, always held a high standard for students and faculty, said McClain, a member of the Loving Cup selection committee.
“She always challenged us to do more,” McClain said. “If you were mediocre, that wasn’t enough when you weren’t doing as much as you could do. She could push. It made all the difference in the world because she wanted to make sure we had the capacity to keep moving on.”