COLUMBIA — It was in the mid-1960s, when Mary Ratliff tried to buy a house with her husband, Lonnie, that she realized there was a need for more civil rights activism in Columbia.
“We could not buy a house wherever we wanted,” she said.
Lonnie Ratliff, who worked for an anesthesiologist as a carpenter, had saved enough money to buy a house. The couple found three newly built houses on Sexton Road and inquired with the real estate agent.
But Ratliff said they were told that if they bought one of the three new houses, the agent would not be able to sell the others because the Ratliffs were black — which wouldn’t entice white families to buy the other houses.
Thirty years later, as president of the state and local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Ratliff is the voice for Columbians facing housing and other discriminatory practices.
Ratliff’s family, originally from Ripley, Miss., moved to Columbia in 1957. Ratliff decided to stay in Ripley after her family moved to continue playing for her high school basketball team. She lived with her coach and his wife for her last two years of high school.
In 1959, she "reluctantly" came to Columbia, though she missed her basketball team and her childhood sweetheart, Lonnie, whom she eventually married.
Upon arriving in Columbia, Ratliff worked as a surgical technician at Boone County Hospital. In 1972, she became an ophthalmology technician and retired in 2000.
Ratliff’s sister, Annie Gardener, was the first in their family to show interest in the NAACP. At that time, Ratliff said she “knew there were some injustices” in Columbia, but she “just wasn’t interested.”
The racial discrimination Ratliff faced finding a house was the proverbial final straw. She joined local civil rights groups, such as Concerned Citizens United, but none of them could provide the financial backing she thought was necessary for sustainable change.
Ratliff credits the Rev. Jewell Jones, former pastor at Second Baptist Church and former president of the local chapter, with helping her get started. She said he encouraged her to get the NAACP behind her and connected her with the regional director.
“We had to have 50 members to establish a branch, and we got 50 in just two weeks,” Ratliff said.
After helping revitalize the Columbia chapter in 1976, Ratliff was soon elected president and began participating in the NAACP at the state level. Later, in 1991, William Mallory, who was state president at the time, encouraged Ratliff to run for the position; she won that title and has maintained it since.
From then on, Ratliff has been the face of the organization. She said some of her most fulfilling moments include working to equalize housing policies, increase minority hospital staff through affirmative action and reshape MU re-admission guidelines.
There are some moments she would like to forget — the “acts taken against my work and family that would take you down if you weren’t a really strong person,” she said.
She doesn't elaborate, though: “I don’t tell people those (moments) because if we want anyone to work for us, it would scare them away.”
Some of Ratliff’s colleagues say they appreciate her dedication and concern, especially when obstacles arise. Anita Russell, second vice president of the state NAACP, said the criticism that Ratliff has received “is a sign that you’re doing the right thing.”
That criticism has often appeared in the media. An editorial by David Rosman, a business and communications consultant and instructor at Columbia College, critiqued Ratliff’s timing concerning the Warren Funeral Chapel, which was accused by then-Attorney General Jay Nixon of improperly storing and disposing of bodies and has since closed.
In the editorial, published last summer in the Missourian, Rosman said that Ratliff's avoiding reporters at a fundraiser she organized to help the Warren family was “not a good thing.” In that case, he contended, Ratliff and the NAACP’s involvement with the case “backfires.”
In a letter to the Missourian on March 30, 2004, Arch Brooks, a former mayoral and school board candidate, questioned the efficiency of the NAACP and said that Ratliff “obviously lacks the required intelligence” to provide him with the answers. He also said the chapter is “more like the Ku Klux Klan with its censorship, rules being made up as you go and other such atrocities.”
And after a fight last year at Hickman High School, which prompted an investigation into a Columbia police officer who was later found to have acted accordingly when he threw a student to the ground to break up the fight, Ratliff expressed disappointment in the Police Department in a statement.
Upon receiving the statement, Interim Police Chief Tom Dresner told the Missourian, "I think her reaction is as I might have predicted. We’re not seeing eye to eye on everything. We’ll try to continue to have as open and productive a dialogue as we can."
To her critics, Ratliff said: “I try to be as fair as I can, but I realize there are very serious inequalities in place that need to come down, and I want to be part of that process.”
The Rev. Martin Hardin, Ratliff’s son-in-law and a member of the Columbia chapter, said Ratliff “gives up a lot of herself,” including money, time and privacy, to be a part of the organization.
Wilhelmina Stewart, secretary of the state chapter, said, “(Ratliff) knows that there’s a great need for the NAACP.”
Yet in the week of the NAACP’s 100th year anniversary, Ratliff said, “It would be very, very nice if there wasn’t any need for the NAACP.”