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Ruth Batson, leading figure in education, civil rights

Ruth M. Batson, one of Boston's best-known figures in education and civil rights, died early yesterday in her sleep at her Beacon Hill home. She was 82.

A dedicated, personable, and forceful woman, Mrs. Batson exuded optimism, something she needed much of during her years of butting heads with indifference, prejudice, and discrimination. "The struggle for civil rights has lost a great pioneer for social justice," Senator Edward M. Kennedy said last night.

Mrs. Batson broke many barriers throughout her career. She was the first black woman on the Democratic National Committee and the first woman elected president of the New England Regional Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a role she served in from 1957 to 1960.

She also was chairwoman of the education committee of the Boston branch of the NAACP and led the fight with the Boston School Committee in the early 1960s against segregation in Boston public schools and inadequate facilities in schools with high black enrollments.

Mrs. Batson had charged school administrators with ignoring "a basic American concept that equal opportunity should be available to all people regardless of race, color, or creed."

"She was one of the giants of the community, always giving her all," said Marvin Gilmore, president of the Community Development Corp. of Boston, who championed civil rights with her for four decades. "She always gave back to the community, quietly and effectively." In 1964, at the height of the civil rights struggle in the South, she visited Mississippi to gain support for the efforts of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

After serving as chairwoman of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination from 1963 to 1966, she helped launch the Metco voluntary desegregation program. As associate director, then director, she helped guide Metco's growth from transporting 225 black urban youngsters to seven suburbs to 1,125 children to 28 communities. She stepped down in 1969.

More recently, Mrs. Batson had directed the revitalized Museum of Afro American History on Beacon Hill, stepping down in 1990. From 1970 to 1974, she headed the consultation and education program for Boston University's School of Medicine, Division of Community Mental Health.

Over the years, she won numerous awards and honors. In 1967, she received the Sojourner Truth Award of the Association of Business and Professional Women of Boston and Vicinity. In 1990, she won the Mary Hudson Olney Award, the highest commendation from the Hall of Black Achievement. And in 2002, she received the lifetime achievement Opening Doors Award from the Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development.

"She's one of the great names in civil rights and economic justice," said Felice Mendell, executive director of the Women's Institute, who announced Mrs. Batson's death last night to gasps at the group's awards ceremony. "She was driven by looking for equity and social justice. She inspired many people through the years. "

Born in Roxbury, Mrs. Batson attended the Nursery Training School of Boston, Boston University, and Northeastern University.

Her daughter, Susan Batson of New York City, called her "an extraordinary activist, a woman dedicated and committed to education -- she felt it was the greatest weapon black people have -- and as a mother, she was a force of nature.

"She has taken a piece of each of our hearts with her."

Mrs. Batson leaves two other daughters, Cassandra Way of Boston and Dorothy Owusu of Alexandria, Va.; and three grandsons.

A funeral will be held at noon Friday at Lawson Riley Funeral Home in Roxbury.

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