Civil rights activist, Carter official Patricia Derian dies

Patricia M. Derian, who actively supported Mississippi public school desegregation and served as assistant secretary of state for human rights during the Carter administration, has died.

Derian’s son, Michael Derian, confirmed his mother died early Friday. She was 86.

Her husband, Hodding Carter III, said she died at their home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for about 10 years.

“She was amazing,” Carter said of his wife of nearly 40 years. “I’ve had a fairly active life and have known a lot of people. But I’ve never known anyone as clear-eyed, as honored, as tough, as empathetic and as willing to face evil than Patt. She was the most extraordinary human being that I’ve ever known.”

Derian, former President Jimmy Carter’s assistant secretary of state for human rights, made the Argentine Dirty War one of her top causes. Though the Argentine military denounced Derian’s interference, the lives of some high-profile captives were spared as a result.

In a statement Friday, Carter expressed sadness on hearing of Derian’s death.

“As the senior State Department official in charge of human rights during my administration, Patt spent hundreds of hours meeting with victims and their families. She became a champion of oppressed people around the world, helping me exert pressure on dictatorships from Argentina to South Korea,” Carter recalled. “Because of her determination and effective advocacy, countless human rights and democracy activists survived that period, going on to plant the seeds of freedom in Latin America, Asia, and beyond.”

Known as Patt to her friends, Derian grew up in Danville, Virginia. She graduated from the University of Virginia School of Nursing in 1952 and married Paul Derian, an orthopedic surgeon, shortly thereafter.

Derian and her family moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where she became an active supporter of public school desegregation. By 1968, Derian had helped to found the Democratic Party of the State of Mississippi or Loyalist Democrats, a biracial alternative to the segregationist Regular Democrats and the all-black Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

The Loyalist Democrats successfully challenged the credentials of the Regular Mississippi Democrats at the Democratic National Convention of 1968 and were seated in their stead, and Derian was elected as one of Mississippi’s delegates. For the next eight years, the Loyalist faction was recognized as the legitimate Democratic Party in Mississippi until the Loyalists and Regulars united in 1976.

During the 1976 U.S. presidential election, Derian was deputy director of the Carter-Mondale campaign. After Jimmy Carter won, he nominated her to be coordinator for human rights and humanitarian affairs but he changed that title to assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs. She served in that post until 1981, working to improve U.S. foreign policy coordination on humanitarian issues such as human rights, refugees and prisoners of war.

Derian divorced in 1976 and two years later married Carter, who served as assistant secretary of state for public affairs during the Jimmy Carter administration.

“She was so tough, she often scared the hell out of me,” her husband said. “She believed that what we as a country said were our principles ought to be our principles.”

“She just absolutely took it on, whether it was some racist sheriff in Mississippi or some butcher in Argentina or some dishonest office holder in her own administration. She spoke truth to power and never stopped. I’m blessed that I was with her,” he said.

Carter said his wife’s passing has left him “with a sense of massive relief for her.”

“She didn’t deserve the kind of life that Alzheimer’s had given her. It’s a horrible disease that destroys the core of a person,” he said.

Derian is also survived by seven children and stepchildren and 12 grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements were pending. Carter said a church service would be held in Chapel Hill, a graveside service in Greenville, Mississippi, and a memorial service in Washington.

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