Mary M. Cannady, 103, formerly of Philadelphia, a social worker who at age 50 became a civil rights activist and marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., died Thursday, Nov. 1, of complications from an earlier stroke.

Ms. Cannady died at an assisted-living facility in Oxford, N.C. Her life had come full circle — she had been born in nearby Durham in 1915, the youngest of nine children.

Mary M. Cannady as a girl.
Courtesy Cannady Family
Mary M. Cannady as a girl.

She came from an accomplished African American family. Long before blacks pursued higher education in large numbers, two aunts and a female cousin of hers had gone to college and become schoolteachers.

Her mother died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. She was raised by her father, William P. Cannady Sr., a lawyer who had studied with a white lawyer in the family's hometown of Oxford.

In 1926, Ms. Cannady, then 10, moved with her father and two brothers to Washington, where they lived in rooming houses. When she was 17 and a senior at Washington's all-black Dunbar High School, Ms. Cannady contracted ankylosing spondylitis, a painful arthritic condition, in her hip. She walked with a pronounced limp for the rest of her life.

"She lived an extraordinary life, but particularly in light of what she faced" with her health," said niece Joan C. Countryman of Philadelphia.

Initially, Ms. Cannady delayed attending college by moving in with her brother, Bob, to serve as a surrogate mother for his son. After four years of housekeeping and child-rearing, Ms. Cannady enrolled at Howard University in 1938.

She majored in sociology and studied with the African American sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. She completed a bachelor's degree in 1943, and two years later earned a certificate from Howard's social work program.

At age 30, Ms. Cannady became a social worker with a family-services agency in Milwaukee. Her clients were in the city's rapidly growing black community. She became the agency's first African American social worker, she told her family.

In 1947, Ms. Cannady left Milwaukee for Northampton, Mass., where she earned a master's degree in social work from Smith College. She returned to the Milwaukee social service agency in 1949, determined to help her clients build strong families.

"You never know the effect you're going to have on people," she told family. "Just a word or a kindness can mean a lot to a person."

In 1956, Ms. Cannady became the first African American director of a family-services office in North Philadelphia, and worked there for 16 years while living in Germantown.

Mary M. Cannady seen three or four years ago, at her assisted-living facility in Oxford, N.C. Earlier, she told family what she had seen as a civil rights marcher in Selma, Ala.
Courtesy Cannady Family
Mary M. Cannady seen three or four years ago, at her assisted-living facility in Oxford, N.C. Earlier, she told family what she had seen as a civil rights marcher in Selma, Ala.

She was a shy, bookish, single, frail, 50-year-old when her experiences growing up in the Jim Crow South and being a social worker among those who traveled north in the Great Migration converged to make her aware of the civil rights movement.

She was shocked when civil rights marcher Jimmie Lee Jackson died Feb. 26, 1965, eight days after being attacked by white racists in Alabama. She was appalled that March 7, when 600 protesters in Selma were beaten and tear-gassed by state and local lawmen at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on what became known as  "Bloody Sunday."

"Suddenly," she later told family, "the many feelings I had harbored throughout my life about being black and how I was treated just caved in on me.  And I just had to get out and get involved."

When King called for supporters to travel to Selma and march across the bridge leading to Montgomery, Ms. Cannady bought a plane ticket and joined him in Selma.

"I just wanted to be on the bridge. That was important to me," she said. She was there March 9 when King led 2,000 protesters in Selma to the Pettus Bridge, but then ordered them to disperse to comply with a court order. "We didn't know where she was until she came back," her niece said. "She had just disappeared."

Although Ms. Cannady didn't march again in Selma, due to her health, she returned to Alabama that summer to register voters.

In 1972 at age 57, Ms. Cannady moved from Germantown back home to Oxford, where she became the first African American social worker employed by a regional mental health agency in Oxford, her family said.

Mary M. Cannady at an anti-apartheid demonstration at Yale University in 1986. She became a civil rights activist for the first time in March 1965.
Courtesy Cannady Family
Mary M. Cannady at an anti-apartheid demonstration at Yale University in 1986. She became a civil rights activist for the first time in March 1965.

She bought a home and learned to drive. After retiring, she did volunteer work.  In 2005, she gave an oral history describing her memories of the civil rights movement. The transcript was featured in a "Listening to History" column in the Raleigh News and Observer.

Besides her niece, Joan, she is survived by nieces Carole C. Marks and Barbara Cannady-Masimini, and a nephew, James Cannady.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 10, at the Antioch Baptist Church, 5046 Antioch Rd., Oxford, N.C. Burial is private.