When Wharlest Jackson Sr., 36, left his job at the Armstrong Rubber Co. in North Natchez the evening of Feb. 27, 1967, life was looking pretty good for him.
Jackson had an adoring wife cooking him dinner at his home, just a few blocks away in North Natchez. He had four healthy daughters and a doting young son, Wharlest Jr., then 8 years old. And he had just gotten a 17-cents-per-hour raise and a promotion from building tires to mixing chemicals at Armstrong—an impressive raise for a black man in 1967—a job that had previously only been held by white men.
Little Wharlest was in the front yard when he heard the blast. He ran into the house and saw his mother standing in the dining room looking anxiously in the direction the noise came from. He ran back outside and jumped on his bike. He had only gone three blocks when he saw his father lying next to his smoldering pickup truck about 25 feet from the corner of Miner Street and what is today Martin Luther King Drive.
"I seen the truck. I seen him laying in the street," a now-300-pound Wharlest Jackson Jr. said, suddenly bursting into tears at the memory, wiping his tears and his sweat with a small white towel. The bomb, he said, was hidden from the street and heated from the truck's manifold. "He drove three blocks before it went off."
As he looked at his father's limp body, Wharlest could hear his mother's screams blocks away. "People get intuition; they feel things," he says.
'Father Knows Best'
On the last Saturday in August, Wharlest Jackson Jr. greeted me and Kate Medley at the door of his family home—really, two homes joined together—where he still lives with his wife, Jackie, when he is in Natchez. The demolition expert moved back to Natchez three years ago, but still spends part of his time in Palisades, Calif., where his mother moved in 1982.
The former linebacker at Valley State, now 47 and dressed in a cotton powder-blue short-sleeved shirt and pants, ushered us into a perfectly appointed home where the table is set at all times atop a white brocade tablecloth. We sit on a delicate maroon sofa as he, first, brewed us sassafras tea from small pieces of wood he cuts himself. After carefully explaining in his Isaac Hayes voice how to brew the tea, and its medicinal value (good for cleaning the kidneys and the bloodstream, as his mama taught him growing up), and handing us each a Zip-Loc bagful to take home, he leans back in a floral easy chair and starts to tell us about his father, whose murder has never been solved.
Wharlest Jackson Sr. was a focused black man who could confound even the most moderate of Natchez whites in the 1960s. He was a hard worker, well-liked and even-tempered, and he loved to hunt and fish and spend time with his family. "He was a typical father," his son said.
But he was not a man content with the status quo. He wanted the best he could achieve for himself and for his family, as well as for other blacks. He had been involved with the local NAACP for much of his son's short life and was treasurer of the local chapter when he was killed. He was involved in voter registration in a time when trying to register to vote could get a black Mississippian killed.
"He was one that liked to see people do better, to advance," his son told us. "He liked to help other people, make it better for other people. There were a lot of bigots who wanted to hold people down, to a level."
Wharlest Jr. doesn't remember seeing a lot of civil rights activity as a child, though. "He kept a lot from us kids," he said. "There were a lot of tense times around here, a lot of marching." The father had marched in protest in 1965 after another NAACP official, George Metcalfe, was seriously injured after the KKK planted a bomb in his car two weeks after he presented a petition supporting school desegregation to the Natchez school board.
Not too long after the bombing, young Wharlest discovered that the remains of his father's truck were impounded nearby at the city facility on Parnell Hill behind the Cathedral School. Until the white men there caught him and ran him off, Wharlest Jr. would ride his bicycle there and sneak into the lot.
"I would look at the twisted, bent metal and wonder how could people be cruel like that. In time, I began to understand all that wickedness," he said.
Talk Is Cheap
No justice and no closure would come for the Jackson family, not in the 1960s, not later, which may account for his son's continuing raw pain over his father's murder. Throughout our visit, he kept breaking down, a look of sheer pain on his face, tears falling like the truck had blown up the Friday before.
The case did draw some attention. By 1967, even timid Natchez moderates who had done little to curb Klan control of the town were growing tired of the Klan violence, and some spoke out against the murder. Time magazine reported that Charles Evers, who had lost his own brother to race hatred in 1963, came to town and led a rally of 2,000 in a march on the Armstrong plant, which he said was "infested" with Klansmen. Even Gov. Paul Johnson, who had once called the NAACP a group of "niggers, apes, alligators, coons and possums," called Jackson's murder "an act of savagery which stains the honor of our state."
But the talk was cheap, with no real investigation, much less indictments, attached. Local law enforcement "was a joke," Wharlest Jr. says now.
"Not only was nothing done, but we were hopeless. We were up against something bigger than us. … Do you know what it is to feel helpless, like David and Goliath?"
For years, Wharlest Jr. says, he was angry and bitter and took out his frustration in negative, self-destructive ways, becoming "bitter hateful," he calls it. "I became what these people were." But his sport of choice helped him have an outlet for his anger: "Thank God for football."
Eventually, he worked through the anger and drew upon the lessons his father, whom he calls his "best friend," had taught him and his sisters about using his energy to help others. "His vision ain't died with him," the son said. Since he moved back to Natchez three years ago, he has mentored young people in the demolition business. His sister is a schoolteacher, and his nephew in Texas coaches kids after school, he said with pride.
He now wants to set up the Wharlest Jackson Foundation in Natchez, to create a living memorial to his father through activities to help young people. "They don't even have a Chuck E. Cheese here to go to and enjoy," he said. "There are a lot of things I hope to do in this town."
One thing he has done is practice forgiveness.
He walked into a white friend's barn one day and saw a huge rebel flag hanging on the wall with the words "Klan Country" emblazoned across it. But he didn't hold it against him. "He hasn't been too well taught. He doesn't have enough information coming in," Wharlest Jr. said.
Meantime, the son prays that some justice may finally come for his father's murder since U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton announced in July that he would help investigate the case, along with that of Henry Dee and Charles Moore.
"If you do good, the good is going to come back to you," Wharlest Jr. said. "If you do wrong … the sins of the father will visit you for generations after that."
Read the JFP's full package of stories about the Klan and their victims in and around Natchez and Meadville, Miss., in the 1960s:
I Want Justice, Too: Thomas Moore's Story, July 21, 2005
A Dream Deferred, July 27, 2005
Franklin Advocate Editorial and Thomas Moore Response, July 28, 2005
Evolution of a Man: Lifting the Hood in South Mississippi, Oct. 26, 2005
Daddy, Get Up: This Son of Natchez Wants Justice, Too, Oct. 26, 2005
Dear Meadville: Thomas Moore Tries to Wake Up His Hometown, Oct. 26, 2005
Editor's Note: Damned If We Don't, Oct. 26, 2005
Also see: JFP Blog: Mississippi v. Edgar Ray Killen, June 2005
What a hurtful story. Anybody who can't feel the pain and devastation of this unforgivable tragedy is living dead. I applaud the Jackson family for overcoming the best they could.
- Ray Carter
You're right, Ray. They've had so little closure that it hurts like it happened yesterday. I've never had my heart broken more in an interview than with Mr. Jackson.