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CALLED TO JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI THE LAST BASTION OF SEGREGATIONA HISTORICAL DOCUMENTARY
By BRANDON SPARKMAN
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Brandon Sparkman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Call
As ministers of the gospel are said to be called to their places of ministry, I was called to Jackson, Mississippi. I didn't want to go. In fact, only two weeks after my interview in Jackson, police shot two students fatally, and wounded several others during a riot at Jackson State College. Between this incident and the ensuing national publicity, Jackson was the last place in America I would have chosen to work. But it seemed I really didn't have a choice.
Two months after an initial interview with Dr. Jack Vest, Superintendent of Jackson's Public Schools (May, 1970), I received the following anonymous letter at my university office:
May I suggest that, if you are smart, you will not get involved in the Jackson Public Schools. This district is in trouble deep trouble and there seems to be nothing ahead but chaos.
May I also suggest that the superintendent is in trouble. He has lost the confidence of the teaching staff and the public. All sorts of dire and terrible things are being said throughout the community.
If these public schools survive at all it will be a miracle that will have to begin with the community. Just now patrons are enrolling in private schools enmasse.
That evening at home, I gathered my family around me and read the letter aloud. Our daughter, Rita, who had just completed ninth grade, was a short, talented kid who showed unusual compassion for people with problems, was generous to a fault, and always took the side of the underdog. She said, "Daddy, that superintendent's in trouble. If you can help him, we need to go to Jackson."
I looked around at my wife and our two other children. There was Robert, age 5 who had finished a great year of kindergarten. Ricky, a young man of 16, was approaching his senior year in high school. He played football, not out of love for the game, but in football-happy Alabama, if you are large with a few skills, and attending a small high school, you are expected to play football. His sport preference was baseball where he played second base on a state championship youth league team when in 10th grade. To get some money for gas, Ricky, who was not shy in the least, established a successful business going door to door to local merchants pointing out defects in appearance in their store fronts and offering to paint them. He was rather mature for his age, and had a great intellect. My wife, Wanda, a teacher, was helping support the family while I completed the doctoral program at Auburn University. Wanda was an attractive five foot eight, with brown hair, a slow southern drawl, and totally unpretentious in every situation. Among the family members, not a word was spoken, but the expression on the face of each was clear. "We need to go to Jackson."
The next day, I reluctantly arranged another appointment with Dr. Vest. But this time Wanda would be with me because a very serious decision, with great implication for each family member, was about to be finalized.
Wanda and I, in deep thought but seldom talking, traveled to Jackson to meet with the Superintendent. After introducing Wanda and exchanging pleasantries, I handed the anonymous letter to Dr. Vest, a serious, tall, trim, intent man of approximately 50, with gray around the temples, who had held high positions in the Atlanta schools prior to coming to Jackson. After reading the letter, the Superintendent responded angrily, "It's that damn White Citizens Council group. They're trying to kill the public schools."
With head cocked to the right and mouth curved slightly, I confidently replied, "I don't think that's the source. Read it again."
Dr. Vest read the letter carefully. This time, with a wrinkled forehead, a questioning intonation, and a finger drumming the desk top, said, "Sounds like someone on this staff wants my job, doesn't it?" to which I gave an affirmative nod. With an expression of annoyance, the Superintendent said, "The job of Assistant Superintendent is yours. When would you like to go to work?"
Feeling as if a bowling ball were in my stomach, I responded, "How about August 1?" And the deal was sealed with a handshake.
The Long Road to Jackson
With August 1, 1970 arriving on Saturday, I drove to Jackson the following afternoon in order to report for duty at 8:00 A.M. on Monday, August 3, the day after my 41st birthday. As I drove along, I pondered my future with the school district there. As I crossed the state line into Mississippi, I encountered a steady and ever increasing downpour of rain that made driving treacherous. "Was this an omen for my experiences in Jackson?" I wondered.
It has been said that as death closes in, often one's entire life is replayed in a matter of minutes. And so it was with me as I struggled to maintain control of my vehicle as well as my emotions.
I obviously, couldn't visualize my own birth but my memory got me rather close to that event. I remembered having to wear my older sister's dress while my mother washed the one or two pairs of little overalls I had. This indelible mark was made much more prominent by Uncle Rob who seemed always to sense the right moment to drop by and tease me about being a girl.
Then there was the tornado that barely missed our house as I observed the anxiety of my parents and watched through the window as trees, just across the dirt road, came tumbling down. My mother, years later, told me I couldn't possibly remember the storm because I was only two years old. But I saw it again today. I also remembered watching from the end of the field as my father, a tenant farmer, use cottonseed meal, rather than commercial fertilizer, under the cottonseed he planted. I recalled visiting the little white, two room school with my older sister one day. Asked, by the teacher, if I could spell, I gave a positive response. When asked to spell "dog," my response was, "G-O-D," and the class roared in laughter.
I recalled that a few years later I overheard neighbors talking about using hog shorts (a wheat bran byproduct from milling flour that is used for feeding hogs) instead of flour for making biscuits. Born a few months before the stock market crashed, I had observed and had been hardened by the fire of a great depression.
I recalled plowing mules, picking cotton by hand, pulling corn and fodder, and hauling hay. As soon as I could steady one end of a crosscut saw, my Dad and I cut firewood for heating and stove wood for cooking. Sometimes we also cut wood to sell. Times were hard for those who owned nothing more than a pair of mules, a little farming equipment and a crosscut saw. I could recall that when I was seven or eight years of age, my Dad would pitch me on the back of a mule and place a large bag of corn in front for me to take to the grist mill a mile and a half away. Upon arriving at the mill, Mr. Wallace, the grist mill operator and blacksmith, would take the bag of corn, help me off the mule, and crank the single cylinder diesel engine and grind the corn into meal. With the meal, warmed by the grinding process, pressing against me, I delivered the family staple.
My one great asset had been a set of loving and encouraging parents. My Dad many times reminded me that I could do anything I wanted to do if I would dedicate myself to that goal. The word "love" was seldom heard around home but it was felt always.
There were no close neighbors because this was rural, totally Caucasian, hilly, farming country. Where I grew up was a "no-named" area with a dirt road meandering in front of the tiny three-room house until WPA added some coarsely crushed limestone that made riding in a mule drawn wagon miserable.
People were uneducated. The high school graduates I knew could be counted on a three-fingered hand, but by the time I graduated, another five to eight fingers could be added. No one in this place, without a name, ever dared to dream of going to college.
As the replay of life whizzed through my mind, I that remembered my school had burned when I was in seventh grade. Since World War II was in progress and building materials and labor were extremely scarce, it was never rebuilt until I graduated. High school in the old lunchroom and the vocational building without library or science equipment, did not lend itself to quality education. But still worse, the faculty consisted of very few college graduates.
My experience as a bus driver during my last three years in high school, caused me to decided that I wanted to be a long distance truck driver. Year after year, I dreamed of this exciting career that lay ahead. But fate sometimes plays another hand. And so it was that I fell in love with a classmate who was going to college, so I was determined to go also. With no financial support available from home, My dad and I doggedly went about making plans and lining up jobs that would help pay my way through college.
But there was a problem. Intending to be a truck driver, I had not taken adequate mathematics and science courses required for most fields of study in institutions of higher learning. My only choice, without another year of high school work, would be to major in education. So, that's how I got to college and became a professional educator. Oh yes! I dated my high school sweetheart twice after enrolling in college—but at least I was there.
Three years of college cafeteria work, summer jobs and a year of picking up and delivering laundry and dry cleaning in dormitories left little time or means for social life. A few honors, including being elected Student Government President, were garnered and appreciated. As an ROTC Army Commission was received and campus life was about to fade into memory, along came Wanda and wedding bells began ringing in my head.
Army life, a baby boy (Ricky), and Korea, (with unfathomed snow in winter and rain in spring, along with tent and bunker living) seemed to further condition me even though I had already had more than a little conditioning in my first 22 years of life. But these years of seasoning provided an ingredient I sensed would be needed in Jackson.
There were three years of teaching at Phillips High, in Marion County, Alabama, a very small, rural 12-grade school. The final two years I carried additional titles of assistant principal and assistant coach. This brought no relief from teaching five different subjects daily to a total of some 240 pupils, not a good job by today's standards, but when compared with plowing mules and picking cotton, I thought it was wonderful. Spice was added with the addition of Rita, a beautiful baby girl, who came along during my second year of teaching.
Graduate school seemed like a great idea now that I had the G.I. Bill of Rights that would pay for my education. So, my family and I went on a new adventure seeking more knowledge. After a summer, an academic year, and another summer of school at the University of Alabama, I was offered, and accepted, a principalship in Tuscumbia, Alabama, a school district of 2000 students. Then after seven years as principal, I was promoted to Assistant Superintendent for Instruction, a position more comfortable to me than a pair of old shoes but more exciting than a new pair is to a child. However, the excitement was tempered to some extent by clouds on the horizon.
Meanwhile, with Rita starting to school, Wanda decided to return to college to get her degree in education. She scheduled classes that met while Ricky and Rita were in school. She was able to commute to a nearby college and still be at home with the children most of the time they were out of school. After receiving her Bachelor's degree, with the aid of some housekeeping and childcare assistance, she continued her studies while teaching in a local school district. Soon she earned a Master's degree.
I began my new duties as Assistant Superintendent for Instruction in Tuscumbia with great on-the-job excitement, but the nights were something else. Wanda and I took shifts rocking a new baby boy who awoke every hour and cried incessantly. But after a few months, Robert became a great joy and fulfillment to their lives.
The instructional leadership position offered many opportunities for exercising creativity as well as for solving problems. The year 1965, saw Congress offering unimaginable money to schools while the federal courts used their newfound powers to force integration of the races. The Superintendent in Tuscumbia, Jack Vardaman, and I pledged to each other that the schools of the district would be desegregated peacefully, and that the instructional programs would improve simultaneously.
Federal funds made it possible to bring in some of the best education minds in America as consultants, one of whom would have enormous impact upon my future. Furthermore, the extra money allowed me to visit many of the best-known and finest education programs of the time. These were difficult but exciting times, and as successes began to accumulate, I discovered a confidence building within that would allow me to move far beyond any dream I ever had during my early years on the farm.
Clouds That Wouldn't Leave
During these enjoyable years of my career, ominous clouds began to appear on the horizon and seldom totally disappeared. There was the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court declaring separate but equal schools to be unconstitutional. The ravings by southern governors and would-be-governors, (Ross Barnett of Mississippi, George Wallace of Alabama, Lester Maddox of Georgia, and Orval Faubus of Arkansas, being the most vocal and aggressive) spewed hatred that was as contagious as smallpox and spread rapidly throughout the population. Newspapers unfailingly reported every racial incident in the south, and it seemed that Mississippi had more than its share of episodes on the printed page as well as on the TV screen.
With the help of the FBI, federalized troop, and other law enforcement agencies, James Meredith was escorted into the administrative office at the University of Mississippi to enroll as the first black student in the history of that institution. This event occurred in 1962. Then in 1963, Medgar Evers was gunned down as he returned home from attending a NAACP meeting in Jackson where he was a key leader. On Sunday night, June 21, 1964, three civil-rights workers, a local black man and two white men from north of the Mason-Dixon Line, disappeared. Their bodies were later discovered buried in an earthen damn near Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Violence against blacks included beatings and mutilation; burning of homes, schools and churches; cross burnings; and premeditated murder. Some accounts even told of white racists who kept certificates authenticating their murder of each victim. The White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi became the deadliest Klan organization in America. It was blamed for at least 10 killings in that state.
I was a southerner. Although my parents hated the mistreatment of blacks, they harbored the attitude of most southerners that blacks were inferior people who should remain separate from whites. Interference by the President and the courts in the southern way of life and tradition disturbed me. Then the activation of the National Guard, along with the presence of federal troops and marshals used to force integration, enraged me.
All of these tragic events weighed heavily upon my mind and emotions. At one point, I walked across the street, from the school in Tuscumbia where I served as principal, to the church where I was a member, and there asked the pastor to pray for me because, "The racial hatred that is building in me is destroying my very soul." From that day forward, I never harbored any ill feelings or resentment toward people of the black race.
Prelude to Jackson
Graduate school called once more. It was now or never. Ricky had two more years until he would enter college and Rita would follow two years later. The G.I. Bill benefits had expired due to summer school participation, and there was no way I could send two children to college and pay for graduate studies for myself. Dr. Robert Saunders, Associate Dean of Education at Auburn University, offered me an assistantship and promised to secure a teaching position for Wanda in a local school system during the anticipated two years involved in obtaining my doctorate. There could be no better deal or time, so with many tears of regret, off we went, giving up what long ago had seemed like a permanent home to the entire family.
Excerpted from CALLED TO JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI THE LAST BASTION OF SEGREGATION by BRANDON SPARKMAN Copyright © 2011 by Brandon Sparkman. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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