JACKSON FAMILY ENJOYED HAPPY LIFE IN NATCHEZ; WHEN MEDGAR EVERS WAS ASSASSINATED EVERYTHING CHANGED

In 1951, at the age of 15, Exerlena Williams and a friend left Natchez for Chicago to find work in the excitement of the big city.

She got a job almost immediately at Stein Manufacturing Company at 47 Archie Avenue making bullet-proof jackets for American soldiers.

"I loved Chicago," she said.

In September 1952, she met Wharlest Jackson on a blind date. She never called him by his first name. Instead, she called him "Jackson."

"He had a cap over his face and his shoes were untied," she said of their introduction more than a half century ago. "But he was a nice man. You can't always judge a book by its cover."

Jackson grew up in the community of DeLeon Springs, Florida, (west of Daytona). Jackson's father was a minister.

When just a young man, he joined the military and wound up on the battle fields of Korea. During one engagement, Jackson and a friend, Lucious Perry, were caught in heavy fire. As bombs exploded nearby, Jackson pushed Perry into a fox hole just before a shell landed where Perry had been standing.

"He (Perry) said Jackson saved his life," Exerlena said.

The two men survived Korea. Afterward, Jackson was sent to LaGrange, Ill., a Chicago suburb, to complete his military duty. It was here he met his future wife.

The two soon fell in love and 17 months later -- Feb. 17, 1954 -- they got married.

"He didn't want to go back to Florida," said Exerlena. "He wanted to go to Natchez."

For the first five months in Natchez, the couple lived in a room in the home of Exerlena's mother, Sophie Williams.

Soon they had a home of their own and began raising a family.

"Jackson started hauling pulp wood and he loaded Holsum bread onto trucks at the bakery," said Exerlena.

They also began a family. Five children were born during the 1950s and two significant things occurred during these years -- Jackson got a job at Armstrong Tire and Rubber Company and he met George Metcalfe, who also worked at the tire plant.

"Jackson went to work at Armstrong in January of 1955," recalled Exerlena. "My uncle helped him get the job."

She said she didn't recall when Jackson and Metcalfe first met.

All the while, the Jacksons enjoyed the happiness of a loving family environment.

"It was a beautiful life," said Exerlena.

They attended church at St. Paul AME where Jackson was a steward. Dinner after Sunday services was an important family tradition.

Daughter Denise says her father "was a lovable man. He was very family-oriented. He use to spend a lot of time with all of the children and he played jacks with us on the front porch. He was pretty good at it."

"We did everything together," Exerlena said. "We'd go fishing in the lakes in Concordia Parish, around Ferriday and Vidalia. We'd always fish from the bank but Jackson and his friends would fish from a boat."

Because of their young children, Jackson often told his wife, "We don't both need to be in a boat."

During the summers, the family traveled to Florida to visit Jackson's family.

"That was a yearly trip," said Denise. "We loved it."

But slowly life became more difficult for the Jackson family and other blacks in Natchez. Exerlena equates the growing tensions at the plant with the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers and the meteoric growth of the Ku Klux Klan.

Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., has been writing about the Klan and the Civil Rights movement for years. He told The Sentinel that the Klan "spread its terror across Mississippi in the 1960s, killing or intimidating anyone who dared to get involved in the Civil Rights movement. In 1963, NAACP leader Medgar Evers was shot in the back by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, the most violent Klan faction in the United States."

Mitchell said that in April 1964 Beckwith walked free after two all-white juries refused to convict him of assassinating Evers even though the murder weapon left at the scene belonged to Beckwith and had one of his fingerprints on it.

That action, said Mitchell, served to embolden the White Knights, which celebrated by burning a cross in each one of Mississippi's 82 counties.

"When Charles Evers dared to take his brother's place as field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP, he, too, became a frequent target of violence and threats, especially when he moved his work into southwest Mississippi," said Mitchell.

While the nation focused much of its attention in the summer of 1964 on three civil rights workers missing from east central Mississippi — James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman — Mitchell said "African Americans in southwest Mississippi endured bombings, beatings, church burnings, drive-by shootings and other countless acts of violence."

Charles Evers was the main force in organizing the NAACP in Natchez with both George Metcalfe and Wharlest Jackson taking leadership roles. Evers moderated the first chapter meeting in Natchez on March 3, 1965.

Metcalfe was elected president and Jackson treasurer. Exerlena was appointed chair of the Political Action Committee.

At the organization's second meeting on March 17 at the Masonic Temple, Metcalfe updated members on a meeting in Jackson concerning what was known as The Summer Project.

The local chapter met several times in the months ahead. At one meeting, Metcalfe discussed the need for housing 10 Civil Rights workers expected in Natchez in the summer of 1965 for the Summer Project. Young adults with the Civil Rights group Congress of Racial Equality came to Natchez and Ferriday that summer.

At other meetings, Metcalfe led discussions on the need to place blacks on the police force and the possibility of boycotts to force equal employment issues.

Retired FBI agent Billy Bob Williams of Portland, Ore., who lived in Natchez in the mid-1960s during the height of the civil rights movement, said Metcalfe "was well respected in both the white and black communities and had unobtrusively worked for many years to improve the lives of black citizens."

Because they worked together and served in the NAACP together, Metcalfe, who lived alone in an apartment in Natchez, and Jackson, became good friends. The friendship and their Civil Rights work angered some workers at Armstrong and infuriated the White Knights and other Klan organizations in the area. Many fumed when Jackson was promoted in late 1966 to a position formerly held by white men only.

While Frank Morris and JoEd Edwards were both murdered in Concordia Parish in 1964, both believed to have been victims of a violent Klan cell known as the Silver Dollar Group, Metcalfe and Jackson soon became targets, too. This violent Klan outfit included several White Knights.

Some members of the Silver Dollar Group were oil field workers skilled in the use of explosives. At some point a plan was hatched to target Metcalfe, the leader of the newly-organized Natchez NAACP.

In the meantime, the group honed its skills -- first on tree stumps in Concordia during family picnics, then at the homes of Mayor Joe Nosser, Willie Washington and businesses in Natchez.

By August of 1965, the Klan's bombing projects became even more sinister. The White Knights and other Klan groups had four basic steps of intimidation and violence.

Project 1 was a threatening phone call or visit.

Project 2 was the burning of a cross, usually on the property of an individual.

Project 3 was a beating, flogging, burning, shooting into property or bombing.

Project 4 was extermination.

In mid-summer 1965, Metcalfe became the target of a Project 4. Months later, Jackson was targeted for extermination.

In late August 1965 around the noon hour in the parking lot at Armstrong Tire, Metcalfe turned the ignition switch on his 1955 Chevrolet with a straight-six engine. In the blink of an eye an explosion shook the ground.

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