Jackson and Ford

Wharlest Jackson Jr. and Denise Ford stand by the memorial sign where their father's truck exploded in Natchez, Mississippi.

In February 1967, Wharlest Jackson was killed when a bomb planted on his pickup truck exploded as he was driving home from work at the Armstrong Tire Plant, where he had recently been promoted.

Jackson and his wife, Exerlena, had long been active in the Natchez NAACP and in other civil rights work.

Although no one was ever arrested in Jackson’s murder, the FBI believed the culprits were involved in the Silver Dollar Group, a Klan offshoot linked to multiple of Civil Rights-era killings and crimes in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Today, the couple’s work lives on and will be celebrated this weekend.

“Honor Their Memories. Continue Their Legacy,” is the theme of theinaugural program of the Wharlest and Exerlena Jackson Project designed to recognize the sacrifices of the Jacksons for civil rights, to provide information and resources for students to achieve their aspirations and goals, and to continue the Jacksons’ legacy for racial and social justice. 

Participation is open to public high school students.  There also are sessions for parents, teachers, and administrators to help students plan for post-high school life. 

The program takes place Friday evening, March 26, and day-long on Saturday, March 27. The event will be held online on Zoom. The program is free. 

Denise Jackson Ford and Wharlest Jackson, Jr., and their siblings were young children when their father was murdered in Natchez in February 1967.

Ford was 10-years-old when the tragic event happened.

She remembers her father as a family man who loved his wife and children. She said the family often visited relatives in Florida and that they did just about everything together, including church on Sunday.

Both parents were hard workers who accomplished much in their lifetimes.

“They did good things,” she said, adding that the program this weekend will bring to light not only their work but the ongoing work that will benefit future generations.

Wharlest Jackson was the first African American to hold a skilled position at the Armstrong plant, and was constantly threatened as result.  He also served as the treasurer of the local NAACP. 

Exerlena Jackson was a partner in all of these endeavors, as the Jacksons actively advocated for racial equality, voter education and registration, better educational and employment opportunities, and greater civic engagement by the African American community. 

The Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI), at Syracuse University College of Law, investigates unsolved racially motivated homicides and disappearances, such as the Wharlest Jackson case, which occurred during the Civil Rights Era and contemporary times. CCJI works to hold responsible parties accountable, and also conducts relevant research, academic education, professional training, public awareness, and memorial legacies of victims of racial crimes who fought for the rights and freedoms of present and future generations.    

When Dianne Jahanganibecame Professor Paula C. Johnson’s Research Assistant in late May of 2020 she said she was “introduced to the Cold Case Justice Initiative, where we research racially motivated murders that took place during the Civil Rights Era.”

Johnson is Professor of Law and co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative.

“Once our Fall 2020 Semester commenced at Syracuse University College of Law,” Jahangani said, “I delved in more deeply with the various projects that we have; it was late August 2020 when I was introduced to Mr. Wharlest Jackson, Sr.’s cold case.”

She said that when she got involved in work that “the idea of having a Legacy Project had already been discussed but stalled when the Pandemic started. In an effort to move forward with this wonderful idea, we decided the best approach would be to move forward with the Legacy Project virtually and hopefully in the future be able to have this be in person one day.”

Jahangani said student participation the two-day event has extended “beyond the Natchez community to include Syracuse, New York. We thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to build that networking connection between students who live in Natchez, Mississippi with those who live in Syracuse, New York, where our University is and where we do the research for the Cold Case Justice Initiative.”

She said that honoring the memory and legacy of the Jacksons will be two-fold.

“Mr. Jackson, Sr. was active in voter education and registration drives and advocated for better educational opportunities and civic responsiveness for African Americans in the Natchez community,” Jahangani said. “As such, in honoring Mr. Jackson’s memory, we will be having several sessions that will touch on civic engagement, and how important it is to be involved in civic engagement.

“The other aspect of the program involves the theme of what happens post-high school graduation. Our goal here is to make the students aware of the endless possibilities and opportunities available to them post-graduation. We will be having a session called ‘Choose Your Path’ where we will have five panels taking about the various opportunities available post – graduation. The five panels will be the following: How to Navigate the Path to College; How to Navigate the Path to Vocational Training; How to Navigate a Career in the Arts; How to Navigate a Career in Civil Service; How to be Involved in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).”

Additionally, she said there are three goals “we would like our attendees to take away from the program:

-- “It is never too late for justice, and the past is not simply the past. We must continue to work to hold individuals and society at large responsible for the deaths that they have caused.

-- “Civic engagement is critical, and it is never too early or too late to be involved.

-- “The opportunities available to individuals are endless and everyone is capable of achieving his or her dreams.”

The program will feature remarks by Denise and Wharlest Jackson, Jr., Professor Johnson and law students in the Cold Case Justice Initiative, among other presenters. There will be a lunch time address on Saturday by Noah Harris, the first African American man to be elected president of the Harvard University Undergraduate Student Body. Harris is from Hattiesburg and Natchez.

There will be concurrent panels for students interested in college, vocational fields, creative arts, STEM, financial literacy, and civic participation. There is a “Life Buddies” mentorship program, which will pair Natchez public high school students with Syracuse University law students to offer support and resources for young people who are exploring their interests after high school. There also are sessions for parents, teachers and administrators to discuss ways and resources to support high school students before and after graduation.

For more information, contact Dianne Jahangani at dajahang@syr.edu / 747-334-2378.

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