For 42 years she prayed for justice in the death of her first husband who was murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen in a car bomb near the Armstrong Tire & Rubber plant in Natchez in 1967.
But justice eluded Exerlena Jackson-Vanison, 72, who died last week, July 29, 2009, in California, where she had lived since 1982. Funeral services are slated for August 6, 2009, under the direction of Woods Valentine Mortuary in Pasadena, Calif.
The car bomb murder of her first husband, Wharlest Jackson Sr., on Monday, Feb. 27, 1967, made national news and was followed by what was possibly the largest FBI investigation ever conducted in southwestern Mississippi and eastern Louisiana. Records show the manhunt for Jackson's killers was closely monitored by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Exerlena was 30 years old at the time, had been married to Wharlest Jackson for 13 years and the couple had five children.
Known as WHARBOM by the FBI, the probe also grew into investigations into other murders, beatings, arsons and bombings. Although it resulted in not a single arrest, the probe achieved, FBI records indicate, one goal of the operation -- to neutralize the most violent Klansmen living and operating in this region.
Born and reared in Natchez, Exerlena Williams and a friend moved to Chicago in 1951 when she was only 15. She said she loved the city and quickly got a job at Stein Manufacturing Company making bullet-proof jackets for American soldiers.
In September 1952, she met Wharlest Jackson on a blind date.
"He had a cap over his face and his shoes were untied," she said in an interview last summer. "But he was a nice man. You can't always judge a book by its cover."
She fell in love with him, Exerlena said, because he "was humble. He didn't drink or smoke. He just wanted to be a man. I admired him right away."
Exerlena shared her feelings about Jackson, their life together and their family with The Sentinel in the summer of 2008. She was interviewed three times via telephone and once in August of last year at a Vidalia restaurant when she was home visiting family and friends in Natchez.
From the beginning and throughout their married life, Exerlena never called her husband by his first name. Instead, she called him "Jackson."
Wharlest Jackson was a selfless man, she said, another quality about him that she admired. A native of DeLeon Springs, Florida, the son of a minister, Exerlena recalled that Jackson saved the life of a friend during combat in the Korean War. As bombs exploded around them, Jackson pushed the friend into a fox hole just before a shell landed where the man had been standing.
After completing his tour of duty, Jackson was sent to LaGrange, Ill., a Chicago suburb, to complete his military service. There, he met his future wife.
BEGINNING FAMILY IN NATCHEZ
On Feb. 17, 1954, Wharlest Jackson and Exerlena Williams were married.
"He didn't want to go back to Florida. He said he didn't want to pick fruit" said Exerlena, which was about the only job available in the area of his hometown. "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 rearing a family.
"Jackson started hauling pulp wood and he loaded Holsum bread onto trucks at the bakery," said Exerlena.
Five children were born in the years to follow.
Their life revolved around family, said Exerlena, and they yearned for the same things most families wish for -- health, happiness and success based on their own hard work and sacrifice.
They attended church at St. Paul AME where Jackson was a steward. Dinner after Sunday services was an important family tradition.
"We did everything together," Exerlena said. The family often fished in the lakes in Concordia Parish around Ferriday and Vidalia.
For 13 straight summers the family traveled to Florida to visit Jackson's family.
"It was," said Exerlena, "a beautiful life."
In 1955, Jackson was hired by Armstrong Tire & Rubber Company. Around the same time, he met a man named George Metcalfe. The two became best friends, and they would pay dearly for their efforts to improve life for blacks who were being educated in second rate schools, given menial jobs with no hope of advancement or better pay, denied the right to vote and relegated by and large to a life of poverty.
During the height of the Civil Rights era, Jackson and Metcalfe became involved with the reorganization in 1965 of the Natchez NAACP. Metcalfe was elected president and Jackson treasurer.
In August of that year, Metcalfe, also employed at Armstrong Tire, was the victim of a car bombing, a bomb the FBI believed was planted by the Ku Klux Klan. Metcalfe survived, but his injuries were serious. He suffered a broken right arm and right leg, facial lacerations and burns, pieces of skin were torn from his body and his right eye damaged.
Wharlest and Exerlena Jackson helped nurse Metcalfe back to health and after a year in recovery, Metcalfe walked on his own inside the Armstrong plant and went back to work.
No one was ever arrested in the bombing.
After his recovery, Metcalfe and Jackson rode to work together, a fact that bothered Exerlena, who knew about the constant threats the two men received from Klansmen.
As blacks boycotted stores in Natchez, marched and protested in the quest for Civil Rights, Exerlena knew "there was a lot of tension" in Natchez. Knowing that Metcalfe had already been a Klan target, she said she feared the two of them together in one vehicle was immensely dangerous.
"George didn't have a house full of children like Jackson," she said. "But Jackson didn't pay me no attention. He was quiet and determined to live his life."
When Jackson began work at Armstrong in 1955, he was hired as a stock servicer. In 1965, he began work in the refine mill and in January 1967 he was promoted to a chemical mixing job, which had always been, according to FBI reports, "a white man's job."
Because he was qualified for the job and had seniority, Jackson earned the promotion over two white men.
JACKSON'S PREMONITION OF DEATH
In the days leading up the bombing, Exerlena said she worried about her husband but had no indication that something was going to happen until the weekend before Jackson's death.
"He had a premonition," she said. "I didn't understand it right away but I knew something was up."
Suffering from Lupus, Exerlena had not been feeling well and was in bed during the days before the bombing. Jackson's promotion had enabled his wife to quit her job as a cook at Jefferson College in nearby Washington.
"He felt bad the week before and I made him go to the doctor," she said. "He came home and said, 'See, I told you I'm okay. The doctor said I'm alright.'"
In addition to his full-time job at Armstrong, Jackson also cut hair at Rev. Miller's barbershop, often on Friday and Saturday. After Jackson's murder, Miller told Exerlena that when Jackson left work on Saturday he left his keys on the counter at the shop.
Miller told Exerlena that Jackson said, "I won't need them (keys) anymore." Jackson didn't explain his comment, said Miller, but Exerlena said it became obvious to her that Jackson believed he was going to die and wouldn't need the keys to the barbershop anymore.
Jackson also worked for Archie Curtis, who owned a funeral home. Jackson drove his own car to transport mourning family members during funerals.
On the Sunday evening prior to the Monday bombing, Exerlena said Jackson came home and told her, "Don't let Curtis have my car in the funeral next week."
She said, "I didn't pay that no attention."
After Jackson's murder, she said the statement jolted her when Curtis called her the day after to make funeral arrangements.
For the Jackson family, said Exerlena, life forever changed the day of the murder despite the promise life held the day before. Jackson's 13 years of labor at Armstrong and new Civil Rights legislation had enabled him to earn a promotion that he was well qualified to perform.
"I begged him not to take that job," said Exerlena, fearing retribution from Klansmen.
FBI records state that before taking the promotion in January 1967, Jackson contacted NAACP Field Secretary Charles Evers, who led the Civil Rights movement in Natchez. Jackson asked Evers if there might be trouble if he took the promotion. Evers told the FBI that he urged Jackson to take the position and "not worry about the Kluxers."
Evers and Metcalfe told bureau agents after the murder that rumors had circulated the plant that "the Kluxers would take care of any Negro taking a higher position." But Evers and Metcalfe said they could not attribute the rumors to any one person or group of men.
Evers also told the FBI that Jackson had not sought re-election to his NAACP treasurer position "so he could devote more time to his job and to his odd jobs because of money needed for his wife's illness." Metcalfe added that he wondered if he, not Jackson, may have been the target of the bomb.
Natchez NAACP officials characterized Jackson to FBI agents as a "steady worker" and "very quiet." Evers described him as "conservative," and "never one to march."
More vocal and demonstrative than Jackson, Exerlena once was arrested and taken to Parchman prison with others in 1965 following a Civil Rights demonstration in Natchez in the wake of the Metcalfe bombing. Time Magazine reported that the dozens sent to the Mississippi state penal farm said they "were forced to strip to their underwear and sleep without blankets, many on cold cement floors. Prisoners also protested that they were made to take laxatives but for two days were given no toilet paper."
After Jackson's promotion, his shift changed on Feb. 27, 1967, from the 4 p.m. to 12 midnight shift to the 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift. He then worked four hours overtime.
The shift change meant that for the first time Jackson and Metcalfe wouldn't ride to work together. Ironically, FBI records note, Metcalfe, whose vehicle was also bombed on the 27th of the month (in August 1965), had, like Jackson, just received a promotion at Armstrong before his bombing, had just been assigned a different shift and worked overtime that day.
A BOMBING NEAR TIRE PLANT
Shortly after 8 p.m., Jackson walked out of the Armstrong plant. As he made his way to his pickup parked on Concord Street near the northwest corner of the Armstrong property, Exerlena rested in bed as a cold February rain poured.
The bomb planted under the hood of Metcalfe's car two years earlier was a "device fashioned by stuffing a half gallon milk carton with primer cord," according to retired FBI agent Billy Bob Williams of Portland, Ore., who was working in Natchez in 1965.
Common in oil fields, Williams said the primer cord -- "literally a rope of TNT" -- detonates instantly "when the attached detonator receives an electrical shock. Compacted into a container it becomes a very powerful bomb."
Hidden in the engine compartment of Metcalfe's car, the device detonated when he turned his ignition key.
But the bomb used to kill Jackson two years later was much more powerful and was placed below the truck frame on the driver's side of his pickup just below where Jackson was sitting. FBI demolition experts said the bomber had wired the explosive to fire when Jackson used the turn signal.
Exerlena and all of Natchez heard the blast.
"Oh, Lord," she moaned as she sat up in bed. "That's Jackson. They got Jackson."
Daughter Denise Ford said she heard the explosion, too, and then heard her mother cry out.
"I was 11 years old," she said on Tuesday. "My mother knew of the tension that was surrounding the plant about the promotion and I guess he told her what to expect if he didn't make it home at night."
Friends and family were immediately supportive, said Exerlena, but she was forced to rise from her sick bed and go back to work to support her five children. Unfathomable tragedy would strike again a decade later when two of her daughters, her mother and a grandchild were killed in a car accident in Mississippi.
By 1982, she had remarried and Natchez had become such a blur of bad memories that she and her husband decided to move to California, where she remained until her death last week.
She told The Sentinel in August of 2008 during an interview in Vidalia that the void of not knowing the details of Jackson's death and all the suspects had been maddening through the years.
Excerlena said that a few years ago a federal official involved in the investigation told her the name of the lead suspect, who died in 1984, but provided no details about the man, other suspects, or the motive.
"What is particularly sad and galling to me is that she passed away before obtaining any definitive resolution about who was responsible for her former husband's death and as yet no one has been held legally or otherwise accountable for killing Wharlest Jackson, Sr.," said Paula Johnson of the Syracuse University College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative, which is investigating unsolved Civil Rights-era murders. "We will continue to search for these answers and seek justice in her memory as well as his."
Exerlena especially lamented the pain Jackson's death had caused her only son, Wharlest Jr., who, only nine at the time, had ridden his bicycle to the crime scene and had to be held back by a grown man as he struggled to get to his dad's lifeless and mutilated body resting in the rubble of the pickup.
Coming to terms that the persons responsible for her husband's murder probably would never be convicted, Exerlena held out hope that at the least she would be given information on who was involved and how the murder was carried out.
"If we could just know something," she said last year. "If we could just know something."
She died without knowing.