When an explosion shook the neighborhood around the Armstrong Tire & Rubber plant in Natchez at 8 p.m. on a winter night in 1967, the sound carried all the way to College Hill about seven blocks away where Exerlena Jackson was resting in bed.
She sat up when she heard the blast, which rattled windows and shook nearby homes.
"Oh, Lord, that's Jackson," she shouted. "That's Jackson."
Exerlena had been especially worried in recent weeks about her husband, Wharlest Jackson Sr., 36, whom she called "Jackson." He had just recently received a promotion at Armstrong to a position that had always been held by a white man in the past. He had been threatened.
Fearful that his life would be taken, Exerlena didn't want him to accept the promotion. In fact, she wanted him to quit Armstrong.
But Jackson, a man who wanted to provide the best he could for his family, knew the 17-cent an hour raise would mean much economically. Because Jackson had other part-time jobs, the raise at Armstrong made it possible for Exerlena to quit her job as a cook at Jefferson College and stay home with their five children — Debra Jean, Doris Arlene, Delresia, Denise and Wharlest Jr. She was also suffering from Lupus, and needed bed rest.
But when the explosion rocked the neighborhood four decades ago, it forever changed the lives of Exerlena and her children. Gone was a loving husband and father, the chief breadwinner and a man who not only made something of his own life, but wanted to help others receive nothing more than a fair chance. He never asked for a favor, said Exerlena, just for an opportunity.
The murder of Wharlest Jackson — treasurer of the Natchez Chapter of the NAACP — by a bomb planted in his pickup truck on Monday, Feb. 27, 1967, made national news as did so many other events in this region during the Civil Rights-era. Jackson may have been a victim of the Silver Dollar Group, a violent cell of the Ku Klux Klan believed to have also been responsible for the disappearance and murder of Vidalia Shamrock Motel porter JoEd Edwards in July 1964, and the killing of Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris in an arson in December of that year.
The group is also believed to have set a bomb in the vehicle owned by George Metcalfe, another Armstrong employee and a close friend of Jackson's. Metcalfe survived, but was maimed in an explosion in the plant parking lot on Aug. 27, 1965. He recovered and returned to Armstrong. Metcalfe had been riding to work with Jackson but the two men went on different shifts shortly before Jackson's pickup exploded.
Retired FBI agent Billy Bob Williams, who lived and worked in Natchez for 18 months during the mid-1960s, said the late Natchez Police Chief J.T. Robinson "was very upset that the Jackson case was never solved and he very much wanted the case to be reopened by the FBI. He indicated that the motive was Jackson's promotion at the tire plant."
Exerlena Jackson was told that the chief suspect in the murder of her husband resided in Concordia Parish. He was a man, she was told, who was a "shooter" in the oil field, responsible for handling explosives and reportedly quite handy at the job.
In the 1970 book — Attack on Terror: The FBI Against the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi — author Don Whitehead, well-liked and well-informed by top FBI officials, wrote that in 1964 "a half-dozen or so Klansmen from the Natchez-Vidalia-Ferriday area of Mississippi and Louisiana happened to gather one morning in the coffee shop of the Shamrock Motel in Vidalia...The group soon discovered that all of them were irritated by the local Klans' timidity in ordering action projects against Negroes and white civil rights workers. (Imperial Wizard) Sam Bowers' order for the White Knights to suspend violence for a ninety-day period only angered them."
The group totaled about 20 and each carried a silver dollar minted in the year he was born as a secret identification of membership in the violent Klan cell. The men prided themselves on being the 'toughest Klansmen in Mississippi or Louisiana.'"
Several in the group, like the main suspect in the Jackson bombing, had experience with explosives, particularly dynamite, and some knew how to wire the electrical system in an automobile to an explosive. While their wives fried catfish in the Concordia Parish countryside one afternoon, the men drank beer and practiced their skills, blowing up tree stumps.
Even if just one person was the key suspect, Exerlena Jackson is confident that the man, said to be dead, didn't act alone. To date, not a single person has ever been arrested in the Jackson, Metcalfe, Morris and Edwards cases despite probes by the FBI, the Natchez Police Department and Mississippi Highway & Safety Patrol. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms also was involved in probing the Armstrong bombing cases.
Years ago, the FBI told Exerlena that it had completed its investigation into Jackson's murder and was turning its files over the Natchez Police Department. The department looked into the case again in the late 1990s, but determined that all of the suspects, all said to be from Concordia, were dead. However, most of the files on the Jackson case belong to the FBI and have not been released.
"If we could just know something," she said. "My son has cried over this for years. It has affected him in so many ways. If we could just know something."
The morning after the bombing Wharlest Jr. got on his bicycle and returned later from the scene of the crime with something in his hand.
"I still can't talk about that," says Wharlest Jr. "But I've forgiven my father's killers. I'm not bitter anymore. These men's sons may be suffering from the sins of their fathers, but I don't wish that on anyone. I think it's harder on the people who did this than on us. No rest for the spirit. It must be miserable."
Sister Denise feels no bitterness either.
"We just want to know," she said, "whether the people who did this are dead or alive, or whatever. Who and why. Despite all of the harm my father's murder has done to our family, it has harmed the people who did that to him much more than us."
The Jackson family was told years ago that the men who made the bomb that seriously injured Metcalfe were just perfecting their work. The next one was predicted to be stronger and deadly.
At 8:11 p.m. — Monday, Feb. 27, 1967 — the Natchez Police Department received a call that there was an explosion on Minor Street, near the tire plant, and that a truck was nearly destroyed.
Exerlena Jackson was not surprised a few minutes after the explosion when the phone rang and she was told that her husband was being transported to the hospital, a victim of an apparent bomb.
When police arrived on the scene, they found Jackson's 1958 Chevrolet blown to bits. The explosion blew out the top of the truck, the front and rear glass, both doors and the hood.
About 150 ft. east of the street, residents in the neighborhood and police found truck parts in front yards. Flying pieces of metal knocked holes in two houses.
An autopsy revealed that the explosive device was placed beneath the seat of the truck "slightly to the left and slightly to the rear of the victim. The enormous magnitude of the injuries inflicted upon this unfortunate man indicated that the explosive device was of a large size."
Police soon learned that a handful of men at Armstrong had warned that if Jackson took a "white man's job" he would pay with his life. The fact that a number of men knew violence was planned against Jackson seems to point to a conspiracy.
The likelihood every single man involved is dead is small, says Exerlena.
A native of Florida, Wharlest Jackson, a Korean combat veteran, came to Natchez because he fell in love with Exerlena and he thought his family had a future in Natchez, Exerlena's home town.
Romance between the two bloomed in Chicago. Their five children were blessed with hard-working, loving parents.
As the tragic news of the bombing spread across Natchez, a heavy rain began to fall and Jackson's pickup was covered for the night. FBI crime scene specialists were on the way.
Exerlena gathered her children and made arrangements to get to the hospital. She expected the worse.
Police found one of Jackson's shoes near the site of the bombing.
In a soggy front yard at No. 9 Minor Street near the truck rubble rested the other shoe, which was later found by Jackson's 9-year-old son Wharlest Jr., who picked it up and brought it home to his mama.