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“American Reckoning”: 55 Years After KKK Murder of Mississippi NAACP Leader, Case Remains Unsolved

StoryFebruary 11, 2022
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Image Credit: Frontline (PBS)/Retro Report: American Reckoning

This month marks 55 years since the assassination of an NAACP leader. The new documentary “American Reckoning” seeks justice in the cold case of murdered civil rights activist and local NAACP leader Wharlest Jackson Sr. in Natchez, Mississippi. No one was ever charged with his 1967 murder, despite evidence pointing to the involvement of the inner circle of the local Ku Klux Klan. It’s one of many unsolved crimes targeting civil rights activists. “The fact that no one has been indicted for Wharlest’s case or for these other cases shows the limits of the justice system,” says co-director and co-producer Yoruba Richen. Wharlest Jackson Sr.'s daughter, Denise Ford Jackson, recalls how her mother received redacted documents when trying to get to the bottom of her husband's murder. We also speak with Brad Lichtenstein, the film’s co-director.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

It’s Black History Month. This month marks 55 years since the assassination of an NAACP leader in the city of Natchez, Mississippi. On February 27, 1967, Wharlest Jackson Sr. died when a bomb attached to his car exploded. At the time, Jackson was the treasurer of the NAACP in Natchez. He died on his way home from working, his first day of work at the Armstrong Tire and Rubber plant. He had just been promoted to a job never held by a Black man before. Wharlest Jackson Sr. was 36 years old, the father of five. The FBI suspected the assassination was carried out by the inner circle of the Ku Klux Klan, known as the Silver Dollar Group, but no one was ever charged in his murder.

This tragic story is told in a new documentary that examines the civil rights struggle in Natchez. It’s called American Reckoning. This is an excerpt from the film featuring Wharlest Jackson Sr.'s son, Wharlest Jackson Jr., who recalls his father's assassination. At the time, he was just 8 years old.

WHARLEST JACKSON JR.: I stood right here, working on my bicycle in front of my house. I was trying to get my banana seat right, and I had a big, nice, big fat tire on the back of it. I used to see those guys riding those choppers. Man, I wanted to make my bike like that, too, a little 20-inch bicycle.

I heard the explosion. My mind went, “What is that?” I never heard anything like that before. I jumped on my bicycle. I shot right down there and shot straight to this here street here. You can look straight down the street to MLK. I’m noticing people outside of their houses, you know, and I just rode up there and started looking, and — I saw a gentleman laying in the street, not knowing who he was, and seeing the truck, knowing whose truck that was and not being able to connect the dots together.

I saw a shoe that he was wearing. And I grabbed that shoe and came to the house. And later, I heard from my mother, as I grew up, I had come back with his flesh in his shoe.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the new documentary American Reckoning. The film goes on to look at how the community in Natchez, Mississippi, responded to the assassination of Wharlest Jackson Sr.

REPORTER 1: Nearly 1,000 Negroes are marching silently through the center of Natchez, protesting the bomb slaying Monday night of civil rights leader, father of five, Wharlest Jackson.

REPORTER 2: Jackson, an official of the local NAACP, had left his new job last night at the Armstrong Rubber Company, presumably en route home. The cab and the truck were completely demolished.

WHARLEST JACKSON JR.: My father looked out for the Black community in this town. And, believe me, this community loved my father. He was just a god to me.

DENISE FORD JACKSON: My father sacrificed his life so that we can have a better community and you don’t have to be afraid. But will we ever get justice?

UNIDENTIFIED: They’ve been killing us here for 400 years.

UNIDENTIFIED: Right.

UNIDENTIFIED: It’s got to come to a head. And we’re sick and tired of that. We done built this country.

CHARLES EVERS: The sooner the white people realize that we aren’t going nowhere, the better it’s going to be for all of us.

UNIDENTIFIED: Wake up, white people, before it’s too late.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the new documentary, Frontline and Retro Report’s new documentary American Reckoning, premiering Tuesday, February 15th, on PBS and online at PBS.org/frontline, YouTube and in the PBS video app. The project is supported by WNET’s Chasing the Dream.

We’re joined now by three guests. Denise Ford Jackson, the daughter of Wharlest Jackson Sr., as well as the film directors, Brad Lichtenstein and Yoruba Richen.

It’s great to have everyone with us, and, Yoruba, a former producer at Democracy Now!, a great honor to have you back, as well. Yoruba, I want to begin with you, talking about this just devastating story, that is many storylines put together. It is the story of a city in this country where, at the highest levels, the conspiracy of the government against the Black population of Natchez, and the fact that we did not — many people in this country, I should say, have not heard of Wharlest Jackson, let alone his assassination, his murder.

YORUBA RICHEN: Absolutely. Thank you, Amy, for having us on.

It’s a story that, when Brad told me about — Brad had been developing it, and he’ll tell you about that, for a couple of years before asking me to partner with him on this project. But when he told me about it, I was immediately intrigued and interested in this story that I had never heard of. I always love projects where I am learning something and uncovering a story that hadn’t been told. And then, when I saw the trailer that Brad initially made, and I saw the amazing archival footage that really documented what was happening in Natchez and the murder of Wharlest Jackson Sr. — I had never seen this archival footage. I had never seen a — you know, the documentation of the story that was happening, like, in real time. His —

AMY GOODMAN: Let me — let me say something about that, and I want to bring Brad in. I mean, this is so astounding, the level of detail of footage you have from over half a century ago documenting the movement in Natchez. And you have a direct link to this story, as well, as you were an intern with John Lewis when he was running for Congress. And John — Congressmember John Lewis, the civil rights icon, figures into this story.

BRAD LICHTENSTEIN: Yes. Good morning. And thank you for asking me, because I love to remember my relationship with Mr. Lewis, who I met when I was 15 years old, and I worked on his campaign, and then we became lifelong friends. And he’s the author of the Emmett Till Act. And that’s really how this project got started. I was visiting him in his office in Washington, and we were talking about different ideas for films. And [inaudible] secretary, Brenda Jones, told me about the cold cases that were being reexamined under the Emmett Till Act and that that might be a thing to focus on.

And then I learned about the story of Wharlest Jackson Sr. and then discovered that filmmaker Ed Pincus and his filmmaking partner David Neuman had actually been in Natchez at the exact same time, making the movie Black Natchez, and that there were hours and hours and hours of outtakes, and that they had returned right after the assassination of Mr. Jackson and started to try to make a sequel. And so, there’s something like 30 hours of footage that never saw the light of day. And then we discovered that that footage had been collected into a collection at the Amistad Research Center and was actually going to be available to use, which is what gives us the ability to tell this story in real time, even though, as you pointed out, it happened over half a century ago.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to bring Denise in, but first to the documentary again, American Reckoning. This excerpt begins with an archival clip from 1965 in Natchez.

PETITIONER: Under the school board for the Natchez-Adams County public schools, the undersigned hereby petition your board to initiate racial desegregation of the public schools under your jurisdiction and control.

STANLEY NELSON: By late August, the NAACP filed a lawsuit against the schools for segregation.

PETITIONER: We would fully request that the names of those signing this petition not be made public in order to protect the signers from possible reprisals and harassment.

TONY BYRNE: There was a fear and a resentment of desegregation of the schools at the time in the white community. There was just wild rumors of what was going to happen if the Blacks took over.

UNIDENTIFIED: My dad and the Klan didn’t want Black people in our schools, offices, anything. They wanted to get it stopped at all costs.

REPORTER: George Metcalfe, president of the Natchez chapter of the NAACP, was critically injured in Natchez this afternoon when dynamite, hidden beneath the hood of his car, exploded when he turned on the ignition.

WHARLEST JACKSON JR.: When the bomb went off under the hood of his vehicle, a lot of that metal and brass just went back into his face.

AKINYELE UMOJA: After the bombing of Metcalfe’s car, the Black community explodes.

AMY GOODMAN: After the 1965 bombing of the car of the Natchez NAACP leader George Metcalfe, who did survive that, civil rights activists organized a massive boycott against white-owned businesses. This clip features Charles Evers, the brother of Medgar Evers, who was assassinated two years earlier, in 1963, at his home in Jackson, Mississippi.

CHARLES EVERS: You tell the good mayor that I said he can get all the injunction, conjunction and somejunction he want to get, we’re not going to spend our money with him anymore, until he hire people and give them decent jobs and recognize them as individuals and human beings.

We decided we were going to embargo every white store in Natchez.

REPORTER: Downtown Natchez is under a strict boycott by nearly half the population. The boycott began when the Negroes failed to get their 12 demands from city officials.

CHARLES EVERS: The mayor at the time had a whole shopping center, Mayor Nosser. We shut his whole damn shopping center down.

JAMES STOKES: Keep the white man’s dollar out of his pocket, and you can control him instead of him controlling you.

AMY GOODMAN: That last speaker was James Stokes, a spokesperson of the armed African American self-defense group Deacons of Defense. Now let’s turn to another clip of American Reckoning about the protests in Natchez in 1965.

UNIDENTIFIED: There are these marches at night that are taking place. Three hundred marchers are arrested for parading without a permit.

J.T. ROBINSON: I’m the chief of police, J.T. Robinson. If you don’t disperse and go home, I will have to put you under arrest, parading without a permit, which is in violation of the city ordinance.

UNIDENTIFIED: At another attempted march, 150 are arrested. And then, yet another march is attempted.

POLICE OFFICER: Step back on the other side, please!

EXERLENA JACKSON: We walked about a block before the police stopped us. They had buses come in and picked us up and took us to Parchman, Mississippi.

UNIDENTIFIED: Once they’re at Parchman, it’s cold. They were stripped naked. They were given a laxative.

EXERLENA JACKSON: They made us all drink about an eight-ounce glass full. They said, “Well, you’re going to drink this medicine or else get beat to death.”

AMY GOODMAN: Again, a clip from American Reckoning. And now we’re going to Denise Ford Jackson, featured in the film, the daughter of Wharlest Jackson Sr., the treasurer of the NAACP chapter in Natchez, who was assassinated two years later, from what we saw in that clip, in a bombing by the Ku Klux Klan. Denise, it’s 55 years later, but our deepest condolences go to you and your family as you live this every day of your lives. It is so clear in this documentary.

DENISE FORD JACKSON: Yes, it is. And thank you for having me this morning.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk about — I mean, the story of Parchman. Your mother was in Parchman, right? Your mother was one of those arrested. She, like your dad, would — was unrelenting in trying to challenge the racist system. And they describe this horror of being put in these cold cells, stripped naked and forced to drink laxatives, so that — and they, obviously, had no access to bathrooms. I mean, this is pure torture. What happened to your mother after this?

DENISE FORD JACKSON: Well, she became ill. She formed an illness that kept her bedridden. And me and my dad had to take care of the five children, cook for us, comb our hair. And then, once she was able to — she came up with a sickness called lupus, which nothing kept her down, but she was able to, you know, regain her strength back, and she was able to do what she needed to do for the family.

AMY GOODMAN: So, she’s ill. She’s come out of Parchman. Your father is continuing to organize. That was '65. Your father is assassinated in ’67. Tell us what happened. And did you — I mean, you're a little kid at the time, but this ominous sense of the targeting of your family.

DENISE FORD JACKSON: The only thing I can relate to was that I know that my dad was under a lot of pressure, being threatened with, you know, being able to — he wanted to accept a promotion at Armstrong. He discussed it with my mom. My mom told him not to accept the position. But he was a man that didn’t take “no” for an answer. They were trying to make a stand here in the county, in the city of Natchez, so that people know that, you know, we, as a Black, was just as capable of handling the supervisor positions as the white man, even though they said these positions were for white only. But my father took a stand to make our — wanted to make our community better. And my mother was one who was objecting to it, but he wouldn’t take “no.” He wouldn’t accept the word “no.” He said, “I’m going to take this thing in,” because it was — it gave him a five-cent raise, that helped him with the five children that he was trying to raise.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Frontline and Retro Report, this documentary that Brad and Yoruba have made, also taps into the groundbreaking reporting of Stanley Nelson — another Stanley Nelson, of the South — who investigated the allegations of the involvement of this Ku Klux Klan — you can’t really call it an offshoot, I think, the inner circle of, you know, sort of the white collar of the white sheets, known as the Silver Dollar Group. This clip begins with Leland Boyd, the son of a Klan member.

LELAND BOYD: I think my dad was probably on the foundation of the formation of the Silver Dollar Club. But we would go in a restaurant. There would be several people sitting in there. And my dad walked up, and he dropped a silver dollar on the table and says, “Does that have a familiar ring to it?” And the guy sitting at the table said, “Yeah, that sounds like freedom.”

STANLEY NELSON: I don’t know how to term them, and this is like a crude term, but if you had an all-star Klan team, that would be it. They would be in the Pro Bowl. A Silver Dollar Group member would be the kind of guy that thought wearing a robe was silly, who thought burning crosses was silly, who rejected the old Klan because they weren’t achieving anything.

UNIDENTIFIED: He kept his dynamite and hand grenades in the house, so I saw them. You’d just hear little things about, “We gotta take care of business,” kind of thing.

UNIDENTIFIED: In the record, you would have some of these members of the Silver Dollar Group going back and forth across the Mississippi River supporting each other with these very nefarious activities.

CYNTHIA DEITLE: They were very quick to extreme violence. They felt very comfortable slaughtering people and knowing they could get away with it.

AMY GOODMAN: In that clip, we heard from the children of two Silver Dollar Group members. The last speaker was Cynthia Deitle, who is the former FBI civil rights unit chief charged with trying to solve some of these cold cases that dated back decades. Brad Lichtenstein, let’s go back to you. What you learned, what the family learned — I mean, this amazing meeting that, Denise, you and your brother and sister had with Stanley Nelson, the white reporter in Natchez, who really took on these cold cases. Brad?

BRAD LICHTENSTEIN: Right. Stanley actually started writing about these cold cases in 2008, right at the beginning of the Till Act. And it really was because he realized he lived — not lived, I’m sorry, he worked across the street, practically, from where a different murder had taken place in — right across the river in Vidalia and Ferriday, Louisiana. And he got curious, and he realized that if he didn’t know anything about it, at least probably most white people didn’t know the stories. And he started digging into the cases, and, of course, he met the Jackson family and, you know, had to talked to them some over the years. And really, he provided the full story, which the family never could get from law enforcement, whether it was local law enforcement or federal, or the FBI.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us, Denise, about that meeting that you have with Stanley Nelson, with your brother Wharlest and with your sister, as he lays out for you who exactly he believes killed your father and how he did it.

DENISE FORD JACKSON: It was one of the most amazing meetings that we’ve had, because back in '67, when we tried — when my mom was living and tried to find out information, she was given documents that had been redacted. Everybody's name was scratched out. She kept going back to the law enforcements. Even the FBI came and told her that they — they came to assist the local police. And from there, we never received any names or anything. But meeting with Stanley Nelson, he was able to give us — he was able, to me, to give me more closure to my daddy’s death than the people here in Natchez, Mississippi, were able to give. And hats off to Stanley for the job that he had done, even though documents that we received from the FBI, you know, was redacted and we still didn’t know anything. So, I just appreciate the work that he did, because he gave us insight.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about —

DENISE FORD JACKSON: And hope.

AMY GOODMAN: — who you understand killed him. I mean, there’s a broader question, like it’s not one person, but the person who put the bomb on the left clicker of his car so that when he turned left — they knew, when he came from the factory, he would have to make a left turn into the Black community. And it was set for — they believed he’d be going home at a time when all the kids were outside, and would have killed so many, but he had to work overtime, so it was like 8:00 at night. And so, when he makes a left turn, the kids aren’t out. It just kills him. Who that man was of the white dollar — of the Silver Dollar Group?

DENISE FORD JACKSON: Stanley found out it was Ed Glover.

BRAD LICHTENSTEIN: Red.

DENISE FORD JACKSON: Red Glover.

BRAD LICHTENSTEIN: Yes.

DENISE FORD JACKSON: Somebody that we didn’t know, I don’t know.

BRAD LICHTENSTEIN: Someone who’s dead.

AMY GOODMAN: Who later died, of course.

BRAD LICHTENSTEIN: Right.

DENISE FORD JACKSON: Right, who later died. Right.

BRAD LICHTENSTEIN: He had been dead for a while, even before the Emmett Till Act was passed. He had been dead.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to go to the Emmett Till Act, because now we’re talking about the closure of all of these cases. This is a clip from American Reckoning about the FBI closing its investigation into your dad’s murder, into the murder of Wharlest Jackson Sr. This is your brother, Wharlest Jackson Jr.

WHARLEST JACKSON JR.: It was an FBI agent that knocked on the door. I opened the door. He said, “I’m looking for Wharlest Jackson Jr.” He went back to his vehicle and gave me that letter.

DENISE FORD JACKSON: I received this letter in the mail, and it was a slap in the face. I felt like the FBI brought all this attention out to make themselves look good, and, you know, our family still suffered. I often tell myself nothing will ever survive over here because of the prejudiceness that happened in this building, and a lot of sadness, a lot of hurt.

ROY AUSTIN: People are going to be frustrated if someone isn’t convicted, if someone isn’t arrested. But at some point a determination has to be made to close the case. We’ve talked to everyone who could possibly have any real information. How many times are we going to reinvestigate? There’s no more value in asking more questions.

AMY GOODMAN: Yoruba Richen, we’re going to end with you. So, you have this Emmett Till law that John Lewis really authored and pushed through. A hundred fifty cases, 125 of them closed, with not one indictment. And this goes right to Natchez, which is the microcosm of what we’re seeing today. If you could talk about whether in fact this really ends things, or isn’t this the case for reparations or for a kind of lawsuit that is a conspiracy of the entire state? I mean, Parchman was not one guy putting a bomb in a car. It was the state going after all those who protested injustice in Natchez.

YORUBA RICHEN: Yes. I think that the fact that no one has been indicted for Wharlest’s case or for these other cases shows the limits of the justice system in holding people accountable for crimes that happened many years ago.

I think it’s important to note that we found out that Congressman Lewis, he wanted a larger — a larger thing, not just for the Justice Department to open up these cases, but he was really looking for a truth and reconciliation commission that would — in the vein of South Africa, where all these crimes would come to light, where people had to come and talk and air what happened and get at the truth. Of course, he wasn’t able to do that. I mean, we live in an extremely polarized country, where, you know, talking the truth about this stuff is — you know, that people don’t want it to happen. We see that now with what’s going on with this critical race theory ridiculousness.

But all that to say is that I think this does open up a case for reparations, which we are now talking about in a real way for the first time, and looking at what these families deserve. What is justice for these families? Reparations, mental health — mental health — you know, stuff to make them able to deal with this trauma that has happened, that we see with Denise, that we see with Wharlest Jr. What kind of services can we provide? So we really need to have that conversation. Because it’s true: These people are dead, you know, for the most part, I mean, for the crimes that were committed long ago. So, how else can we repair the damage that was done and that generational damage? And I think that is about reparations and other services that can provide hope and help for these families.

AMY GOODMAN: Yoruba, you’re premiering this film at the Laemmle in Los Angeles, and then next week it’s going to premiere on PBS. And I’m wondering what you want people to take away from this?

YORUBA RICHEN: I want people to take away, to understand that — first off, we didn’t get to talk much about the Deacons for Defense, but that the civil rights movement, or the Black freedom struggle, as I say, is not just reduced to a nonviolent strategy, and that the Deacons for Defense were one of many organizations that fought back and protected their community. And that is also how rights were won in many different communities. So I want people to understand that. And I want people to take away and to find out more about the history that has been erased or —

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

YORUBA RICHEN: Yes, to find out more about the history that’s been erased, and also white people especially, because we’re at a critical moment in this country where they’re trying to erase our history.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Yoruba Richen, Brad Lichtenstein and Denise Ford, Wharlest —

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