Family remembers Wharlest Jackson
It was raining on the evening of Feb. 27, 1967, but the night was warm enough to hint at the imminent approach of spring.
Just before 8 p.m., Wharlest Jackson timed out at the Armstrong Tire Factory, got into his Chevy pickup, and headed home to his wife and five children.
As Jackson drove down Minor Street, a sharp explosion split the evening calm.
A powerful bomb attached to the seat frame of Jackson’s truck threw his lifeless body into the street, where his 8-year old son, Wharlest Jr. would come upon it after riding his bicycle from home to investigate the explosion.
“I saw traffic stopped and when I moved in closer I could see someone lying in the street — it was my father,” Wharlest Jr. said.
“I found one of my daddy’s shoes lying in the street, and I picked it up. I rode home on my bicycle, holding on to that shoe, to tell my mother what had happened, but she already knew before anyone had called her.”
History has imposed a heavy burden on the family of Wharlest Jackson.
Forty years have passed since that ugly night in February 1967.
Jackson has passed into history as one of the heroes of the civil rights struggle in Mississippi.
But he was also a husband and a devoted father whose murder continues to resonate in the lives of his family.
Now living in Pasadena, Calif., Jackson’s widow, Exerlena Vanison, said she still remembers that night well.
“My husband got a promotion at the tire plant to a job that was done by whites,” she said.
“He didn’t tell me about the new job until Sunday evening. He was tired of working that night shift. He’d been doing it for 13 years. He was happy that he was going to be working the day shift and could be home for dinner with his family.
“He was our everything. All of the children took it hard, but Wharlest Jr. took it the hardest. He never did get over it. He cried all the time. Debra and Denise kept it in. They were kind of quiet.”
Wharlest Jackson Jr. agrees with his mother’s assessment.
“It was a big, long nightmare,” he said.
“I found where they had parked what was left of my father’s truck, and every day I used to sneak up there and look at it. I became angry and hateful.”
Growing up without his father was hard on young Wharlest, but other men who were friends of the Jackson family stepped in to provide mentoring and guidance to the boy.
“A lot of men stepped up to the plate, especially Mr. Cleve Johnson and Mr. Sylvester,” Jackson said.
Football became an outlet for Wharlest Jr.’s anger and aggression, and he became good enough to earn a scholarship to Mississippi Valley State. There, he played defensive back on the same team as Hall of Fame wide receiver, Jerry Rice. Jackson excelled and hoped to play in the NFL, but he suffered a displaced vertebra in his neck.
“I was lucky to get out of football without being paralyzed” Jackson said.
Through college, and in the years after, Wharlest Jr. continued to carry his anger.
In 1982, tragedy again struck the Jackson family when Wharlest’s grandmother, his two sisters Doris and Delresia, and two nieces were killed in a car accident near Red Lick.
“That was a tough one,” Jackson said.
Carrying the twin burdens of his anger and grief, Jackson drifted between Natchez, New Orleans, California and Texas. Eventually, he caught on with a construction company in Natchez and learned the building trade.
Though his bitterness sustained him and drove him for years, it wasn’t until he found his faith in the Emmanuel Church of God and Christ that Wharlest Jackson Jr. learned to forgive.
“I knew I had to forgive. I was tired of always being angry,” he said.
“Three or four years ago I began to notice that I wasn’t as angry, mad or vindictive.”
Though the deep psychiatric wound he bears is still apparent, Wharlest Jackson Jr. has found peace.
Married in 2004, he owns a thriving demolition business.
He is active in his church and mentors young men in need of guidance.
He splits his time between Natchez and California, where he goes to spend time with his mother and sister.
Like her brother, Debra Sylvester seethed with anger towards the people who had killed her father.
“I’ll never forget that nightmare,” Sylvester said.
“I became mistrustful of people and standoffish. I had a hard time dealing with the white race.”
Ultimately, life in Natchez became too much for Sylvester to bear, and in 1983 she relocated to California to be near her mother, who had remarried the previous year.
Now 52 years old, Sylvester works as a school security officer in Pasadena.
She remains ambivalent about Natchez.
“I don’t think things have really changed that much in Natchez,” she said.
“I think a lot of the old patterns are still there, but are more subtle. Dad believed everyone should enjoy what life offered. He believed everyone was entitled to do what God meant for them to do. He loved people. He wanted to make our lives better than his was growing up. He didn’t want us to grow up experiencing the hatred he had experienced.”
Denise Ford was 12 when her father was murdered. She remembers his playfulness.
“He was always pulling our noses or twisting our ears,” Ford said. “We were a close family, and we were always there for each other. I admired my dad.”
Now married, with two children, Ford is an administrative secretary for the Adams County School District.
“I never had hatred against anyone,” she said.
“We are here on this earth to love. There is no color in God’s eyes. When I talk to kids at the schools, I want them to know that my dad stood up. He always wanted us to be our best, and he told us we could be whatever we wanted to be.”