Ignoring history only hurts us all

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 8, 2010

Can Natchez ever come to terms with the racism in its past?

The world sees one image, but for generations of Natchezians another, less glamorous, view exists.

Natchez is a beautiful place where some ugly things happened in the past and, in some ways, continue today.

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While that’s not the message local tourism officials would seek to plaster on brochures, it’s a message that reared its head again last week.

A number of residents reacted negatively to a simple plan to memorialize a man who was killed during the 1960s, just for being black.

Many residents know the story.

Wharlest Jackson, father of five, was killed on Minor Street in 1967 when a homemade bomb ripped apart his vehicle. Racist murderers targeted Jackson because he had recently received a job that had, until then, been a “whites only” position.

More than 43 years later his murder remains unsolved.

Last week, two of Jackson’s children — adults who grew up without the benefit of having their daddy around — suggested they were raising funds to erect a memorial marker for their father.

It seems like the least the community can do since worldly justice was never served in Jackson’s murder.

Yet, the simple request for private donations to help fund the memorial was greeted by at least a few racially tinged reactions.

Those reactions disgust me.

Jackson’s unresolved murder was, in many ways, a turning point in Natchez’s history.

It shocked the white community deeply enough to realize just how insane the world had become in the 1960s.

Even this newspaper, like many white-owned Southern newspapers at the time that largely ignored the black community, was shocked by the violence.

A front-page editorial the day following Jackson’s murder included:

“There is no act in the long history of Natchez that is as wanton, dastardly, brutal and senseless as the murder of Wharlest Jackson, highly valued employee of Armstrong Rubber Company and highly respected citizen of the community on Monday night.”

That may not seem like much of a statement in today’s world, but back then, in the Jim Crow Era, it was a minor indication of just how horrified Natchez was by Jackson’s murder.

At that point in history, Natchez was just more than 250 years old. If the former Democrat editorial writer was correct, Jackson’s murder was the most brutal act in our community’s first 250 years of existence.

That’s a pretty profound statement.

Jackson’s death was the tipping point that began stirring the hearts of the white community enough to eventually stand up and say “enough” to the violence that tainted the 1960s.

Although obviously on a much smaller scale, memorializing Jackson’s death is as important as remembering the thousands upon thousands of people who were killed during the Holocaust.

We must remember our history — all of our history.

And sometimes doing so makes us feel uneasy or ashamed, but our history cannot be changed.

Our future, however, is shaped by how we learn from and respond to our past.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.