Gertrude Newsome Jackson

Activist stood tall in civil-rights era

Gertrude Newsome Jackson, a longtime activist who played a central role in the civil-rights movement in Phillips County, died Tuesday at the age of 95.

For more than 60 years, Jackson was widely recognized for her efforts on behalf of young people and minority-group members in eastern Arkansas.

"She was a grass-roots person who would go and knock on doors to get people registered to vote [in Marvell]," said Alesia Ellington, Jackson's daughter. "She was also a big proponent of children's education. She always wanted children to be able to read before they reached first grade."

Jackson was known throughout the Delta as a leader in the civil-rights movement, earning numerous accommodations and awards that included an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and U.S. presidential letters from Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

"She gave her entire life fighting for equality for all," said Deran Ford, her nephew.

In the 1960s, Jackson and her husband, Earlis, opened their home to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee group for meetings that were aimed at improving the area's predominantly black schools, according to the Central Arkansas Library System Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

In 1966, the Jacksons led a six-week boycott by black families of the Marvell School District and initiated a lawsuit that sought desegregation of the schools. Those efforts resulted in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ordering the full desegregation of the schools by the 1970-71 school year.

Jackson's efforts also drew the ire of the Ku Klux Klan. Ellington said her mother told her a story about a time when a truck pulled up beside her in Marvell.

"The man rolled down his window and fired a shot over her car, I believe," Ellington said. "She never told Dad because he would stop her from doing what she needed to do."

Jackson and her husband raised 11 children, all of whom graduated from high school and seven of whom earned college degrees.

"The challenges she had to overcome and the adversity she had to deal with in that era and at that time, but love always radiated from her," Ford said.

Ellington described her mother as a free spirit, saying Jackson lived her life by the slogan "everything is going to work out all right." That spirit extended to her children as well.

"We didn't really have many constraints on us, and we never got into trouble," Ellington said. "When we got older we asked why she raised us like that, and she told us, 'I figured everything would work out.'"

Jackson had a giving heart, too. Her daughter recalled a time when her mother took out a loan to buy a vehicle for a co-worker.

"She didn't care if you were black or white. If you were in need, then she was going to help," Ellington said. "She would say, 'I never missed a thing by giving to someone.'"

Jackson also wasn't afraid to ask for anything.

"I remember one time Bill Clinton came down to Phillips County," Ellington said with a laugh, recalling an encounter between her mother and the future 42nd president. "My mom just went up to him and said 'My daughter just loves you. Can you sign this photo?'

"So she brought me an autographed picture of Bill Clinton."

State Desk on 10/05/2019