A 1967 Murder and a ‘Reckoning’ with the TruthListen
A.B. BRITTON JR.: There have been cross burnings, bombings, church burnings and killings justice under law is not guaranteed for the Negro in Mississippi in the way that it is for the white man.
CHARLES EVERS: We’re out fighting for the things we’ve been denied so long.
REPORTER 1: Downtown Natchez is under a strict boycott by nearly half the population.
REPORTER 2: Mr. Mayor, do you anticipate any violent reaction from the Ku Klux Klan or any other organization as a response?
JOHN NOSSER: No, I don’t.
CHARLES EVERS: …They can destroy a man, but they cannot destroy this movement.
RANEY ARONSON-RATH, HOST: In 1967, a man named Wharlest Jackson Sr. was murdered on his way home from work in Natchez, Mississippi.
CHARLES EVERS: And all Mr. Jackson was guilty of—he wanted a job to
make it better for his wife and five children. That’s all he wanted.
RANEY ARONSON-RATH: Jackson was a Korean war veteran who was involved in civil rights organizing, and who had just been promoted at work. No charges have ever been brought in this case.
WHARLEST JACKSON JR.: I relive this thing over and over again and have been doing it for years. Hoping for some justice.
RANEY ARONSON-RATH: More than forty years later, the federal government reopened Jackson’s case, along with more than 100 other unsolved civil-rights-era cold cases. Un(re)solved is a multi platform initiative from FRONTLINE that tells the stories of these lives cut short, and examines the federal investigations brought on by the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.
American Reckoning — part of the Unresolved initiative— is a feature-length documentary from FRONTLINE and Retro Report. It traces the life and death of Wharlest Jackson Sr, the history of the civil rights movement in his hometown, and his family’s ongoing struggle to achieve justice.
I’m joined by American Reckoning producers, writers, and directors — Yoruba Richen and Brad Lichtenstein — as well as Dawn Porter, who co-executive produced this film and the entire Un(re)solved initiative with me for FRONTLINE.
Brad, Yoruba, Dawn — Welcome to the Dispatch.
YORUBA RICHEN: Thank you so much.
BRAD LICHTENSTEIN: Thank you.
DAWN PORTER: Thanks. So good to be here.
RANEY ARONSON-RATH: So Dawn, before we get into the film, I really wanna talk to you about our overarching project Un(re)solved. And I remember calling you on the phone about it, like it was yesterday, but can you help our listeners understand what Un(re)solved is? And because it's so hard to see it without seeing it try to help us see it as well.
DAWN PORTER: So Un(re)solved is a multipart, um, I guess once upon a time we would've called it new media, but I guess the media's not so new anymore.
RANEY ARONSON-RATH: Right, right.
DAWN PORTER: So it is a podcast led by James Edwards, which is multipart, really deep dive into the stories that support the rest of the project. Then there is an interactive, which is very, very exciting. This is a website where you are drawn into the story and the FRONTLINE team tapped Tamara Shogaolu, who is an African American artist living in Amsterdam. What she was able to design, graphically, was an immersive experience on the web where you can travel kind of through time and do a deep dive into the stories of some of the people on the Emmett Till list. There were 151 names on this list that were identified as probable civil rights murders. And, uh, the Justice Department was charged with investigating those alleged crimes. And then the third piece of Un(re)solved is, um, probably — I mean, it's hard to choose. It's like choosing among your children, but, um, the, the third piece that is so, so exciting and I think has really been embraced by audiences around the country is, these panels designed by Tamara, you are able to approach the panels, say the name of the person you're interested in hearing their story, and then you are able to do a deep dive, immersive journey about their story.
RANEY ARONSON-RATH: Yeah. I mean, I have to say, and I've said this to you so many times before — Thank you for joining me on this incredible, journey. And for your leadership on this with me and with so many others at FRONTLINE. And let's get to the film. So the documentary American Reckoning — Brad, I was hoping to start with you. Just tell me about how this all begins. And then I would love to understand how you partnered with Yoruba, and Yoruba, I'll come to you next.
BRAD LICHTENSTEIN: Sure. First of all, so excited that this all came together with FRONTLINE and, um, the story really starts for me back in 2014. And I was sitting in Congressman John Lewis's office talking with him and his press secretary, Brenda Jones. And we were actually talking about some different ideas about films. And then Brenda Jones mentioned to me the Emmett Till Act and the different cases and the stories of the families.. And Mr. Lewis thought that that would be something that we should really explore. And that really was the beginning. And then shortly after that, I discovered that there was this amazing footage, that there had been a film — that film Black Natchez – had been made. And that was 1965 in Natchez. And of course, 1967 was when Wharlest Jackson Sr. Was murdered by the Klan and the same filmmakers Ed Pincus and David Neuman who made Black Natchez had gone back to film at the time of the funeral and to stay and to catch up with people in the 1965 film. And so suddenly there was this 75 hours plus treasure trove of, of footage to be able to tell history in real time. And then I will, I will pass it to Yoruba.
YORUBA RICHEN: Yeah, so, um, Brad and I knew each other. We were friends. Um, we had met making a previous film and —
BRAD LICHTENSTEIN: And we're still friends after making this film.
RANEY ARONSON-RATH: Amazing that you're — we're all still friends. It's amazing.
YORUBA RICHEN: Exactly. Amazing. That's right. Um, and we actually ran into each other in 2016 at Sundance, and we were talking about, you know, upcoming projects and what we were working on.
And Brad started telling me about American Reckoning, which was always the name by the way. So Brad was telling me about the film. And I was immediately intrigued because of the topic and it was a story I hadn't heard. And then he sent me the trailer that he had initially made. And I was so struck by the story, by Wharlest and his family and the archive footage, which I had never seen before. It was incredible to see that this story was being captured at the time, which is so rare that you have that as a filmmaker. And then I also, as I read the treatment discovered that the Deacons for Defense were a part of the Natchez story, the Natchez resistance. And I was hooked at that point. I had heard of the Deacons before, and had become a little bit obsessed with them. And the fact that we were able to bring in this unknown story of the civil rights movement, their participation, and who they were was really exciting to me. And so we, we teamed up and that's how we, that's how we started.
RANEY ARONSON-RATH: Yoruba, help us understand why the Deacons for Defense became so important to you to understand as well, and then to tell their story.
YORUBA RICHEN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think it's important to understand that the racial terror that African Americans have experienced in this country since we were brought here was, that in terms of surviving that racial terror, we had to defend ourselves and that the history of self defense, is a long one for Black people. The Deacons for Defense were part of that in the 1960s, but it was a long tradition in the Black community. And of course that's not something that we really hear about, when we understand the civil rights movement and it's been something that has been buried quite frankly.
MALE VOICE: The quickest way to freedom is to meet violence with violence.
MALE VOICE: Violence with violence! Black mamba.
MALE VOICE: This is a powder keg, man, and tonight, tonight, the fuse is going to be lit.
OTIS FLEMING, Deacons for Defense: There's not many of us, but if we're together, just like a fist, man, just like a fist, we can be stronger than we can if you just come out open like this, you know?
RANEY ARONSON-RATH: Dawn, I will never forget our conversation when you and I both realized this archive, right? When we saw it and we were just really blown away by the footage.
DAWN PORTER: Yeah, that was one of the most exciting things that I've seen. I've done a number of films as Brad and Yoruba have about the civil rights movement and had just actually finished a film about Congressman John Lewis. And I was very familiar with the story of nonviolence, of nonviolent resistance that was popularized by Dr. King, accepted by John Lewis. The civil rights marchers and protestors and activists of the 1960s, the ones that we are most familiar with had accepted this position of nonviolence. And so hearing about the Deacons there was always a question for me about what, what was the other response? Did everybody adhere to nonviolence? Did everybody accept nonviolence? And the Deacons you know, seeing them and hearing them and seeing their way that the community organized to protect its citizens and how they didn't seek violence, but they didn't put it off the table. And I just felt like this completes or this adds to, uh, the story of civil rights, resistance in such an important way it was really, really thrilling to see. And then the footage that Brad and Yoruba are speaking to, was just documentary gold.
MALE SPEAKER: August 13th, 1965.
DAWN PORTER: You could literally feel the tension, but you could also feel something that is really important to focus on, which is you could feel the citizens' assertion of power, of saying we will not be slaughtered. We will not be discriminated against.
MALE SPEAKER: The Negro Protection Organization of Adams County. Rule one: that is to not break the law but to make sure the law is enforced upon all citizens. Do not attack first at any time.
JAMES JACKSON: The real reason for this is not to stir up trouble, not to start trouble, it's to prevent it. You understand me? You know the risk that we finna to take, right?
NATCHEZ DEACON 1: Now is the time, right now.
DAWN PORTER:And you know, these were not militant people, whatever that means. These were ordinary people who said we will protect our families. And I think to understand all of the ways in which Black people in particular resisted discrimination, resisted oppression, you have to understand not only the non-violence story, but you have to understand, uh, people who were willing to meet violence with appropriate force.
RANEY ARONSON-RATH: Yeah. I mean, speaking of white terror, right, there was a, a long conversation. I know that happened about the idea of including interviews with children of the local KU Klux Klan members. Can you talk to me about the decision to do that?
YORUBA RICHEN: Well, I thought it was really important to include those voices. And part of it is that, you know, this is American history. This is not just Black history. This is a part of our experience as Americans. And there are perpetrators, and we need to be able to find out, you know, either through them directly or through their descendants, what were the stories that were told in their household? What was their mindset around these events and why they did what they did. And, and until we do that, I don't think we're gonna really grapple with the history in, in this country. Um, until those voices come forward, and tell their stories. You know, this actually leads into what we discovered Congressman Lewis really wanted, which is a truth and reconciliation commission, um, similar to what they did in South Africa where the victims and the perpetrators came forward and, you know, Lord knows we need one in this country. And one of the ways that we can get there, we can start that process is by talking to the descendants of the perpetrators.
BRAD LICHTENSTEIN: I'll just add, I totally agree with Yoruba and you know, it was a part of the plan for a long time. I think an important point about the reason why we want to also interview the children of the Klan and understand their perspective is that you know, Deborah Taylor who talked to us and her father had been one of the leaders of the Silver Dollar Group has lived a life filled with her own kind of pain and shame, and this desire to try to, um, seek reconciliation where her father had done so much harm. And, you know, I think that's part of what Mr. Lewis was trying to get at with really wanting a truth and reconciliation process for this country. It's to be able to bring all of those feelings, all of those stories, all those truths to bear and to reckon with them.
RANEY ARONSON-RATH: Let's move on to Wharlest Jackson Sr. Tell me first of all, who he is and what happened to him?
BRAD LICHTENSTEIN: Sure. Um, Wharlest Jackson Sr was what we've come to say is, he was a foot soldier in the civil rights movement. He was a man who, along with one of his best friends, George Metcalf, was determined to restart a chapter of the NAACP in Natchez to combat all of the white led terror efforts.
There was a lot of violence going on as well as just to, uh, fight for things that we know people were fighting for all over the country, which is access to the vote. Uh, being able to have representation on the police force, to be able to access public facilities, schools. All of these were part of the agenda. And, uh, he also was a family man. He was taking care of his family, which was uh, of course you meet Denise and Wharlest junior and, uh, Deborah in the film. He had two other daughters who unfortunately had passed before we were filming. You also discover that he was working lots of jobs to make all of this work, including working at Armstrong Tire and Rubber, which was one of the main, job providers and manufacturers in town and that many Klan members worked there. So he was going to work every day in the presence of men who wanted to do him harm and eventually would.
YORUBA RICHEN: And I also think he was a man who was trying to protect his family. Like so many African Americans at that time and today, he was really trying to protect his family from the violence of what was going on in Natchez.
RANEY ARONSON-RATH: So Yoruba, tell me what happens to Wharlest Jackson Sr.
YORUBA RICHEN: So, um, as Brad said, he, was working at Armstrong Tire Company. Um, while he was also working for change and equality in Natchez and he got a job that was a promotion, um, that had never been held by a, an African American person before. So it was considered a quote-unquote white job. And he was also taking care of George Metcalf, who was the NAACP leader who they attempted to kill, um, and who survived. And he was driving and a bomb was planted and he was killed and Wharlest Jr heard the explosion and he ran on his bike down to the area and he was the one, you know, who found out that it was his father.
RANEY ARONSON-RATH: Right. Dawn, can you take a moment to just speak a little bit about the generational long term trauma of all of this, um, and Wharlest Jackson Jr.
DAWN PORTER: Yeah. Um, you know, one of the things that is so heartbreaking is seeing the effects, the long lasting intergenerational effects of these crimes and this violence, um, on the children and, you know, the interview with Wharlest Jackson Jr. it's, you know, among the most heartbreaking you'll ever see, um, you see how viscerally he, even to this day experiences that memory of understanding his father had been murdered in that very violent way. Um, and you know, we, as you mentioned, we did see that with so many. Of the, the children and grandchildren. You know, and so, um, these stories may be history if you haven't experienced them, but for the families, these are ever present realities. And so, you know, over and over in response to the question, why are you doing this? Why are you, um, you know, kind of digging up these painful memories? It's because the memories have not been erased for the people who do not have answers about their loved ones. They are open wounds, it is if it happened yesterday and you know, the way that you heal is acknowledge. People need some acknowledgement that this was wrong, that it happened, that it happened for a racially discriminatory reason, but they also need some assurance that other people care. Um, and that their loved ones, deaths were not only tragedies, but hopefully they are, um, an incentive to live up to the promise of never again.
RANEY ARONSON-RATH: Right, absolutely.
BRAD LICHTENSTEIN: There's a scene in the film where we're in Atlanta. At a gathering of people who have experienced similar things to what people that are named in the Till act experienced. And so you see across generations the way in which, um, people are have this, have this common, um, you know, experience with violence in their family. And that, in a sense is this cross-generational sense of hope that hopefully, um, if we're successful in making sure that we don't tolerate. This kind of, uh, negligence around, uh, violence against Black people or any racial violence that, um, we won't be here 50 years later, trying to piece together the puzzle of a case. Of course you, that hope is not necessarily requited because as Yoruba knows, you know, she made a film about Breonna Taylor. Um, and there's actually a scene in the film where, um, Wharlest is talking to a man named Martinez Sutton, who is Rekia Boyd's brother. Rekia Boyd, who was, uh, killed by off-duty Chicago police officer, and telling him that he's gonna have some dark nights and that he needs to try to hold out hope and try to find a way to heal and to, and to, um, you know, to show love. And in that moment we see Wharlest Jr. Who's been so impacted by the trauma of discovering his father's death, actually delivering comfort to a person that has been through something similar.
RANEY ARONSON-RATH: I know that that scene was really powerful and you know, of course what went through my mind and I'm sure so many others is it's just, it's happening again and again and again, right. and he's, he's such a, he's such a profound character. Um, Wharlest Jackson, Jr, and his sister and, and the whole family. Dawn, I wanted to revisit a thought that Yoruba mentioned earlier, and I've heard her say many times before that you know, this story, and so many of these stories are not just Black history, but they're American history and they're actually not even just history. These are the stories that people are living through right now. Um, can you give us a perspective on this, about why it's so important as investigative reporters, as producers, as storytellers directors, how important it is to continue to tell these stories?
DAWN PORTER: Sure. Um, you know, I think we are. I actually think I'll I'll, uh, you know, kind of take it this way. I think we have made progress. I think that we, um, certainly some portions of the population have acknowledged, um, brutalities and inequality and, uh, that the, the racial divisions, um, have led to unequal positions in society. And I think that. There has been a greater recognition of some of the, um, uh, really terrible actions of the, of the past. There has been. Um, there is, there are a number of reactions to that. There's shame. Um, there's anger, there's, uh, a desire to look away and. Part of that desire. Part of the effort to look away is to assert that either this is not worth discussing or this or it didn't happen. Um, so you know, one of the, the signs that you're successful is when you get resistance and you, in order to have progress, you have to understand both where you've succeeded and where you've failed. And, um, so I think that there's, there are two really important parts to understanding this part of our American history. So, this is not Black history. The people who were murdered, the people who were targeted, lived here in America. They did not live overseas. These are, this is American violence against other Americans. And I think if we wanna have all people be able to have pride in our nation, we have to understand the actions of some, uh, against others.
YORUBA RICHEN: Part of justice, at least maybe a small part of it is telling the story and is revealing the truth. And, um, And as part of healing as well. And Denise, Wharlest's sister said that to us, and I think that is kind of why we do what we do in a lot of ways. And so, um, that, you know, that, that not only that the story is revealed and told, but that these foot soldiers are of the movement are honored and their names remembered.
RANEY ARONSON-RATH: Thank you so much, Yoruba, Brad, and Dawn. The film is really powerful. Un(re)solved is going to live on. Um, and I, I can't thank you enough for coming on the Dispatch.
YORUBA RICHEN: Thank you.
BRAD LICHTENSTEIN: Thank you so much.
RANEY ARONSON-RATH: To watch the documentary American Reckoning, head to frontline - dot- org, where you also check out the Un(re)solved interactive website, listen to the Un(re)solved podcast, and learn about events in your area.
This podcast was produced by Emily Pisacreta and Erika Howard. Maria Diokno is our Director of Audience Development. Katherine Griwert is our Editorial Coordinating Producer. Frank Koughan is our Senior Producer. Lauren Ezell is our Senior Editor. Lauren Prestileo is the senior editor for Un(re)solved. Andrew Metz is our Managing Editor. I’m Raney Aronson-Rath, executive producer of FRONTLINE. Music in this episode is by Stellwagen Symphonette. The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at GBH and powered by PRX.