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Gertrude Newsome Jackson was a local activist in the Marvell (Phillips County) area who, along with her husband, Earlis, played a central role in the local civil rights movement. She has been widely recognized for her long-term efforts on behalf of the community’s young people and its minority members.
Gertrude Newsome was born on November 7, 1923, in Madison, Illinois, to Mitchell and Lillie Newsome. When she was seven, her paternal grandfather died, and the family moved to Gum Bottom, an area in Phillips County, Arkansas, near the Turner community, so that her father could help operate the family’s small Arkansas Delta farm. One of eleven children—six boys and five girls—she got her early education in Marvell, walking miles to a segregated elementary school. She then advanced to the local high school, but it went through only the tenth grade. While her sister was able to go to nearby Helena (Phillips County) for the eleventh and twelfth grades, by the time Gertrude was ready to move on to the higher levels, her mother had fallen ill, and she was needed at home. She would eventually earn her GED.
Gertrude married Earlis Jackson in 1944, and the couple would ultimately have eleven children, all of whom graduated from high school, with seven earning college degrees. Following their marriage, they lived on and worked a small farm in Marvell, near her family’s homestead. In the 1960s, as the civil rights movement expanded, Gertrude and Earlis opened their home to the local Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) group for meetings. These meetings served as the beginning of a campaign aimed at improving the lot of the area’s African-American population, as well as Jackson’s first direct involvement in the effort.
One problem to address was sewage backing up at the black Turner Elementary School every time it rained, a problem stemming from poorly installed drainage pipes. Previous attempts to get the local authorities to address the problem were ignored, but working with SNCC, Gertrude and Earlis Jackson led a school boycott aimed at getting a response to the issue, and in fact, the quintessential example of local direct action resulted in the problem being fixed.
With one victory in hand, the Jacksons determined to address the ongoing segregation of the local schools, a situation that still existed for more than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In the summer and fall of 1966, they led a six-week boycott by African-American families of the entire Marvell School District. At the same time, they initiated a lawsuit seeking to desegregate the schools. These efforts resulted in a ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit that ordered the school district “to fully and effectively desegregate not only all facilities but the faculty and classes effective at the beginning of the 1970–71 school year.”
Gertrude and Earlis’s efforts did not go unnoticed by the conservative members of the Marvell community, and they were often the victims of retaliation. On one occasion, shots were fired at Gertrude’s car, while another time sugar was put in the gas tank of their cotton picker. Their truck was set on fire while in the storage shed, which also housed all their farm vehicles. Undaunted, they continued their efforts on behalf of the local community. Gertrude served as a teacher in the local Head Start program, and then in 1978, she helped establish the Boys, Girls, and Adults Community Development Center in Marvell. The goal of the center was to help all children and families, regardless of race, develop to their full potential. The center’s efforts, originally intended to help address the social, educational, and recreational needs of the community’s children, made it the center of community life. In addition, it responded to the ongoing need for accessible and affordable healthcare, and decent and affordable housing, as well as the social, educational, and recreational needs of adults in the community.
In December 2012, Jackson was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Arkansas Little Rock in a ceremony that also included commendations from President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as Senator Mark Pryor. The Jacksons reside in Marvell.
For additional information:
Gertrude Jackson Oral History Interview. Civil Rights History Project. National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC. https://cdn.loc.gov/service/afc/afc2010039/afc2010039_crhp0004_Jackson_transcript/afc2010039_crhp0004
_Jackson_transcript.pdf (accessed July 18, 2017).
“Gertrude Jackson: Sixty Years of Work for Social Justice.” Joel E. Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity, University of Arkansas at Little Rock. http://ualr.edu/race-ethnicity/gertrude-jackson-sixty-years-of-work-for-social-justice/ (accessed July 18, 2017).
Kirk, John A. “Why We’re Honoring Gertrude Jackson.” University of Arkansas at Little Rock, December 17, 2012. http://ualr.edu/news/2012/12/17/why-were-honoring-gertrude-jackson/ (accessed July 18, 2017).
William H. Pruden
Last Updated 7/18/2017
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