"You know you don't belong here!" a worker yelled at 23-year-old Joseph Jackson Jr. as he walked into the Jackson, Mississippi, main public library on March 27, 1961, to try to desegregate it. "You go back to your library!"
Dozens of angry, white faces surrounded the slight, bespectacled, nervous student as he made his way to the information desk and into the front lines of war. In a couple of months, freedom riders would get arrested by the hundreds in the city; the following year, James Meredith tried to enroll at the University of Mississippi with the help of U.S. Marshals only to have a deadly riot erupt around him. The year after that saw Jackson weather a sit-in at Woolworth and the assassination of legendary activist Medgar Evers. And in 1964, the murder of three civil-rights workers brought in the federal government and led Nina Simone to pen her scintillating smackdown of the Magnolia State, "Mississippi Goddam."
Jackson knew those troubled times were ahead, but he had a job to do. Heart thumping wildly, his body getting numb, the Youth Council president for the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) recited his prepared words. "Ma'am, I want to know if you have this philosophy book," he stammered to the stunned lady who had just told him to leave, in a voice that everyone at the library could hear. "I need it for a research project over at Tougaloo College," the all-black Southern Christian school that Jackson attended.
Eight other black students joined Jackson in asking librarians for help, all at the same time. None of the librarians made any attempt to find the books, stalling while other staffers called police. Jackson and the others expected this. He walked away, plucked a book from a shelf and grabbed a seat. Meredith Anding, Samuel Bradford, Alfred Cook, Geraldine Edwards, Janice Jackson, Albert Lassiter, Evelyn Pierce and Ethel Sawyer followed. The sons and daughters of Dixie stared at them while they tried to nonchalantly read through the books; nerves made Sawyer hold hers upside-down.
"When I saw the expressions on those white people's faces, it was a hush," recalls Jackson, now 78 years old. He stops, then chuckles. "This was the first time in Jackson's history that Negroes had ever entered their segregated, all-white public library."
A dozen police finally arrived and warned Jackson and his friends they were going to declare an unlawful assembly. They demanded to know the identity of the group's leader; the students replied there wasn't one. That was enough: The officers cuffed them and escorted them out of the library. The whites in the library didn't do anything, still paralyzed by the audacity of the students.
They soon became known as the Tougaloo Nine, and the sit-in made headlines across the nation. The action gave inspiration to the civil-rights movement and enraged segregationists, who shortly after doubled down on their vengeance. The students were on their way to becoming icons, heavyweights in the beautiful struggle. But less than a year later, Jackson disappeared from Mississippi, moving west and never looking back. Researchers eventually found him in Orange County, a place with a notoriously small African-American community that seems like the last place a soldier in the fight against Jim Crow would end up.
"When I left Tougaloo College in the spring of '62," he says, "nobody knew where Joseph Jackson Jr. was."
And most people still don't.
Gray stubble rounds his chin, and glaucoma claims much of his eyesight these days, but Jackson looks far younger than the average septuagenarian. His Anaheim apartment feels like a black history museum: There's a portrait of Bob Marley and a Malcolm X plaque on the wall; books on jazz greats such as Billie Holiday are neatly stacked from the floor to the kitchen countertop. Above a flat-screen television in the living room rests a framed poster of a 2011 symposium that honored the 50th anniversary of the Tougaloo Nine.
Jackson proudly sports a black Tougaloo Bulldogs T-shirt while recounting the journey of his life in a cadence that hints at his past as an ordained minister. He was born on April 14, 1937, to a domestic worker and a janitor in Memphis, Tennessee. Segregation was an accepted part of life. One summer, when Jackson was 10, he remembers a bus trip back from Mississippi, where his maternal grandparents lived. While he and his mother rested in the "colored" waiting area in Clarksdale, the Greyhound bus driver approached them. "I don't know what was said, but the . . . driver, a big, burly, red-faced man, hit my mother in the face, knocking her down to the gravel road," Jackson says matter-of-factly. "When I ran to her, she had a bleeding mouth."
There was no police report, no justice; instead, they got on the bus and took their seats–in the back, of course. "That just really reinforced a certain amount of hatred for all white people at that age," Jackson says. "It added also to the hurt and the pain that I suffered during those years."
School didn't help much, with most teachers belittling Jackson and his fellow black students, telling them that whites were superior. But at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, an English teacher told Jackson something that altered his life. "White people may hate the color of our skin, but you get an education, and that is something that they will never ever be able to take away," Jackson recalls her saying. "From then on, I vowed to challenge the Jim Crow system of segregation."
The opportunity to make history came almost as soon as Jackson enrolled at Tougaloo College, a hotbed of civil-rights activism about 10 miles north of Jackson. The philosophy and religion major attended a NAACP Youth Council meeting in September 1960; there, he met Medgar Evers, the man who'd become his mentor. Even though he was just a freshman, Jackson impressed fellow members enough that they voted him president, replacing a reverend who had just been jailed for helping to organize an Easter boycott of white-owned businesses in the region.
Evers took a liking to Jackson, teaching him the finer points of peaceful activism, as Mississippi activists waited for their turn in the civil-rights movement. While sit-ins, boycotts and desegregation lawsuits bloomed across the South, few tried to challenge the might of Jim Crow in the land of Ole Miss. Exactly who came up with the idea of choosing Jackson's whites-only public library as the initial battlefield remains a mystery, but Evers and other activists agreed a sit-in at the state capital was a great way to announce that the movement had arrived.
Starting in December 1960, Evers made the Tougaloo Nine undergo withering training in the sanctity of Woodworth Chapel, the center of the college's campus and a hub for civil-rights activism. Night after night for several months, the Nine's fellow Youth Council members took turns screaming at them: "Nigger, what are you doing in here?" "Get out of here, nigger; you don't belong here!"
Evers monitored the practice runs. "Do not retaliate," he cautioned Jackson and the others. "Follow the principles of nonviolence."
"Getting to know Medgar, he was already an energetic man who was committed to bringing about integration in public facilities." Jackson says. "We followed Medgar's plan to a T."
When the time came for the actual protest, it happened in such a blur–and without the anticipated racial terror–that Jackson recalls settling in only after his arrest. "That's when your mind is telling you, 'Now look what you've done,'" he says.
The NAACP promised to post bond upon their incarceration, but they stayed behind bars overnight. "Reflecting back on Emmett Till, the history of lynching connected with Mississippi, the later it got that night, I was in fear of my life," Jackson says.
He began rehearsing a script he'd say to the Ku Klux Klan if they came for him: "Please, Mr. Klansman, don't hang me. I have a wife and two little children in Memphis, Tennessee, and if you release me this night, I promise you that I will never, ever come back here to Jackson, Mississippi, and violate your Jim Crow laws."
But one of his Tougaloo classmates gave him a reality check about the group's lack of mercy: "Well, that sounds very good, but you know what the Klansman would say? 'Nigger, you should've thought of that before you entered our segregated public library!'"
Jackson and the others stayed in jail until the following evening. They didn't know it at the time, but the sheriff had set them up for a possible lynching by conveniently disappearing, a fact Jackson didn't learn until 2005, when he read The Autobiography of Medgar Evers. "I was mad as hell!" Jackson says. "That was always the behavior of the racist white people in charge, especially in law enforcement."
The following day, the Nine walked into a municipal courtroom to enter their guilty pleas, each facing fines of up to $500 and up to six months in jail. Just a few blocks away, thousands of whites marched through the city streets celebrating the centennial of the Confederacy and holding what organizers claimed was the world's largest Stars and Bars. Outside the courthouse, 100 blacks gathered to applaud the Nine, only to have police club the crowd. (Evers got pistol-whipped.) But the Nine got lucky; just a $100 fine and a 30-day suspended sentence for each one.
Though the desegregation action was small, its symbolic importance reverberated across the South. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sent a letter a couple of days later to Jackson, congratulating the Nine for "their dedication, which prompted such action on behalf of the rights of men, the spirit of nonviolence which motivated their actions, their courage and daring in challenging prevailing social customs, and their vision of a free society which makes possible this Student Movement."
That would be the height of Jackson's civil-rights career–and the end. A few months later, his son fell terribly ill with a stomach virus back in Memphis. His wife, Clara, suffered financial hardships, the medical bills piling up. Jackson dropped out of college in early 1962.
"I had to come back home," he says. "That's how it all ended for me at Tougaloo."
With a young family to feed, Jackson worked at numerous odd jobs in Memphis for a couple of years, resigned to never finishing college. But the activist in him was always just beneath the surface: He decided to get out of the South for good after a white supervisor belittled him at a television-manufacturing plant. In February 1968, Jackson left Memphis, leaving his family behind, for Southern California. His sister-in-law and her husband, head of the bachelor officers' quarters at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, had just bought a home in Santa Ana. He knew nothing about Orange County–didn't know that it was created by Dr. Henry W. Head, a fellow Tennessean who happened to belong to the Klan; that the magnolia trees in downtown Santa Ana were planted by ex-Confederates wistful for the Lost Cause. But he quickly realized that he and his in-laws were anomalies. "I was really concerned about not seeing any black people," he says. "Someone told me, 'This is John Birch territory,' and I replied, 'What? What? You gotta be kidding!'"
One night, while grocery shopping, Jackson learned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in his hometown. Greatly upset, he says part of him wanted to jump back into the movement, but Jackson felt a stronger urge to make enough money to send for his family–better for them to live in blackless Orange County than in the South. He went to the Santa Ana post office and passed exams to become a letter carrier or a custodian. "But that's when a light bulb went off," Jackson said. He chose less money doing custodial work for a chance to finish his college degree.
With a steady income, Jackson looked around Santa Ana for an apartment. He found a duplex for rent in a nice neighborhood north of 17th Street, which divided the city along ethnic and class lines. A white woman came to the door after he knocked a few times. "I'm sorry, sir, I just rented the other side of my house," she told him. "I'm sure you'll be able to find a place for your family across 17th Street."
Jackson wasn't in the South anymore, but his old instincts kicked in. A couple of days later, he passed by the duplex again. "That damn 'For Rent' sign was still up!" Jackson says. "I knew the name 'Orange County' carried some kind of racial-prejudice overtones with it. What I didn't like about it, as opposed to the South, was it was so subtle, but you knew it existed." He eventually found an apartment in the city and relocated his family that summer.
At the time, Orange County's tiny African-American community was coming into its own. A small enclave lived in Laguna Beach; in Santa Ana, the Black Panthers set up an office and organized food drives. In 1967, the Supreme Court ended housing discrimination with Reitman v. Mulkey, which involved an African-American couple who tried to rent an apartment in Santa Ana and were denied, just as Jackson had been. Two years later, riots engulfed the city after a white teen told a black girl, "Why don't you black niggers keep quiet?" during a movie screening; the aftermath led to the creation of the Orange County Human Relations Commission.
But Jackson knew none of this, focusing instead on going back to school, redeeming his dream and bettering his family. "To me, I was still breaking down barriers the same way I broke down racial barriers in Mississippi," Jackson says. "I never abandoned civil rights. I'm civil rights."
Around OC, he was often the only black person wherever he was, unafraid to integrate churches or social events and dispel any stereotypes white people may have held. Jackson eventually enrolled at Cal State Fullerton in the spring of 1969, attending class from morning until 1 p.m., then working as a janitor at the post office until midnight. During Jackson's first semester, a professor put the class midterm exam grades on the chalkboard and handed out the test papers face-down. There were four A's, nine B's, 15 C's, and one D. Jackson was convinced that, as the lone black, that D belonged to him.
"That's when I really began seeing how devastating that socialization can be when you know you're not inferior but trip back and believe it again," he says.
He didn't get the D.
He got his bachelor's in sociology from Cal State Fullerton in 1971. The degree helped land him a job with the county as a career-development officer. The following year, Jackson started a better-paying position at the Los Angeles County Department of Probation, working with juveniles. After divorcing Clara in 1975, he married a white woman from Huntington Beach, getting stares wherever they went for the rest of their marriage. That amused him more than anything. "All of us don't shuffle," Jackson says. "All of us don't scratch where we don't itch!"
Jackson raised his children in OC, worked, attended church and sang at social events–including a contest at Anaheim's Melodyland, for which he appeared in a full-page advertisement in the Orange County Register that asked, "Will Joe Jackson sing his way to Hollywood?" He never talked about his past, and rarely thought about it. It seemed genteel suburban life had claimed another radical–but then Jackson began making music with his grandson.
When Jackson retired from his job in 2002, he could finally reflect on his past. "That has always been very painful for us," Jackson says. "Even now, very few people know of what we did."
As a grandfather with soulful vocals, he spent afternoons in Anaheim telling his grandson, Joseph Marcus Jackson IV, about the sit-in while the two laid down hip-hop tracks. "Through the time we shared, I got reintroduced to his journey," Marcus says. Curiosity about his granddad eventually led him to finding his booking photo online. "He's seen pictures before," Marcus says. "But when I showed him the mug shot, it really gave him those flashbacks."
As the decades passed, interest had grown in the Tougaloo Nine's story, but Jackson's whereabouts remained something of a mystery. "He dropped out of the scene, and, in fact, the Tougaloo Nine demonstration fell off the map not too long after it happened," says Michael O'Brien, author of We Shall Not Be Moved: The Jackson Woolworth's Sit-In and the Movement It Inspired. Slowly but surely, the library demonstration took its rightful place in the pantheon of important civil-rights events. A commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the sit-in took place at Woodworth Chapel in 2011 with all surviving Nine except Jackson, whom organizers couldn't locate. Footage of the symposium appeared on YouTube, which surprised his stepson who had never heard of his stepfather's connection to civil-rights activism.
Jackson didn't learn about the symposium until his ex-wife mentioned it to him. "It brought back memories to when I was there at Tougaloo in Woodworth Chapel," Jackson says. "I was proud to learn that the others had become professionals in their respective fields. We all made it!"
The celebration inspired Jackson to reconnect with his own history. He called his old college, and they sent him the same afghan they had handed out to the other remaining Nine at the event. Later that year, O'Brien tracked Jackson down for a forthcoming book on the Tougaloo Nine he's writing; the two talked by phone for four hours straight. "I was overwhelmed with joy because, finally, our story will be told in the form of a book," Jackson says.
Last year, Jackson finally returned to Tougaloo after 52 years. His son, Joseph Marico Jackson III, had seen a documentary about a SNCC worker in Mississippi that reconciled with a Klansman who assaulted him in 1965. Marico was the same son whose illness forced Jackson to leave Tougaloo so many years ago. The assailant in the film turned out to be the son of Evers' murderer, Byron De La Beckwith. "I saw the annual Medgar Evers Parade in the documentary," Jackson says. "I had to go to that!"
Father and son flew back to the city of Jackson in time for the June 7 parade. The movement had radically changed the Mississippi Jackson remembered. He took pictures next to every signage emblazoned with "Jackson-Evers International Airport," in tribute to his mentor. Just staying in a Holiday Inn Express free of any color lines showed Jackson his sole civil disobedience from so long ago had done something.
Before the festivities, Jackson met Charles Evers, Medgar's older brother, at his radio station. He attended the Medgar Evers Foundation Banquet and took photos with his former mentor's widow and daughter. The next day, Jackson and his son rode in the parade as honored guests. The trip also brought him back to Tougaloo College and the pews of Woodworth Chapel. "This is closure," Jackson says in a home video made by Marico.
But one place Jackson didn't visit was the library he helped to integrate; there just wasn't any time. The following month, the executive director of the Jackson-Hinds Library System invited him and the rest of the remaining Tougaloo Nine members to attend a celebration of their sit-in. A medallion and a re-enactment by nine aides at the Eudora Welty Library awaited, but Jackson's worsening glaucoma caused him to miss out. Staff mailed him an honorary medallion along with a DVD of the day's event.
Jackson doesn't regret the missed chances in his life, but he's trying to make up for lost time. He recently approached Cal State Fullerton and offered up his story to the African American Studies department; while they expressed interest, nothing has yet happenned. The school is barely blacker than when he attended–the current black student body numbers 813, just 2 percent of the school's enrollment, a figure that's nearly in line with the percentage of African-Americans in Orange County. And Jackson doesn't want to just tell his story, but also that of Evers, the man he still refers to as "my leader."
"It's very painful right now for me to have those thoughts because Evers was a courageous man," he says, pausing to dot tears with a handkerchief. "After his assassination, and having concealed this history within myself, now knowing how great this man was, I've got to speak on his legacy."
He says this as his hand glides across a glass tabletop, searching for the box that holds the medallion engraved with his name, marking what the Tougaloo Nine did so long ago.
"You can call it fate, the zeitgeist, destiny or whatever you want," Jackson says. "This is the greatest honor I could've ever received."