Henry J. Kirksey
(1915 — 2005)

Another unsung Civil Rights Hero Dies

Mississippi Senator Henry J. Kirksey championed economic, job and politicalopportunities for blacks.

By: Don Manning-Miller,special to The Rustorian (Rust College)
Issue date: 1/1/06 Section: News

Civil rights leader, former gubernatorial candidate and State Senator Henry J. Kirksey died Friday, Dec. 9th in Jackson, MS following a bout with pneumonia. He was 90 years old.

Kirksey was a courageous and outspoken leader and activist in virtually every civil rights and political campaign in the state following his return in 1962.

He had learned map-making and demographics while serving in the U.S. Army in World War II. When he eventually returned to Mississippi, he began working on his own initiative to use those skills to document the racial gerrymandering of the voting districts in Mississippi that made election of black officials almost impossible.

Then working with legendary attorney Frank Parker of the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, lawsuits were launched that eventually resulted in the massive redistricting that laid the foundation for the election of black officials all across the state, ultimately giving Mississippi the largest number of elected black officials in the country.

According to Mississippi Clarion Ledger, Congressman Bennie Thompson said Sunday, "All of us who are elected owe that election more so to Henry Kirksey than anyone else. So, if you are a supervisor, a judge, an alderman, or U.S. Congressman, it's because Henry Kirksey helped Mississippi do what was in the interests of all its citizens."

Those same skills in demographics and election district analysis were put to use in working for the extension of the national Voting Rights Act of 1965, helping to preserve electoral opportunity over ensuing years when he served as an expert witness to the U.S. Senate.

After an earlier campaign for governor, he was elected to the State Senate from Hinds County in 1979 where he was an organizer and leader in the legislative black caucus.

I had the privilege of knowing and working with Kirksey for many years including working in his consciousness-raising campaign for the governor's office. I believe it is fair to say that more than any other single person, Kirksey was responsible for nurturing and extending the gains of the civil rights movement in the state.

He always said that his goal was to give black people their fair share of American democracy. I recall him saying back during the sixties, "We'renot working for social integration. Who wants to hang around with a bunch of white people? We want economic integration: jobs, economic and politicalpower."

Once during his gubernatorial campaign, we arranged for him to address the employees of the Mississippi Chemical Co. in Yazoo City, whose president Owen Cooper prided himself on being a white moderate and progressive leader in the Mississippi Democratic Party.

Kirksey took the stage and immediately began to berate Cooper for the segregated bathrooms and disparate pay scales maintained by the company.

Not very good politics by normal standards, but for Kirksey it was never about the politics or self-aggrandizement. Much like the Hebrew prophets of old, Kirksey was a truth teller - telling the hard truth to the powerful and calling them to account.

And, he backed up his words by organizing, mobilizing public opinion, and when necessary using the force of law to gain compliance with the democratic goals he pursued.

After I returned to Mississippi, knowing that Kirksey was elderly and thinking he might not be with us long, I sought him out at his home in Tougaloo. For a number of years, he has been living in quasi-retirement and as a lecturer-in-residence at Tougaloo College.

I went to tell him how much I admired him and how much I respected his enormous and uncompromising integrity. He was not the least bit interested in hearing what I had to say about that but instead immediately pushed the conversation to what we were going to do about a long list of issues and problems that he was concerned about and was working on.

This to say that at age 82, he was still organizing and motivating the rest of us to keep up the struggle. His awesome example is humbling.

Kirksey was born in Lee County, Miss., in 1915, finished high school in St. Louis, MO. and attended college at North Carolina Central University in Durham. His sister, Elphretta Kirksey worked at Rust College as dean of women and residence hall director for several years in the '70s.

The flag at the entrance of Rust College was lowered to half mast for two days this week in his honor. A celebration memorial will be held sometime after the New Year in Jackson.

Henry Kirksey, a man with a great sense of humor was often a curmudgeon-like personality who was just as quick to tell his friends when disagreed with them as he was his enemies, was a veritable giant of a man.

Our debt to him can never be fully repaid. The only way to make installmentson that debt is to find ways to use our skills, our talents, our resources and whatever influence we have achieved in the interests of furthering that"economic integration" for which the masses of the people in our state still yearn.

Don Manning-Miller is vice president for Finance at Rust College, Holly Springs, Miss.

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