Grassroots activist Gertrude Jackson, who for 60 years worked for civil rights, social change, and racial justice in the Arkansas Delta, will receive an honorary degree at UALR’s fall commencement ceremonies Thursday, Dec. 20, in the Jack Stephens Center.
“Unsung activists like Ms. Jackson are often the lifeblood of impoverished Arkansas Delta communities in helping to sustain daily life,” Chancellor Joel E. Anderson said in nominating Jackson for the honor.
“The award of an honorary degree recognizes the contributions of Jackson and other women like her whose efforts are significant yet all too often sidelined because they remain out of the headlines and out of sight.”
In the mid-1960s, Jackson and her husband, a farmer in a community beyond Turner and south of Marvell in Phillips County, invited the area Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field secretary to hold weekly meetings in the community’s church to give people an outlet to air grievances.
“Local people like the Jacksons were crucial in forming an all-important bridge between external groups like SNCC and local Arkansas communities,” said History Department chair and Donaghey Professor Dr. John A. Kirk, co-editor of “Arsnick: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas,” published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2011.
When the white-dominated school board ignored sewer backups in the segregated Turner Elementary School, the Jacksons organized families to keep their children home until the problem was corrected. Buoyed by that success, the people enlisted Jackson to lead efforts to improve school conditions.
“In 1966, she and her husband led a boycott of schools and launched a class action lawsuit for desegregation that was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals,” the chancellor said.
Jackson helped lead a group to establish the Boys, Girls, Adults Community Development Center that continues today in Marvell aimed at developing the full potential of poor children and their families. It continues to be a center of community life in the Marvell area. Now in her 80s, Jackson still volunteers at the center, working for the children and youth of her community.
Gertrude Newsome Jackson was born in Madison, Ill., and attended a reputable public school blocks from her home. She was in the second grade when her family moved to Gum Bottom, an area near the Turner community, to operate the family’s small farm. She had to walk nine miles a day to attend a one-room school for black children that covered grades one through eight. She later attended a high school for black students in Marvell that only went to the 10th grade.
Jackson and her husband, Earlis Jackson, are the parents of 11 children, all of whom graduated from high school. Seven earned college degrees.