For 60 years, Marvell's Gertrude Jackson has worked for civil rights, social change and racial justice in rural eastern Arkansas. During the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's fall commencement ceremonies on Thursday, Dec. 20, the university will bestow an honorary degree to the 80 plus year-old activist.
“Unsung activists like Ms. Jackson are often the lifeblood of impoverished Arkansas Delta communities in helping to sustain daily life,” said UALR Chancellor Joel L. Anderson 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.”
At age 7, Gertrude Newsome moved with her family from her birthplace in Madison, Ill. to Gum Bottom, an area near the Turner community in rural Phillips County where she lived on a small family farm. In Madison, Gertrude attended a reasonably adequate public school within a few blocks of her home. But in Gum Bottom, she attended a one-room school for African-American children in grades one through eight. She had to walk nine miles each day to attend school.
Gertrude later completed a black high school that went only to the 10th grade.
In 1944, Gertrude married Earlis Jackson and began farming their land in the Jones community just beyond Turner and south of Marvell. They are the parents of 11 children, all of whom graduated from high school. Seven of the children extended their education and received college degrees.
Today, Gertrude is the proud grandmother of 27 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and two great great grandchildren.
In the mid-1960s, the Jacksons invited the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary to hold weekly meetings in the community's church to give people an opportunity to air their grievances. When the white-dominated school board ignored sewer backups in the segregated Turner Elementary School, the Jacksons urged the people to keep their children home from school until the problem was corrected.
That success encouraged the people to solicit Jackson's support to further improve school conditions.
“Local people like the Jacksons were crucial in forming an all-important bridge between external groups like the SNCC and local Arkansas communities,” stated UALR History Department chair and Donaghey Professor Dr. John A. Kirk.
“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,” added Anderson.
Gertrude headed a concerned group of citizens in 1978 that established the Boys, Girls, Adults Community Development Center that still operates today in Marvell. BGACDC, as it better known, is a center of community life in Marvell.
Gertrude still volunteers at the center, working for the children and the young people of her community.