By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) _ David Jordan was born on a Mississippi Delta plantation during the Great Depression, when segregation and poverty created a bleak outlook for a son of black sharecroppers.
Eighty years later, Jordan is a retired science teacher, longtime Greenwood City Council member and prominent state lawmaker known for advocating public education funding and opposing measures he sees as suppressing civil rights, including a new law that takes effect this year requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls.
In his new memoir, “From the Mississippi Cotton Fields to the State Senate,” Jordan writes about growing up in the segregated South.
Before graduating from high school with future Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman, Jordan picked cotton and worked at a white-owned store that sold illegal liquor.
Jordan said one day in the mid-1940s, when he was 12 or 13, he had just served beer to white people sitting in a car outside the store. Then a black man, who appeared to be drunk, walked by and touched the car. The white man jumped out of the car and attacked the black man, while his wife and children stood by helplessly.
“He kicked him down to the ground, just kicked him, stomped him,” Jordan recalled in an interview at the Mississippi Capitol. “The whole family was hollering _ `Don’t kill him!’ The children were hollering, `Don’t kill my daddy!”’
The white man went inside to demand the store owner’s gun. The owner refused, and the black man’s family was able to move him away from the scene.
Jordan writes that the attack “made me realize just how deeply entrenched was the hatred for African-Americans. I knew then that I didn’t want to grow up and witness such horrible acts of racial brutality and do nothing to try to prevent them.”
Jordan and Freeman were classmates at Greenwood’s all-black Broad Street High School, graduating in 1955. The senator writes that Freeman was an exceptionally gifted actor as a teen. During a school play, one student forgot his part, so a teacher sent Freeman onstage.
“Morgan rushed to the stage and quickly developed a new character,” Jordan writes. “He ended the play with an impromptu performance and the audience never knew the difference.”
In September 1955, when Jordan was a freshman at what was then Mississippi Valley State College, he and three other young men pooled their money, bought a tank of gasoline and drove about an hour up the road to attend the internationally reported trial of two white men accused of killing Emmett Till. The slaying of the black 14-year-old, who was visiting Mississippi from Chicago, galvanized the civil rights movement after Jet magazine published photos of his mutilated body.
Jordan writes that the courtroom felt like a sauna and he could feel people staring at him and his friends.
“I guess the local whites figured four young black men should be somewhere picking cotton,” he writes.
An all-white jury acquitted Roy Bryant and his half brother, J.W. Milam. Months later, in a paid interview with Look magazine, the men confessed to the kidnapping and killing.
Jordan and his wife, Christine, married in their early 20s and both worked as educators while raising their four children. He earned a master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Wyoming, traveling there for three consecutive summer breaks in the late 1960s while he taught science at an all-black Mississippi high school that had shabby, outdated lab equipment.
Jordan writes about working to increase black voter registration and participation, particularly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned poll taxes, literacy tests and other obstacles. Mississippi now has hundreds of black elected officials, from constables to county supervisors to a congressman. Still, he sees potential new obstacles to voting rights.
“I am totally against voter ID because in my opinion it’s too similar to the hated poll tax,” Jordan writes, echoing an argument he has made often during Senate debates since the mid-1990s. “Voter ID can also be an intimidating factor that could possibly deter voters from voting, especially black seniors who once faced various forms of threat for attempting to vote.”
Jordan wrote his memoir with assistance from Robert Jenkins, professor emeritus of history at Mississippi State University. It was published in March by the University Press of Mississippi.