When Henry J. Kirksey died on 9 December 2005, Mississippi’s largest newspaper, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, wrote, “He wasn’t a very good politician . . . but Kirksey . . . probably did more to change the political landscape of Mississippi than any individual in the last 30 years by his persistent legal battles for equal representation for black voters.”
Born on 9 May 1915 in Tupelo, the crusty, salty-tongued Kirksey studied at North Carolina Central University in Durham and served in the US Army during World War II. He went on to have a great impact on Mississippi politics despite losing campaigns for governor, lieutenant governor, and Jackson mayor. Using demographic and mapmaking skills honed during his military service, he filed a lawsuit against countywide legislative elections in 1965, resulting in the establishment of single-member districts fourteen years later. This and other Kirksey actions eventually helped open the door to the election of hundreds of African Americans to public office in the state.
Kirksey waged a seven-year legal battle that finally brought down Jackson’s commission form of government in the mid-1980s, leading to a mayor-council form and the election of the city’s first modern-era black mayor and black council members. In the early 1960s, he was a sharp critic of county government, claiming deep-seated political corruption, and he felt vindicated decades later when the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted a sting operation, Operation Pretense, that led to corruption charges against dozens of county supervisors, forty-six of whom pled guilty, and the dumping of the beat system.
For years, Kirksey waged a lonely battle to open the legislatively sealed records of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a civil rights–era agency that spied on citizens in an effort to preserve racial segregation. In the mid-1980s he could be seen on the streets of downtown Jackson carrying signs in one-man protests. The records were finally opened in 1998 and helped set the stage for convictions in several unresolved civil-rights-era murders. “One of the problems of Mississippi is you want to paint over the reality of the past,” Kirksey said. “If you don’t tell the truth about history, how the hell are you going to do anything?”
Kirksey served in the Mississippi State Senate from 1980 to 1988 but readily admitted that he was not an effective legislator. Backroom deals and compromises were not his style. However, the fiery and passionate Kirksey spoke loudly on important issues with a stinging eloquence. He once charged that the state legislature “still operate[s] in the Confederacy.” He called the state Ethics Commission “a brick wrapped in paper to look like a loaf of bread . . . the pus from the political cancer that pervades government in Mississippi.” He referred to Jackson’s mayor as “His Imperial Highness, Emperor Dale Danks,” and said that Danks’s “attempts to clothe himself with an image of democratic concern and action leave him buck naked in public.”
Kirksey lost as many battles as he won. He never succeeded in persuading the state to remove the Confederate battle flag from the upper left corner of the Mississippi flag, which he called a “Confederate slave flag.” He was fined after he protested the embargoed Sovereignty Commission records by refusing to turn over the financial disclosure statement required of elected officials. His campaigns for office never resulted in more than a temporary platform for his ideas. However, his many achievements won him national recognition, including the William Dawson Award from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in Washington, D.C., and the James White Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Kirksey spent his later years teaching at Tougaloo College near Jackson. After he lost his home to foreclosure, friends and an anonymous donor came up with forty thousand dollars and land to establish a lifetime estate for the retired warrior.
“For Kirksey it was never about the politics or self-aggrandizement,” wrote his friend and colleague Don Manning-Miller, vice president for finance at Rust College in Holly Springs, after Kirksey’s death. “Much like the Hebrew prophets of old, Kirksey was a truth teller—telling the hard truth to the powerful and calling them to account.”
- Joe Atkins, Jackson Clarion-Ledger (3 March 1985, 15 September 1991)
- Kelli Esters, Jackson Clarion-Ledger (12 December 2005)
- Don Manning-Miller, Rustorian (9 January 2006)