* Code added to make Google search more likely. Mississippi Civil Rights--One Man, One Story: Robert L. Ezelle, Jr.--A Biography

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Robert L. Ezelle, Jr.--A Biography



Photo: I'll have to work this weekend on building up a photo library for this blog. Of the few photos that I have on my computer at the moment, this was the perfect selection for the first post. This was taken when my mother first arrived in Jackson in 1946 after marrying my father in her native land of Belgium in 1945. Needless to say, without Mother's support, encouragement and blessings, Daddy would have found it impossible to accomplish all that he did in his life. As Mother has half jokingly said in the past, her giving to the community was to let them have so much of Daddy's time, and it did reach the point where Daddy having a meeting at night was the norm instead of the exception.

Post: I can think of no better way to start off than by presenting a short biography written about my father. The occasion was an awards ceremony by the Bethlehem Center in Jackson, MS in the 1993. The Bethlehem Center has been in existence for 70 years and this is a copy of the “Who We Are” on their website:

“The Bethlehem Center is a National Mission Institution related to the United Methodist Church. A non-profit agency located in Jackson, Mississippi, the Center serves low-income families and individuals through affordable quality childcare, a free income tax assistance program, a counseling center, and various community development initiatives.”

It doesn’t mention race in the above statement, but in the 1960’s it was an all-black community service organizations in a poor section of town. My father did quite a bit to support the Bethlehem Center, so none of us in the family were surprised that they wanted to honor my dad posthumously with an award. What did surprise us was the story in the biography about the school bus. It was the first time any of us had heard the story which is fairly typical of my father’s nature. It would be hard to guess just how many acts of goodwill he did in his life where the recipient and my father were the only ones to know of that kindness. Here is the Robert L. Ezelle, Jr. biography written by the people at the Bethlehem Center:

"Robert L. Ezelle, Jr., born in Birmingham, AL in 1913 and moving to Jackson in 1921, lived during a time of major philosophical and political change in the American South. As a businessman and civic leader, Ezelle chose the difficult path of Christian charity and activism. Although his is not one of the names we automatically think of when we recall the tumultuous 60s, Ezelle contributed to improving the quality of life of those who were disenfranchised and disempowered in our society.

A member of Galloway Memorial Methodist Church and a Graduate of Millsaps College, Ezelle has been described as a quiet man who lived by his convictions. As president of Mississippi Bedding Company and president and/or member of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, Jackson Rotary Club, Hinds County American Red Cross, Goodwill Industries and the United Givers Fund, he risked social and economic ostracism. Ezelle never backed down from the belief that all Americans are entitled to their individual rights under our Constitution.

As president of Mississippians for Public Education, a group whose purpose was to work toward a smooth transition from a segregated school system through court ordered desegregation, Ezelle personally suffered public criticism in the local press and racist terrorism in the form of cross burning. In 1969, when the Supreme Court ordered that the schools desegregate, the Black low income children of Jackson’s Mid-Town area were sent mid-year to attend Powers and Bailey Public Schools on Riverside Drive.

The school system did not provide transportation, citing budget constraints as their reason. The parents, restricted by limited resources and inflexible employment, turned to Bethlehem Center for help in transporting the children to school daily. Through Bethlehem Center, a bus was chartered, at a weekly cost of $225. Eight weeks into the school term the parents were unable to raise the entire fee. Robert Ezelle, hearing of their plight, volunteered to subsidize this project for the remainder of the school year. His contribution insured that these children had access to the public education to which they were legally entitled.

Shortly before his death in 1979, Robert Ezelle participated in a conference sponsored by Tougaloo and Millsaps Colleges called “Look Back at Freedom Summer”. This retrospective brought together many well known historical figures of the recent past, such as Bob Moses and Unita Blackwell, with those too young to remember the summer of 1964. The sessions were divided between Tougaloo and Millsaps’ campuses and provided many an opportunity to commune with those who were there. Bob Ezelle was there, not standing on his laurels, but sharing his experiences of a man who chose to do the right thing.

Journalist Bill Minor wrote in the Capital Reporter of Ezelle in 1979, “Bob Ezelle never sought to take the popular course, he took the course which his Christian conscience dictated. And in his quiet, persistent manner, he was very effective…His was a voice of reason, of compassion, and conscience.”

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Let me just close today’s blog entry by saying that I’m a person who rarely is moved to tears, but typing the above did caused my eyes to water. My dad would never have described himself as anything special or as being the least bit heroic, but he was a was a rarity and few can match him when it comes to giving to others. He was a person who truly made a difference in this world.