May 25, 1971 was a milestone for Joetha Collier.
The Drew High School student had fulfilled her dream of becoming a high school graduate, and she was poised to enter college the following fall at Mississippi Valley State College.
With her diploma still in hand, Collier was struck by a bullet along the sidewalk on Union Street in Drew. She died the same evening.
“It was devastating then…50 years ago, and devastating now,” her younger brother said Earnis Collier said during a 50-year memorial that was held in his sister’s name in Drew this past Tuesday. “I was 13 years old, and really. I didn’t get the real essence of what it was like to grow up with a big sister.”
According to newspaper reports from the time, eyewitnesses were able to give the police a pretty good description of the vehicle, where the fatal bullet was fired, as well as the men who were in it.
A few hours later, police in Cleveland picked up brothers Wesley Parks, Wayne Parks and their nephew Allen Wilkerson, all white, according to reports.
Wesley Parks, a Memphis man at the time, would be the only one of the three to stand trial. Charges were dismissed for the other two.
He was convicted on manslaughter charges and sentenced to 20 years in prison, according to reports. It’s unclear how many years he served of that sentence.
Protests broke out in the small town of Drew, and national media descended on the otherwise quiet community.
Rev. Ralph Abernathy, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, delivered the eulogy at Collier’s funeral. Famed civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer also spoke at the service.
Abernathy, according to a Delta Democrat Times article at the time, implored those in at the funeral to not hate those involved in Joetha Collier’s death.
Every major news network ran a story about the shooting that May, and Richard Nixon’s White House even issued a statement decrying the violent crime and ordered the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to look into the shooting to make sure no federal crimes were committed during the act.
A half century later, there exists not even a marker in Drew in honor of Joetha Collier.
Collier was the only girl of a family with seven boys.
Her aspirations centered around her family.
“She had plans to go to Mississippi Valley State College, and I don’t know exactly what her major may have been, but she always dreamed of going to college, getting a degree and getting a good job and taking care of my mom, taking care of us, you know,” said Earnis Collier. “She always dreamed of getting us out of the little shack we lived in and moving to a nice home. She had big dreams.”
This past Tuesday, friends, classmates and family walked to the place of Collier’s shooting and shared fond memories of her and their individual accounts of that tragic day in 1971.
Among Collier’s classmates, Sunflower County District 5 Supervisor Gloria Dickerson shared her response to Collier’s death on that tragic day in May.
“When I heard about Joetha’s death, I just started screaming,” said Dickerson.
Dickerson shared plans of placing a marker in Collier’s honor where she was murdered.
Orange and blue balloons were released, representing the colors of Drew High School where Collier excelled in track and basketball.
“I remember going across myself to where she was running, and I got a chance to see her in competition,” said Will Collier, another one of her brothers in attendance Tuesday.
Collier’s classmate Charles Russell gave her the nickname “Bird” for her speed and form that reminded him of a Roadrunner.
Collier was also known for her kindness toward others.
“She was one of the kindest people you would ever meet,” Earnis Collier said. “She had a way of dealing with problems or situations that we had in our family. She had a way of being disciplined. When Mom and Dad went to town, she was left in charge. She made sure we had the proper food to eat and that we wouldn’t get in any trouble or anything. She was very kind, meek and quite spirited. She was the kind of person who spoke softly and carried a big stick. She had what you would call direct discipline, but she did it in such a kind way.”
Earnis Collier remembers his sister for always doing what was right.
He told those in attendance that he once found $3, and she made him turn it in. He said he still honors her legacy by doing what he believes is right.
He said that he was so young in 1971, he wasn’t aware of the significance of SCLC’s Abernathy being at the funeral, but decades later, he took his advice by forgiving those involved in his sister’s death.
“I had an interaction with one of the guys, it may have been 10 or 15 years ago,” said Earnis Collier. “I called him up actually, and I guess he was half sleep. He didn’t recognize who I was then he hung up, and he called me back. He said ‘Okay, I remember. Now I know who you are.’ I told him I forgave him for what he did to my sister. I know you can’t take any hate to heaven. My desire is to please the Lord.”