They Called Her ‘Black Jet’

Joetha Collier, a young Black woman, was killed by a white man in 1971, near the Mississippi town where Emmett Till was murdered. Why isn’t her case known nationally today?

color painting of Joetha Collier on blue background
Jo Etha (2022) Oil on Linen (© Esiri Essi / Nino Mier Gallery for The Atlantic. Photograph by Gert Jan van Rooij)

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It is late evening on Tuesday, May 25, 1971, in Sunflower County, Mississippi, in the small Delta town of Drew. A young Black woman stands on Union Street in a yellow dress. She is a teenager, thin, pretty, and dark-skinned, with straight black hair and thick bangs. At this moment, she is chatting with friends near Eddie’s and Susie’s Cafe, a popular hangout, at the end of a day of celebration.

A car is cruising down Union Street, toward the café. Inside are three white men who have been drinking beer by the quart. The driver’s window opens. A hand emerges, holding a .22-caliber pistol. There is only one shot, but it finds the young woman’s neck. The car drives off.

Joetha Collier was 18 when she died. She and her friends had gathered to celebrate her class’s graduation that day from Drew High School—a formerly all-white school that she had helped integrate. Joetha was heading to Mississippi Valley State, a historically Black college nearby, on a scholarship. She wanted to be a teacher. She wanted to help lift her family out of poverty, haul them out of Drew to someplace better. Graduation night was meant to be the beginning of her climb. As she fell to the pavement, newspapers reported, she was still clutching her high-school diploma.

Collier lived close to the place where Emmett Till had been lynched 16 years earlier. Yet her case didn’t have the same kind of national attention and staying power—at the time, the media often got her name wrong, misspelling it as “Jo Etha.” Her killing, and the subsequent court proceedings, did briefly galvanize civil-rights activists during the 1970s, but her story has since faded from the public imagination. Few people took notice when the Department of Justice, after briefly reopening the case as part of a civil-rights cold-case initiative, released a report in January 2020 to close it, partly because of an expired federal statute of limitations: “This matter should be closed without prosecution or referral.”

The case has largely been forgotten, in part because the investigation netted a conviction but never offered a clear motive—unlike the open white supremacy that motivated Till’s murder, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. But perhaps Joetha’s story has also been forgotten because it troubles our collective historical memory. The case challenges the triumphant narratives we often tell about the civil-rights movement: how activists across the nation worked together with public officials to topple Jim Crow and bring an end to an era of racial injustice.

“She could beat all of us running. She used to smoke us real good,” Joetha’s brother Earnis Collier told me. When she hit the track, Joetha ran like lightning. Locals called her “Black Jet,” and her brothers remember fondly how their sister could always beat them in a footrace.

She was born in the farming town of Starkville, Mississippi, on September 20, 1952. She was the second child, and only daughter, of Gussie Mae and Jimmie Lee Collier. The young couple did the best they could to make ends meet for their five children; Jimmie Lee was a farm laborer, and Gussie Mae was a domestic worker.

Everything changed in 1959, when Jimmie Lee died of heart disease at age 35. Gussie Mae struggled to raise five kids on her own. Eventually she met Paul Love, a rice farmer, and moved with him to the Mississippi Delta in the ‘60s. They got married and had three more boys.

Money was tight. Even with several jobs, keeping up with eight children was impossible. But Gussie Mae Love found ways to spoil her only daughter. According to Joetha’s brother David Collier, Mrs. Love would often shower Joetha with gifts and special treatment. “My mother let it be known that she was indeed a special person in the house, being the only female aside from herself,” he told me. “She had her own bed. She had her own this and that. She got her hair done.”

The family’s financial hardship during these years reflected broader issues in the state. Black people in Mississippi suffered from extreme unemployment, homelessness, hunger, and malnutrition. According to the historian James C. Cobb, on average, 68 percent of Black families in each Delta county lived below the poverty line in the early ’70s. Black residents also faced rampant acts of racist violence. The historian Neil McMillen notes that 452 lynchings of Black people were recorded in Mississippi from 1889 to 1945, representing about 13 percent of the lynchings committed nationally during that period. White-supremacist violence was so commonplace that the civil-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer referred to Mississippi as “the land of the tree and the home of the grave.”

If the entire state of Mississippi was known for violence, the town of Drew had a special reputation within it. In 1923, a sharecropper in Drew named Joe Pullum managed to kill 13 and injure 26 of his attackers before he was lynched by a white mob following a dispute over money. In 1955, after being accused of flirting with Carolyn Bryant in the store she owned with her husband, Roy, 14-year-old Till was lynched on a plantation just a few miles outside of Drew by Roy and several of his associates. When the Colliers moved to town, the murder was still fresh in public memory, and everyone knew one another. “I knew the guys who had murdered Emmett Till,” David told me. He has vivid recollections of several exchanges with Roy Bryant in the 1970s, after Joetha’s death. He recalls frequenting Bryant’s new grocery store in Ruleville. “My mother would … send us down [saying], ‘Tell Mr. Bryant to send me such-and-such and put it on my tab,’” he said.

Years earlier, during the summer of 1964, Charles “Mac” McLaurin, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a local activist, found Drew a dangerous place. McLaurin had tried to organize residents, and he recalls the dread that overcame him when he and other SNCC activists arrived. “The Blacks there were afraid to death,” he told me. “Of course, I could understand. I knew why they were afraid, because sometimes when I was there, I was afraid.” According to the historian J. Todd Moye, Mayor W. O. “Snake” Williford “ran Drew as his own police state.” “Drew whites,” Moye explains in his book Let the People Decide, “were considered the most recalcitrant of Sunflower County, and perhaps of the state.” They vigorously—and violently—resisted Black civil rights.

The white backlash that killed Till and menaced the civil-rights movement came into being after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board decision, and was part of the resistance to local school integration. But a decade later, the tide of integration that those whites feared had not yet arrived. To remain eligible to receive federal funding after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Drew school board adopted a “freedom of choice” plan in 1965 that allowed parents to select the schools they wanted their children to attend. The measure was a smoke screen. The board had no real plans to integrate its schools. It was betting on cultural norms to prevail; no one expected Black parents in Drew to select white schools.

But a Black family in the area defied the board’s calculus. In 1965, the sharecroppers Mae Bertha and Matthew Carter enrolled seven of their 13 children in the all-white public schools. Their children Gloria, Ruth, Larry, and Stanley desegregated Drew High School, and younger siblings Pearl, Beverly, and Deborah desegregated A. W. James Elementary School. This was a courageous step, as notable and daring as any of the country’s higher-profile school integrations, and it also came with a heavy price. White residents fired shots into the Carters’ home, and the family was evicted from the Pemble plantation where they worked and lived.

The violence and intimidation extended into the classroom. Black students in those early classes told me about incidents of unfair grading and racial abuse. “The kids were really angry [and] their parents were angry,” Gloria Carter Dickerson, one of the Carter children, recalls. The children did their best to avoid any unnecessary interactions with white classmates and teachers, but they could not escape the blatant animosity. “We just experienced a lot of horrific acts, such as spitballs and being called the N-word,” Gloria told me. “It was really a bad time for us.”

In 1967, the Carter family decided to fight back. The Carters filed a lawsuit against the Drew school district with the assistance of the attorney Marian Wright Edelman of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. They won the case in 1969, and the school district was compelled to integrate; it ​could no longer use “freedom of choice” plans to maintain segregation. White parents responded by taking their children out of public schools en masse and sending them to private segregation academies.

By the time Joetha enrolled in the high school the following year, white students were in the minority. The arrival of more Black students brought some reprieve for Gloria and her siblings. “After they came over, I didn’t face people calling me names and jumping away from me like I had leprosy,” Gloria said. She remembers Joetha as easygoing and magnetic. “Everybody seemed to like her,” Gloria said. “She was pretty popular because she was always a really nice person.”

In the days leading up to the graduation of the school’s first Black seniors, plenty of excitement was in the air. But something else was too. Joetha’s brother David remembers having a “strange” feeling on graduation day. So many things seemed to be going wrong. He and his brother Louis Collier were supposed to drive Joetha to the ceremony, but their car had a flat tire, and they didn’t have a spare on hand. And neither of their parents would be able to watch Joetha walk across the stage; both had to work. Still, Mrs. Love pulled out all the stops for her only daughter. “She got her ring paid for,” David said, “all her class materials, her pictures, and everything.”

On the morning of her graduation, Joetha was thinking about what lay ahead. “As soon as I graduate from college, Mama, things are going to be different for you,” Mrs. Love, in a later interview, recalled her saying. With her eyes set on the future, Joetha rushed off to the ceremony in her brand-new yellow dress.

Harvey Burchfield, another early Black student of Drew High School, was present during the last few moments of Joetha’s life. He remembers being with the group near the café and just having a good time. But he needed to step away to make a call, so he headed to a phone booth not too far away. He remembers seeing a white man pass by and jump into a car.

And then, after the car pulled out, Harvey heard a shot.

He didn’t think much of it at first. “I thought … one of my classmates was just shooting in the trash can, celebrating our victory for graduating,” he says. It took him several moments to realize what had happened. Harvey recalls seeing Joetha slumped over. “Joetha’s been shot,” a classmate screamed out.

The next few minutes passed in sheer panic as Joetha was taken to a hospital in Ruleville.

The rest was a blur. Harvey didn’t go home that night. He stayed at the scene with his classmates—all in shock when the news came back about an hour later that Joetha was gone. What had begun as a night of joy ended in pain. “She didn’t deserve that. She didn’t deserve that. She didn’t deserve that,” he told me.

At about 10:30 p.m., only a few minutes after Mrs. Love had arrived home from work, one of Joetha’s classmates banged on the door. The classmate said Joetha had been shot in the shoulder, David remembers. “I think they wanted to lessen the blow of the news.”

Mrs. Love rushed to the hospital with her husband and David in tow, where she received the dreadful truth. The sight of Joetha’s body in her yellow dress is forever sealed in David’s mind. “I didn’t touch her. I just looked her over because I was kind of scared,” he explained. “She looked, to me, very peaceful, nothing weird … Just as if she was sleeping.”

In a matter of hours, the details of what had happened came together. The family learned that three white men had been in the car: Wayne Parks, 25; his brother, Wesley Parks, 26; and their 19-year-old nephew, Allen Wilkerson. The police investigation revealed that Wesley Parks had pulled the trigger.

By all accounts, no words were exchanged between the men and the students. The three had likely not even known who the victim was; Wayne was from Drew, but Wesley and Allen were visiting him from Memphis.

Wesley later claimed to have been in a drunken stupor, and said he had no recollection of what happened that night. But many people in town questioned this narrative—especially because the men were able to drive for more than 10 miles without incident after the shooting and even managed to stop by a party for 45 minutes, where they played a game of pool.

Several people who attended Joetha’s memorial told me that one of her classmates—who declined to be interviewed for this story—said publicly there that he’d seen the three men earlier on the night she was killed. The classmate also recalled overhearing talk about white men who had plans to shoot Black people. His account has not been corroborated, but such talk would not have been unusual for the time. In addition to the controversy over integrating local schools, there was also friction over a group of northern students who had come to help Black residents register to vote—an ongoing effort despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act. This was a tense time.

As the details of the shooting circulated around town, fear turned to rage. Black residents were incensed. Cleve McDowell—a local attorney who in 1963 had been the second Black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi—called for “vigorous prosecution.” “Responsible people,” he argued, “are angry at this senseless, brutal murder.” Although Drew was no stranger to violence, McDowell and other local activists were especially outraged at Joetha’s killing. She had done everything right—she was a model student, and she’d stayed out of trouble. Her only “crime” was being Black in Drew.

Although the three white men were arrested shortly after the shooting, Black residents knew that obtaining legal justice would be an uphill battle. The day after the shooting, Aaron Henry, the leader of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP, sent a telegram to President Richard Nixon to make him aware of the “wave of senseless killing” in the state. “There was no provocation, and no words were passed,” Henry explained to a reporter. “It’s doubtful that they knew Miss Collier. They were out to kill a Black, any Black.” Nixon responded with a letter to Joetha’s family, expressing his sympathy. His press secretary announced that the FBI would look into the matter.

Amid the tension, Mayor Williford installed an 8 p.m. curfew and called in state highway patrolmen to enforce it. On Thursday, about 200 Black residents marched through the town, demanding justice for Joetha. Less than 10 miles away, a group of Black residents in Ruleville led a march of their own. Thirty-one activists were arrested and charged with “obstructing pedestrian traffic.” On Friday, the FBI announced that it would not file federal charges.

As the three men sat in Parchman Penitentiary, waiting to appear in court on June 7, residents came together to mourn. On Sunday, an estimated 1,300 people gathered to pay respects to Joetha, overflowing from the auditorium where she had received her diploma days before. “We made a determination to bury her with her class ring,” David told me. Her Black classmates attended the funeral; several were pallbearers.

Civil-rights activists from near and far—including Hamer, Henry, and John Lewis—came to show their support. Reverend Ralph Abernathy, the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, delivered a moving eulogy, calling to mind the history of terror in the area. “The Delta has made its way on the map again,” Abernathy noted. “The forces of evil and destruction have robbed us of one of our brightest, most promising, talented young persons.”

“How long,” he asked, “will Black people be shot down and killed in the Delta of Mississippi?”

Abernathy used the opportunity to extol the importance of electoral politics in bringing about future change. But local Black residents were grappling with their present reality. At the conclusion of the trial, a jury of eight Black and four white residents convicted the triggerman, Wesley Parks, of manslaughter—not murder—after deliberating for a little over an hour. Circuit Judge B. B. Wilkes imposed the maximum sentence of 20 years.

a painting of a group of women in the 70s with a photo of Jo Etha hanging in background
The Remembrance, 2022. Oil, ink, and xerox transfer on linen. (© Esiri Essi / Nino Mier Gallery for
The Atlantic. Photograph by Gert Jan van Rooij)

Following Parks’s conviction, District Attorney George Everett on March 5, 1972, announced the dismissal of the charges against Wesley’s brother and nephew. “We had no charge we could try them on after the previous trial,” he argued.

In May 1973, after his appeals to overturn his 20-year sentence were denied, Parks began his imprisonment at the Mississippi State Penitentiary. In an interview that month with the Delta Democrat-Times, Reverend Emmett C. Burns Jr., the field director of the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, decried the special treatment Parks received. Only a week into his sentence, Burns said, Parks had acquired the privileges of a “full trusty”—a managerial role within the Parchman-inmate hierarchy—and was “living in the front camp reserved only for professionals who happen to be prisoners.”

Black activists were outraged, but not surprised, when Parks got out early. In the end, after a white man killed a young Black woman on her graduation night, in what might have been one of the most brutally anti-Black towns in the country, a few years in prison for that man was all the justice that could be mustered. To add insult to injury, when the DOJ did finally close the case in 2020 with no additional charges, the department claimed that “despite multiple efforts,” it had not been able to “identify and contact possible next of kin for Ms. Collier to inform them of the results” of the investigation.

On May 25, 2021, almost a year and a half after that decision, Joetha’s brothers David, Earnis, Jimmy Love, Will Love, and Steve Love listened as her classmates shared their memories. David and Earnis had worked together, with the help of several other relatives, to arrange a 50th-anniversary memorial in Drew. David told me he remembers when his brother called to pitch the idea. David didn’t know what to expect, but he knew it was time for everyone to come together. The date coincided with the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd.

The plans for Joetha’s memorial were simple: Classmates and other attendees would meet up where Drew High School had once stood to reflect on Joetha’s life, and they would walk to the site where she had been killed. Gloria Carter Dickerson, now a Sunflower County district supervisor, attended. So did Harvey Burchfield, then the mayor of Drew. The group released orange and blue balloons—the official colors of Drew High School. The brothers were deeply moved by others’ recollections, which confirmed what they already knew: Joetha was loved and cherished.

Apart from the intimate gathering in Drew, however, the anniversary of Joetha’s murder came and went. In the age of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others, Americans are inundated by the many acts of violence against Black people. It is impossible to remember every name or mark every anniversary. Yet some cases have a hold on us. Some names remain with us—year after year, decade after decade. Joetha’s is not one of those.

Unease is exactly where Joetha’s story must take us. She was killed after what we are generally taught was the end of the civil-rights movement, after the country had undergone a transformation and the violence of places like Drew had been brought to heel by the tide of national attention. She was rural and poor, and her killers were not night riders but men who simply saw her as a life without value. She was a young, dark-skinned Black woman, living in a world where people like her were and are seen as less worthy of care and attention. Remembering her story means truly confronting ugly truths about American history and popular memory.

Drew’s Black residents have not forgotten Joetha Collier, and they have their own narrative about her death. They believe she was murdered because of what she symbolized: Black excellence and progress. She had overcome incredible odds and had shattered white expectations. She and her classmates had boldly defied racial segregation in public schools. She was going to attend college and had plans to buy her parents a home. Her family was going to leave Drew, and things were going to improve for them. Joetha had not only dared to imagine a better future. She was already running toward it.