On the night of May 25, 1971, Jo Etha Collier was walking home after graduating from the newly integrated Drew High School in the small Mississippi Delta town of Drew when a pickup truck came by and opened fire. Around 9.45 p.m., 18-year-old Collier, who had been recognized for her school spirit and attitude and was set to start college the following fall, was struck in the neck. The following evening, she passed away.
The vehicle involved in the killing, as well as the guys who were in it, were described to the police by eyewitnesses. Wesley Parks, Wayne Parks, and their nephew Allen Wilkerson, all White, were detained by the police a few hours after she was murdered.
Wesley Parks, a Memphis hospital refrigeration and air conditioning shop worker, would be the only one of the three to face charges. The charges against the other two were dropped. According to published accounts, Wesley Parks was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 20 years in jail.
The assassination of Collier on the night of her graduation sparked a series of protest marches in Drew and Rulevilla. Collier’s shooting was covered by every major news network. Following her death, there were allegations of rocks being thrown at passing automobiles in Drew’s Black neighborhoods. The mayor even requested aid from the highway patrol to help enforce an 8 p.m. curfew at the time.
President Richard Nixon received a telegram from Aaron Henry, state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, requesting assistance in halting a “wave of senseless killings of black persons in Mississippi by white citizens.”
Before Collier’s murder, a Black man was shot and killed by a White grocer in Ecru, Mississippi, according to Henry. He also stated that a White night watchman killed another Black man at Sumner, and that some New Jersey college students working on Black voter registration in the Delta had been “plagued with auto mobile tires being cut, bomb threats, and abuses of all kinds.”
In his telegram to the president, Henry went on to state that Collier was shot without provocation. “There were no words exchanged. Miss Collier was probably unknown to them. The telegram stated, “They were apparently determined to kill a black, any black.”
Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights activist, agreed with Henry. “She was gunned down because she was black,” Hamer stated in response to a police statement that said no explanation for the killing had been established. “This is a tragedy not only for Mississippi’s Black people, but for the entire country.”
Collier had also been voted the most useful member of the girls’ track team when she was killed, according to The New York Times. She had also been chosen as the first recipient of a new award for school spirit and attitude in her school. She was one of eight children born to Gussie Mae Love of Puleville, but she was not involved in civil rights issues, according to Hamer, who added that her death could be linked to the turbulence surrounding the region’s voter registration drive at the time.
Rev. Ralph Abernathy, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, delivered the eulogy during Collier’s funeral. According to sources, President Nixon’s White House released a statement condemning the brutal crime and ordering the US Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate the killing to ensure no federal crimes were committed.
On the 50th anniversary of Collier’s death, friends and family met in Drew in May to mourn her.
Earnis Collier said of his sister, “She had intentions to go to Mississippi Valley State College, and I’m not sure what her major was, but she always dreamed of going to college, getting a degree, having a decent job, and taking care of my mom, taking care of us, you know.” “She had a fantasy of getting us out of the shanty we were living in and into a magnificent house.” She had tremendous ambitions.”
Supervisor Gloria Dickerson of Sunflower County District 5 announced intentions to erect a memorial to Collier where she was killed.