Henry J. Kirksey, an outspoken civil rights activist and one of the first Blacks elected to the Mississippi Senate after Reconstruction, has died at age 90.
Family members said Kirksey died of pneumonia at St. Dominic/Jackson Memorial Hospital last week.
Kirksey’s daughter, Karin Kirksey Zander of Raleigh, N.C., credited her father with making “such a big impact” on Mississippi and its people.
“I just always had this immense respect for what he committed himself to do,” Zander said. “He gave 150 percent, and I just always viewed him as a heroic figure.”
Kirksey’s family has said the election of 600 Blacks to public office in the state can be credited in large part to Kirksey’s service as a plaintiff, expert witness and community organizer.
To bring about change, the Tupelo native filed several lawsuits against the city of Jackson and the state. In 1965, Kirksey, a planning consultant, challenged the countywide election of state legislators. His lawsuit lead to the adoption of single-member legislative districts in 1979.
“All of us who are elected owe that election more so to Henry Kirksey than anyone else,” U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said this weekend. “So, if you are a supervisor, a judge, an alderman, or U.S. congressman, it’s because Henry Kirksey helped Mississippi do what was in the interest of all its citizens.”
Mississippi Democratic Party chairman Wayne Dowdy this week said Kirksey was “a powerful force in continuing the civil rights movement in Mississippi.”
“Sen. Kirksey awakened our state’s conscience to the grave slights suffered by minorities, but his legacy should not be confined to just the importance he held in the African-American communities,” Dowdy said. “Sen. Kirksey helped create a more open society in this state, and we all should be considered beneficiaries of such an extraordinary life as his.”
Kirksey also filed suit to make public the records of the now defunct Sovereignty Commission, which had functioned as the state’s segregation watchdog agency.
Kirksey was also pivotal in the change Jackson made from the commission form of government to the present mayor-council form.
Kirksey was elected to the state Senate in 1979 and served two four-year terms. He also made several unsuccessful bids for public office, including for two runs as an independent candidate for lieutenant governor. He also ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and mayor of Jackson.
In 1992, he joined Tougaloo College in north Jackson as an adjunct professor of political science.
Most recently, Kirksey opposed the construction of the Jackson Metro Parkway, which will connect west Jackson to downtown. In December 2001 construction began on the parkway. Kirksey felt the parkway was unnecessary and “violated people’s rights to own property,” Phillips said.
Zander said her father’s ashes will be spread over the cemetery where his parents were laid to rest. A memorial service will be held in January.
He is also survived by his son, Henry Kirksey Jr. of Los Angeles, and three granddaughters.
— Associated Press
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