Jo Etha Collier was walking home the night of May 25, 1971, after graduating from the recently integrated Drew High School in the little Mississippi Delta town of Drew when a pickup truck drove by and began shooting. 18-year-old Collier, who had been honored for her school spirit and attitude and was poised to enter college the following fall, was hit in the neck around 9.45 pm. She died the same evening.
Eyewitnesses were able to describe to the police the vehicle involved in the killing and the men who were in it. A few hours after her murder, brothers Wesley Parks, Wayne Parks and their nephew Allen Wilkerson, all White, were arrested by the police.
Wesley Parks, who worked as a refrigeration and air‐conditioning shop helper at a Memphis hospital, would be the only one of the three to stand trial. Charges were dismissed for the other two. Wesley Parks was convicted on manslaughter charges and sentenced to 20 years in prison, according to newspaper reports.
Collier’s graduation-night killing led to a series of protest marches in Drew and neighboring Rulevilla. Every major news network covered the story of Collier’s shooting. There were reports of rocks thrown at passing cars in Black sections of Drew right after her slaying. The mayor at the time even called for assistance from the highway patrol to help enforce an 8 P.M. curfew.
Aaron Henry, state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, sent President Richard Nixon a telegram asking for help in curtailing a “wave of senseless killings in Mississippi of black citizens by white citizens.”
Henry said a Black man had earlier been shot and killed by a White grocer at Ecru in north east Mississippi before Collier’s murder. Another Black man was also killed by a White night watchman at Sumner, he said, adding that some college students from New Jersey, working on Black voter registration in the Delta, had also been “plagued with auto mobile tires being cut, bomb threats and abuses of all kinds.”
Henry went on to say in his telegram to the president that Collier was shot without any provocation. “No words were passed. It is doubtful they knew Miss Collier. They were apparently out to kill a black, any black,” the telegram said.
Civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer agreed with Henry. “She was Black, that was the reason she was shot down,” said Hamer in response to a statement from the police that no reason had been established for the killing. “This is a tragedy not only for the Black people of Mississippi, but the whole nation.”
Apart from being chosen as the first recipient of a new award for school spirit and attitude in her school, Collier had also been voted the most valuable member of the girls’ track team when she was killed, The New York Times reported. She was one of eight children of Gussie Mae Love of Puleville, but she had not been active in civil rights affairs, Hamer said, adding that her murder could also be connected to the unrest surrounding the voter registration campaign in the region at the time.
Co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Rev. Ralph Abernathy delivered the eulogy at Collier’s funeral. President Nixon’s White House also issued a statement condemning 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, reports said.
Last May, friends and family gathered in Drew to remember Collier on the 50th anniversary of her death.
“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,” Earnis Collier said of his sister. “She always dreamed of getting us out of the little shack we lived in and moving to a nice home. She had big dreams.”
Sunflower County District 5 Supervisor Gloria Dickerson announced plans of placing a marker in Collier’s honor where she was killed.