September Marks Two Significant Milestones

Elport Chess

September 2017 marks two important and connected anniversaries in Mississippi’s Civil Rights history. First, 70 years ago in Jackson, the Lanier Bus Boycott of 1947 took place and was led by Mr. Elport Chess. Then one year ago, in 2016, the JATRAN public bus transit system building located on Highway 80 in Jackson was renamed “The Elport Chess Building” in honor of the history-altering boycott.

In 1947, Chess returned home to Jackson after being drafted and serving his country in the United States military during World War II. As an African American teen, and WWII veteran who had earned a Purple Heart and Silver Heart for his brave actions in the war, Chess enrolled back in Lanier High School to complete his education. Lanier High School was Mississippi’s first accredited four-year high school for African Americans, and at that time, students either walked to school or rode the #6 Jackson city bus. Although it was designated the “special bus,” on which African American students rode, when necessary it could also segregate African Americans to a specified seating area.

On a September morning in 1947, Chess boarded the bus and sat in an empty seat, even though the seat was not designated for African American use. The #6 bus was crowded with students headed to school. All was going as usual until a white woman boarded the bus and Chess was asked to give up his seat for her. He refused. The bus driver, in response, acted and had Chess physically removed by the police. Chess was beaten and jailed. This act against him spurred a protest by the school’s students and others who boycotted the bus system, which is known today as the Lanier Bus Boycott of 1947.

“WWII veteran Elport Chess chose to take a stand,” said Wilma Mosley Clopton, Ph.D., president and CEO of NMHS Unlimited Film and Productions in Jackson. “He was not aware at the time that his stand would become a pivotal moment in Mississippi’s Civil Rights history.”

For Chess, and other WWII African American veterans returning home, Mississippi was challenging. “In war, they had been introduced to a way of life that included their recognition as men,” said Clopton. “To them, it was incredulous that they should be asked to die in Europe for the rights of the oppressed while upon return being asked to resubmit to oppression in the United States. It was these soldiers’ exposure to real freedom that marked the turning point for Mississippi.”

The Lanier Bus Boycott of 1947 took place eight years before Rosa Parks’ scripted protest in Alabama. “This fact is important,” explained Clopton, “because Mississippi was still knee-deep in the restrictive covenants of Jim Crow laws. Voting rights were just a glimmer on the horizon, and blacks were routinely beaten, tortured and lynched with little provocation. Chess took action clearly in the face of danger.”

Today, 70 years later and thanks to decades of perseverance by Lanier High School’s students from 1947-48, the legacy of Chess continues to be honored through the bus station naming. “The efforts of the staff and students of Lanier High School during a time when Jim Crow, white supremacy and separate and unequal treatment was the law of the land was courageous,” said Elport’s son, Alexander Chess and on behalf of the Chess family.

Photograph courtesy of Jay Johnson

Photograph courtesy of Jay Johnson

“If my father was here today, I know he would be proud and appreciative of this great honor that has been awarded him,” added Chess, of the JATRAN facility’s naming. “Our hearts leap for joy, as our eyes are filled with tears, each time we pass the building, and say, ‘This is for you Dad, your efforts were not forgotten, nor were they in vain.’”

An educational documentary, “Elport Chess and the Lanier Bus Boycott of 1947,” has been produced by NMHS Unlimited Film Productions to both honor and preserve the historical value of Chess’ actions and of the supporters. “We are indeed humbled and honored by the enormous effort by Dr. Wilma Clopton and the Lanier High School Class of 1948 for bringing forth in this documentary the activities surrounding the arrest and reaction to the arrest of my Dad, Elport Chess, Sr., in 1947,” said Chess.

The idea for the documentary came about in December of 2009, when Dr. Clopton received a phone call from Mrs. Grace Sweet inviting her to attend the annual Christmas party of the Lanier High School Class of 1948. As part of the conversation, Sweet told the story of Elport Chess and the boycott of 1947 and said, “If you can come, the class would like to share their story with you.”

Photograph courtesy of Jay Johnson

“It was the efforts of Chess’ classmates that became the impetus for the film, as well as an aggressive lobbying and petition signing campaign to make the Jackson City Council aware of the importance of Elport Chess,” explained Clopton, adding that the idea to start a petition signing campaign was the suggestion of Mrs. Johnetta Jurden, a classmate who was on the bus with Chess that day. Jurden and other members of the Class of 1948 actively lobbied for the naming.

“This petition process was critical because the Jackson City Council was contemplating naming the new JATRAN facility after Rosa Parks,” said Clopton. “Those of us involved in the campaign felt that the logical person for whom the building should be named was Elport Chess, a Mississippian and WWII veteran whose efforts spurred the Jackson city bus boycott years before Rosa Parks’ protest.”

“Many Mississippians are woefully unaware of the rich legacy and contribution made by Mississippi African Americans,” added Clopton. “Even though it was 70 years in the making, this act of acknowledgement and naming of JATRAN’s Elport Chess Building is an achievement to celebrate. The bravery and vision of Chess and many others blazed a trail toward equality for the generations that followed. They are heroes.”

Photograph courtesy of Jay Johnson

The legacy Chess left behind has endured, changed and created a better Mississippi, and September marks two milestones that have played significant roles in that fact. “We join hands with our extended family of Jacksonians in supporting the month of September in recognizing all milestones attributed to the achievements of the citizens of our great state,” added Chess.

NMHS Unlimited Film Productions is a 501(c)(3) Mississippi-based company specializing in documentaries about Mississippi African Americans and their contributions to the State of Mississippi. Visit www.blackhistoryplus.com or contact Dr. Wilma Mosley Clopton at cloptongroup@yahoo.com or 601-259-7598 for more information.

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