Born in Hartselle, Alabama, in 1921 to sharecroppers, perhaps it was those early years of picking cotton that impressed upon him the importance of education. It was those early years that set up his inability to be content with what was. There was always something within him that pushed him to make things better.
After graduating from Danville high school near Decatur, he came to Florence and attended Florence State College which is now UNA. Not content with a BS in Education, Sparkman enrolled in the Master’s program at the University of Alabama. With his new MA, he went to work for the Tuscumbia School System. Serving there from 1958 until 1969, Sparkman was principal at Cave Street Elementary and Deshler Main Street Elementary before becoming Assistant Superintendent of Schools.
Part of his job there involved facilitating the desegregation of the city schools. It was during those years that the feeling that had been gnawing at him finally drove him to make some changes.
“When I was a little boy, it was just assumed that blacks were inferior to whites,” this cousin of Senator John Sparkman recalls. “But I also remember being taught that I was never to be rude or unkind to a black person. As I grew up, the less and less this racial superiority made sense to me. I finally went to my minister and asked him to pray for me. I told him racism was killing my soul.” His minister, Dr. Otis Kirby at First Methodist Church in Tuscumbia, obliged. (book cover photo)
After the prayer, Sparkman said he walked out of Dr. Kirby’s office and never had another sleepless night or felt bad again.
“I was at peace,” he said. That sense of peace would push him to accept a calling that came just a few years later when he was at Auburn University earning his Ed.D.
The newly titled Dr. Sparkman remembers being called into his advisor’s office and given a list of potential positions. Did any of them interest him? He was intrigued by the advertised position of Assistant Superintendent of Schools for Jackson, Mississippi. He made the drive to Jackson to interview. And there began the fascinating inside story of how the last segregated school system in the country went through the process of dismantling its entrenched racial divide. Called To Jackson, Mississippi: The Last Bastion of Segregation, an historical documentary (iUniverse, 2011) by Brandon Sparkman is a first person account of the often dangerous, and always challenging task from the man who lived in the eye of the storm.
Within the two weeks after his interview in Jackson, police shot and killed two students and wounded several others during a riot at Jackson State College. Sparkman continued to discuss the job with his family. What was the right thing to do?
The resolution came two months after Sparkman’s initial interview. “There was an anonymous letter from Jackson, Mississippi,” Dr. Sparkman recalls.
It said verbatim:
Sir, may I suggest that, if you are smart, you will not get involved in the Jackson Public Schools. This district is in trouble, deep trouble, and there seems to be nothing ahead but chaos. May I also suggest that the superintendent is in trouble. He has lost the confidence of the teaching staff and the public. All sorts of dire and terrible things are being said throughout the community. If these public schools survive at all, it will be a miracle that will have to begin within the community. Just now patrons are enrolling in private schools enmasse. Bystander
Sparkman’s 9th grade daughter said, “Daddy, that Superintendent’s in trouble. If you can help him, we need to go to Jackson.” Sparkman agreed. He considered it a calling in much the same way a minister feels a calling. He had no choice.
Sparkman walked into the middle of lines drawn by color and by lawsuit. He dealt with a Jewish attorney from New York who was there to make certain that black parents were represented, and who was, by far, the man most hated by the segregationist white community in Jackson. “He told me that he didn’t care anything about education,” Sparkman recalled. “He said he was only interested in ‘putting white bodies beside black bodies in the classroom.’ I, on the other hand, was only interested in quality education for Jackson students regardless of their color. We butted heads more than once.” He smiled, “We ended up having a mutual respect, and working well together.”
Sparkman also butted heads with the White Citizens Council, the “respectable” front for the Ku Klux Klan.
During his tenure as Assistant Superintendent, the Huntsville, Alabama school system contacted him and offered him the Superintendent’s job there. Concerned that he wasn’t accomplishing what needed to be done in Jackson, Sparkman accepted Huntsville’s offer. When he told the Jackson School Board he was resigning, they informed him they had already voted to promote him because the incumbent superintendent was leaving for health reasons. The Board told him he had their full support and they would back him up on anything he wanted to do. After again discussing things with his family, Sparkman decided to stay in Jackson. Now carrying the full load, his life became even more intense.
He endured threats both to his personal safety and to his job. In addition to the support offered by the Nixon White House that never materialized and a local radio call-in talk show where he was bombarded with hate calls, Sparkman dealt with the usual business of running a large city school system. He effectively set up a program designed to educate all Jackson’s children.
When Columbia, South Carolina contacted him with the offer to be their Superintendent, the weary Brandon Sparkman accepted. Later, he returned to Alabama and supervised first the Hartselle then the Guntersville school system before retiring and moving to Muscle Shoals. Looking back on his amazing career, Dr. Sparkman said there are several things that especially please him. Among those was his ability to get some very disparate groups to agree. “What surprised me was the support I got from both black and white,” he said. “I also felt good about standing up to those people who lived by intimidation and bullying.”
Dr. Robert Fortenberry, who followed Sparkman into the Jackson Superintendent position, said, “There was a group of southern educators dedicated to seeing desegregation through. It’s largely an untold story. I came to Jackson primarily because of Brandon Sparkman and I stayed 17 years. I received the benefit of what he did. This nation and this region owe a great debt to these men. This story does not need to get lost. I’m glad he wrote the book.”
It is the story of working for tall justice because that’s the right thing to do.
This article by Patsy Glenn appeared in the Courier Journal, Florence, Alabama, February 22, 2012.
Brandon Sparkman's book, Called to Jackson, Mississippi: The Last Bastion of Segregation, can be purchased online at Barnes and Noble or Amazon. Copies are also available at Books-A-Million as well as from the publisher at iuniverse.com.