By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Parsons, director of the Arkansas Christian Educators Association and a member of the Northwest Arkansas Community College board, is not a quitter, and he's not one to let things go out of deference to public opinion. He has been called a "political activist" and "tireless gadfly" by the Arkansas press because of his David-and-Goliath-like efforts to fix government's ills and reprimand politicians such as Bill Clinton. His very public quests are sometimes belittled for their supposed pettiness. (He recently got a schoolteacher reprimanded for putting a school board candidate's campaign material into other teachers' mailboxes.) But he's moved mountains of bureaucracy, too. Last year, thanks to lobbying by Parsons, highway signs declaring Arkansas the home of Bill Clinton were removed or covered. Parsons has fought mightily for teachers, as well. One of his recent successes was to ensure that teachers controlled their own retirement fund, he says.
No matter what the press calls him today--he particularly dislikes the implications of "gadfly"--Parsons says he has set a course for his life that compels him to speak up for what's right. That's because in 1951, Parsons and his family witnessed the aftermath of a killing and said nothing.
About a mile south of Ladonia, beyond a rusty wire fence just off a deeply rutted dirt road, Parsons surveys a dark brown, fallow pasture once known as the Walker farm and Parsons' home. Wearing a navy blue suit and tie he put on for a meeting with the district attorney later that afternoon, Parsons takes a long, hard look at the land his family unsuccessfully tried to farm all those years ago.
"Boy, this has really changed," he says, furrowing his brow as he reconstructs a picture of the farm from his youth. "I'm guessing that our house was right about here. I think our house must have been right about there, and Harrison's house was there, and the barn was there. We used to park our car at the other road and walk up to the house because in the muddy weather like today, you couldn't drive this.
"Our house was right there," he says, pointing. "Right there. It's totally, just completely gone. The house, the barn, and the other houses. It's completely gone."
Parsons' family moved to the farm in 1949, his father leaving a good job as a teacher and football coach in Kansas to tend land owned by his wife's family. The Walkers were longtime Ladonia residents and well-known in the area. The high school football field was initially named for a Walker boy who was the first from the area killed in World War I. Walker Field became Walker-Bishop Field after World War II, when another of Ladonia's sons was killed, this one at Pearl Harbor.
Parsons doesn't have fond memories of his time in Ladonia and not just because of Jones. The Parsons weren't farmers, and three straight years of too much rain for the cotton and too little money made life miserable. Besides that, he was tired of the mud. In the rain, the roads turned to mush, caking wheel wells and choking cars to a stop with thick mud that locals call "black gumbo."
"We had to pick cotton and pull corn. We were poor at the time. We lost everything we had," he says. "We had several years of rain, plus we weren't farmers. We came here and went belly up. We moved down here onto the farm, and our money went pretty quick. Life was hard."
The Parsons befriended Jones and his young family. They let them use the house behind the barn as part of their payment for work on the farm. Parsons' younger brother could often be seen playing with the two younger Jones children. For their friendship, some people in town called the Parsons "nigger lovers."
"We were very friendly with them. They helped us by working in the field and so forth. We helped them by giving them a house and supporting them, too. After slavery, that's kind of the way things worked," Parsons says. "He wasn't an employee necessarily, but in a way, I guess he was. I was called a nigger lover because of this relationship. White persons weren't supposed to do that."
Parsons, once a Ladonia High School quarterback, looks out over downtown Ladonia, pointing out now-crumbling landmarks. Most farmers left Ladonia when Asia took over the cotton market. Cotton isn't even grown around Ladonia anymore, and downtown looks as though it was abandoned about the time Jones died. Once-bustling stores are boarded, and the town is so quiet that in the middle of the day, you can hear the sound of a woman's hard shoes on the pavement from far across the street. She opens the bank door, and the sound clatters across the square as the door slams shut behind her. The bank is one of the only viable businesses left in Ladonia. The other is Delta Funeral Home, the same funeral home that tended to Jones' body 50 years ago.
About a block from the center of this dying town, two elderly black women sit talking. Neither wanted to be identified, but the older of them is a common sight in Ladonia, perched on the wooden porch of her dilapidated early 1900s-era house. She waves to passing cars and smiles. With her deeply wrinkled face, leather moccasins, flowered skirt, and scarf tied gypsy-style over her head, she looks as though she stepped out of another era. She isn't out of place here, though. She makes sense but talks in a rambling, disjointed way about church and the town and the way things were. When asked, she says she thinks Jones was a preacher. The younger and more lucid of the two on the porch is a large woman who wears gold-rimmed glasses. Most of the time, she is hunched over on the porch rail, silently doodling with a pencil on a newspaper ad while the older woman rambles. But she speaks up, talking directly and loudly when she has something to say. She remembers Jones and his family well, she says, interrupting and quickly correcting her friend.