The Jackson community is mourning the loss of Shirlene Mercer, the last surviving member of Lane’s “Freshman Four.”
Mercer died August 2, 2023, at the age of 80.
Shirlene Mercer was a freshman at Lane College in 1960. She, and three other students, sat at the “white’s only” lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Downtown Jackson, where City Hall is now.
It was a story Mrs. Mercer would share every chance she got, and is memorialized at City Hall and the Old Country Store.
“I could take people spitting on me because I would just take a piece of tissue, wipe it off and keep on going,” Mercer said at an event at Union University in 2022, “A lady slapped me one time, and she said, ‘You can march all you want to, but you’re not ever going to get the chance to eat at the lunch counter.’”
“We were arrested every day,” Mercer told Our Jackson Home in 2020. “They didn’t take me to jail because I was a woman, but we kept going back. It lasted a couple of years.”
That energy propelled Mercer into a career as an educator, a career that lasted 24 years. She was named “Teacher of the Year” three times.
When John Tanner won the election for the 8th Congressional District of Tennessee, he asked Mercer to join his team in Jackson, helping people navigate the complicated task of dealing with the Federal Government.
In fact, Tanner attributes much of his 22-year career’s success to Mercer, who directly helped countless people while serving in his office.
“Shirlene was a powerful force for good. She liked to help people, and she was in a position where she could, and I think she got great joy and satisfaction out of that. Whether it was helping people with their social security or VA benefits, or whatever it might be, she really enjoyed helping people, and she was also very, very interested in the community,” said Former Congressman John Tanner (D).
During that same time, Mercer organized weekly Anti-Crime Marches, starting at the old Jackson High School, and ending near the Carl Perkins Civic Center. Those marches gained national attention, and community leaders believe they, in part, helped lower the crime rate in Jackson.
“Black, white, it didn’t matter. She was interested in humanity and helping the City of Jackson people, and people in our congressional district when they needed help, and she was terrific,” he continued.
As news of Mercer’s passing was traveled, tributes flooded in.
“I remember being intimidated just being in the same room as her, but she wouldn’t let you sit back and be quiet. She wanted to hear from you. She asked you questions. She always took a genuine interest in people. As I grew up and began working in public service, I could always count on Shirlene for a wise word or a stern correction, because she demanded the best out of everyone and she knew how to get it out of you,” Mayor Scott Conger wrote in a statement.
“As you look through the history of Jackson, you can see her fingerprints on so many things. She made a difference. She cared for people. She believed in people. She will be sorely missed,” he continued.
City Councilman Johnny Dodd described Mercer as Jackson’s Harriet Tubman, fighting for justice, equality, and a better life until the end.
“Mrs. Mercer was a treasure to all, but personally she was my mentor and friend. Were it not for Shirlene Mercer, there would be no Johnny Dodd. She took me under her wing as a community activist and a public servant. Anything I accomplished I owe to her. I will forever be in her debt,” he said.
Shirlene Mercer was also the first Black board member for West Tennessee Healthcare, a board member for the Boys and Girls Club of Jackson, and is the namesake for Shirlene Mercer Park.
“Her contributions to the Jackson community have made the lives of so many Jacksonians better. Her legacy is one of greatness, her impact is manifested in so many lives she impacted throughout her life! Our city is so much better because of her living here and what she did to make it better. She will truly be missed!” said City of Jackson Recreation and Parks Director Tony Black.
Longtime friend, Judge Blake Anderson, simply described Mercer as “bodacious.”
Mercer leaves behind her husband, County Commissioner Luther Mercer, as well as two children Tina Mercer and Luther Mercer II.
Her funeral services will be Wednesday, August 9, at 2 p.m. at the Carl Perkins Civic Center.
Julia Ewoldt, firstname.lastname@example.org