HomeNewsFuneral held for Civil Rights activist Shirlene Mercer

Funeral held for Civil Rights activist Shirlene Mercer

Services for Civil Rights activist Shirlene Mercer were held Wednesday, August 9, at the Carl Perkins Civic Center. Mercer, the last surviving member of Lane College’s Freshman Four, died at the age of 80 on August 2, 2023. 

Mercer’s memorial service was well attended by family, community members, elected officials, nonprofit leaders, and more. 

Rev. Al Sharpton sent a letter to the Mercer family, offering his condolences. The NAACP also honored Mercer, and the City of Jackson declared August 9, 2023 as Shirlene Mercer Day. 

Former Congressmen John Tanner, Harold Ford Sr., and Harold Ford Jr. spoke during the funeral, expressing their gratitude for Mercer’s work to help the people of West Tennessee. All agreed that Mercer didn’t work for them, just the opposite: they all worked for Shirlene Mercer. 

President and CEO of West Tennessee Healthcare, James Ross gave an emotional testimony about Mercer’s commitment making healthcare available to all people. Her determination to bring a health clinic to East Jackson allowed thousands of people to receive necessary healthcare. 

“Shirlene was not only a respected lady with international recognition, She was my friend, a guiding light for a young man from Jack’s Creek, Tennessee, who was trying to make a difference to meet the needs of those that she came in contact with,” Ross said. 

Mercer’s two children, LaTina and Luther Mercer II, also spoke about their mother, as they knew her. 

The service was completed with a harmonica selection by Damien Pearson, a cousin of Mercer’s and music from the Hub City Mass Choir and Kelsea Merriweather. 

Shirlene Mercer, October 14, 1942 – August 2, 2023

Shirlene Ross Mercer was born October 14, 1942, to Dorothy Nell Bills and William Hobson who were both natives of Jackson, Tennessee. She transitioned from life to eternal rest on August 2, 2023, at her residence after a seven-month illness. Shirlene accepted Christ at an early age at St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church that later transitioned to Greater St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church where she served as Church Secretary at the age of 19 until her health started to fail.

Shirlene graduated from Merry High School in 1960 and later went to further her education at Lane College, graduating in 1964. Her graduate work was done at the University of Memphis and Austin Peay University.

While studying at Lane College, she and three of her close friends became known as “The Four Freshman of Lane College” who in 1960 already started their charge to fight for Civil Rights and their start to be strong Community Activists. During this time, she became heavily involved in SNCC. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee which was founded in 1960 in the wake of student-led sit-ins at segregated lunch counters across the South and became the major channel of student participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Shirlene often traveled to other cities and towns to participate with SNCC and help in other communities to bring about awareness. Shirlene’s favorite ploy was to drink from “White Only” Fountains.” Her determination and drive to defy the Jim Crow laws was the steppingstone to the Community Activist she is today. In addition to protesting with sit’ ins at the lunch counters, she helped Blacks that were removed from their homes because they registered to vote and were forced to live in tents in the middle of winter in In during the 1970’s called “Tent City.” Her fight for equal rights and the safety of ALL is the foundation of her life and it continued to show through the years. In observance of her efforts during that time, The City of Jackson and the Old Country Store have mock displays with the original chairs from the Sit Ins demonstrations.

After graduating from Lane College, she became a teacher in Missouri. Later, after moving back to Tennessee, she taught in Hardeman County for 24 years. She often referred to her students as her “Bolivar Babies” and cherished all the memories she created for herself and others.

As a teacher, Shirlene Mercer served in many capacities of the teaching profession. She was the President of the Hardeman County Teachers Association. She also served as a member of the Minority Affair Council and as the 74 District Representative of the Tennessee T.-Pace Council representing 17 West Tennessee Counties of the Tennessee Education Association. She also coached basketball at Episcopal Dav School where her children attended school.

In 1989, Mrs. Mercer became Director of the District Services for United States Congressman John Tanner in the 8 Congressional District. Shirlene Mercer became quite an activist in her community.

She is the Past Chairperson and first Woman Chairman of the Board of Directors of West Tennessee Healthcare. Past Board Chair of the Boys and Girls Club of Jackson, Past Board Member of the YMCA, Past Chairperson of the Board of the Jackson Area Council on Drugs and Alcohol, Past Vice Chair of the Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce. A member of the Tennessee Hospital Association, The Tennessee Governance Board, and the American Hospital Association’s Metropolitan Board. A Member of West Star a Leadership Program of the University of Tennessee at Martin, and the Citizens Police Academy and a Friend of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI just to name a few.

Shirlene is Co-Chairperson of the Jackson Leadership Council which she created, organized, and participated in the weekly anti-crime marches. Since becoming a part of the Jackson Leadership Council, she has dedicated her time and energy to the work of crime reduction in her community.

Shirlene has been featured in USA Today, and the “Highway 5” television special by WMC-TV Memphis. She and Chief of Police Richard Staples were guests on the nationally syndicated television show, “The Rolanda Show” in New York City in which they told their story about how Community Policing helped to bring crime down 20%.

Mercer has also served as a consultant to the City of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania’s Police Department, The National Association of African American Hospital Executives in Philadelphia. Mercer was also a special guest of the Attorney General’s conference on Community Orientated Policing in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Mercer and the anti-crime marches are featured in a textbook entitled Criminology Today by Frank Schmallenger, Ph.D. The book profiles how communities, like Jackson, Tennessee, are taking a stand against those who are committing crimes and selling drugs.

Shirlene Mercer has been successful with one of her greatest efforts; that being the “Weekly Anti-Crime Marches.” Each Friday, Mercer led a band of interested children and adults marching into the streets of Jackson bearing their interest in fighting crime and violence at its most grassroots level; that being the community. These marches occurred in neighborhoods where drug activity had been identified by the Police or where a death due to drugs or violence had occurred. These marches let those residents know that crimes like those would not be tolerated and we had to protect our children. During that period, Shirlene has also met with Gang Members to try to bridge the gap and stop Black on Black Crime. She was respected by both sides, and they admired her work and listened to her Charge. The marches have been attended by many notables, including Congressman John Tanner, Vice President Al Gore, Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist, Tennessee Senator Bill Frist, Former NAACP Director Benjamin Hooks, Congressman Harold Ford, Jr., and Nashville Mayor and Governor Phil Bredesen.

From January 1995 through June 1996, 8 African-American Churches were burned in Tennessee under suspicious circumstances out of the 59 that burned in the South due to arson. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a statement, “Southern rural black churches were rallying points for many galvanizing demonstrations that ushered in the modern Civil Rights Movement.” On January 13, 1995, at about 4 a.m., the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Fruitvale, TN, was burned to the ground. At 6:30 a.m. The Johnson Grove Baptist Church burned to the ground in Denmark, TN, only 12 miles away. Both churches were near Jackson, TN, and the fires were set identically to the date of Martin Luther King’s birthday. Congressman John Tanner 8th Congressional District, Congressman Harold Ford Jr. 9th Congressional District, President and First Lady Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Vice President and First Lady Al and Tipper Gore came to Jackson, TN, to help rebuild the churches. Shirlene Mercer helped organize those efforts for the President’s staff, Secret Service, and the activities to help rebuild the churches and aid in the senseless persecution of those affected. Shirlene saddened stated, “I hate to see history repeat itself.”

During that same time period, in 1996, Shirlene revived the Gilliam Baseball League. In the late 1950s, the Parks and Recreation Director decided to start a Little League and name it after his favorite player Jr. Gilliam. Gilliam was the second African-American to play in the Major League for the Brooklyn Dodgers after Jackie Robinson. The League died out after the mid 1960’s and was revived in 1996 with three or four teams by Shirlene Mercer. Today, thanks to the support of the community, the Gilliam League serves over 180 children ages 6-8 and 9-12 years with this year serving the most teams in a season, 16, and offering T-Ball. Shirlene made it possible for children to be part of the League free of charge So that children who are challenged from various socio-economic backgrounds can still know and understand teamwork and friendship.

Also, during a brief stint, Vice President Al Gore, Representative John Lewis and Shirlene Mercer taught a class together at Fisk University focusing on the emerging discipline of “Community Building”.

Community building, Mr. Gore explained, is an interdisciplinary approach that grew out of discussions at annual conferences on family issues that the Gores sponsored in Tennessee over the last nine years. It seeks to bring together authorities from fields like education, business, architecture, law and public policy to teach “all of the skills that are relevant to bringing a community to life.”

October 9, 2020, the City of Jackson named a Community Park alter Shirlene Mercer to show their appreciation for all her love and dedication to make Jackson-Madison County a better place. “The Shirlene Mercer Walking Trail” 5.2-acre park, which is located in the East Jackson Community. The park is designed for Family and Community Activities. Movies in the Park, Reunions, and Gatherings.

Shirlene was an only child by her parents. Shirlene is preceded in death by her mother Dorothy Nell Bills and her special aunt Betty Mae Boyd and 3 other aunts and 4 uncles. She leaves her cherished memories and beautiful legacy to her husband, Luther T. Mercer and two children LaTina and Luther II, her father William Hobson, and her aunt that she was close to throughout her life, Gussie Savage. She also leaves three brothers in law, Marvin Mercer (Sherri), Larry Mercer (Brenda) and Ralph Mercer (Cheryl) in addition to a host of family members, nieces and nephews who loved and admired her dearly. Shirlene also leaves her cherished memories to her Monthly Lunch Group: Judge Blake Anderson, her best friend, Judge Christy Little, Young Kim, Derrick Britt, Rick Staples, and Sheriff David Woolfork.

Also, the special friendships she made through her life, Congressman John Tanner, Congressman Harold Ford St and Congressman Harold Ford Jr, Vice President, Al Gore, Tom Turner, Joe “Nip” McKnight, Wanda “Wonder Bread” Mercer, Brenda Monroe Moses, Jimi Baylor and James Ross.

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