A tribute to Dr. James Jackson


by Cynthia Price


Dr. James Jackson will still be around.

Though the long-time Muskegon Heights doctor left his earthly body on June 26, he will still be present through the Museum of African-American History that bears his name, his smiling and ageless face centered in a crowd of dedicated volunteers on its Facebook page.

He will forever be reflected in the history of the civil rights movement in the Midwest.

And he will still reside in the hearts of those who knew him, urging them to make their communities the best they can and engage in “the struggle” with every ounce of their might.

The facts of Dr. Jackson’s fare straightforward. He was born on Sept. 8, 1931, in Springfield, Mass. He attended Wayne State University and the Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine.
After an internship at Muskegon Osteopathic Hospital (later General Hospital), he started a family practice in the Heights in 1960, working there until he retired.

He married, and later was divorced from, Barbria Smith Jackson. The couple had four children, three sons (two of whom are doctors) and one daughter, who died tragically.

Dr. Jackson ended his days living in Twin Lake, volunteering  almost daily to help the African-American Museum thrive. He passed away at home, having asked to be removed from all machines keeping him alive three weeks earlier, according to his dear friend James McFadden.

McFadden, who was the subject of an article in the Examiner 5/9/18 when he spoke at the museum, worked in the Civil Rights movement with Dr. Jackson in the 1960s all the way up through the 1980s.

McFadden is one of 17 civil rights activists honored on the website of the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African-American Culture, which focuses on the role of Montgomery Alabama in that movement. He was one of nine students expelled from the University of Alabama for “sitting in” to protest civil rights infractions indignities.

McFadden was able to come to Muskegon two weekends before Dr. Jackson’s death and spend a few days with him. “We had a good time, just reflecting, making some strategies for the future. It was really valuable time together, and one of the most awesome Father’s Days that I’ve experienced,” McFadden said.

The two met in the late 1960s, and eventually started an organization called the National Organization for an American Revolution, which also included Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs in Detroit. (Grace Lee Boggs was an award-winning activist and author, founder of the Detroit Summer cultural event, who died in 2015 at the age of 100; her husband died earlier.)

In the 1980s and 1990s, Dr. Jackson created a number of local organizations intended to further the idea that community self-reliance and self-sufficiency were of critical importance to African-Americans, and indeed to the flourishing of any community.

These included book discussion groups, peace organizations, and community development groups. He frequently sponsored community programs, often taking money out of his own pocket.

Dr. Jackson loved nature and was an avid fisherman. James McFadden says they went on many fishing trips – Jackson also loved traveling – “around the country and sometimes out of the country.”

The doctor had a related passion for community gardens, with their triple contribution to things he cared about – health and fitness, community self-reliance, and the beauty of nature. He cultivated and supervised plots in the Muskegon Heights area.

But it was in 2006 when Dr. Jackson and a group of community leaders in Muskegon Heights formed the Muskegon County Museum of African-American History, later renamed in his honor, that he truly came into his own.

(There is a wonderful YouTube interview with Dr. Jackson by one of those leaders, Dr. Willi Burrel, about the history of discrimination and struggle in this area show
ing the need for the museum.)

“His legacy is the Africa-American Museum,” says McFadden. “It summarizes what he was always trying to do, an institute for learning about and preserving our culture.”

Another of Dr. Jackson’s friends and a strong leader at the Museum, William Muhammad, says that Dr. Jackson, who could be quite stubborn, resisted changing the museum’s name to include his own.

Says Muhammad, “I told him that it was what the community wanted, and we did a petition to show him. He still dragged his feet.”

Muhammad adds that the outpouring of sympathy and concern has helped relieve the pain of his death.

“I’ve been pretty much overwhelmed by the sheer volume of persons who have expressed condolences, surprise that he died, and the impact he had on their lives,” Muhammad says. “I’m truly overwhelmed by how deep he was woven into the fabric of Muskegon.”

There is a memorial service in the planning stages, to be held at the Museum on Center Street in Muskegon Heights, with the date still to be determined.

It was Dr. Jackson’s wish that, in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to the James Jackson Museum of African-American History. The mailing address is P.O Box 4582, Muskegon Heights, MI



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