JACKSON — Jack Reed Sr., a Tupelo businessman who spoke out against Mississippi’s segregationist culture and was a longtime advocate for public schools before losing a race for governor in 1987, has died.
Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton in a statement said the 91-year-old died Wednesday. City spokeswoman Leesha Faulkner said she doesn’t know what caused Reed’s death.
After Army service in World War II and education, Reed returned to Tupelo to help run his family’s businesses, including a department store founded by his father in 1905 and a garment factory. Family-owned Reed’s Department Store continues to operate four locations in northeast Mississippi.
Reed was an active Methodist layman and supporter of the Boy Scouts, but was little known statewide until January 1963.
In the aftermath of James Meredith integrating the University of Mississippi in 1962 amid civil unrest put down by federal troops, many lawmakers were considering closing any public school ordered to accept black students. In January 1963, Reed became one of the few prominent white Mississippians to contradict segregationist orthodoxy. Tapped to become the next president of the Mississippi Economic Council — the state chamber of commerce — Reed called on members of the group to abstain from violence, obey federal court orders, and keep public schools open even if they were ordered to integrate.
“It is a fact that the entire system of public education is indispensable to the economic welfare of all the citizens of the state,” Reed said in a speech that won national notice. “It is a hard and unpleasant fact that integration has been forced upon us once, and will very likely be forced upon us again, and it is a fact that as concerned citizens we have a personal responsibility to face up to this situation.”
It was a risky stand for a man whose family depended on the goodwill of its department store customers, especially when other dissenters from segregationist orthodoxy had been socially ostracized and economically bulldozed.
“I went in with my eyes wide open,” Reed said later. “But I wanted to say it. I felt it needed to be said.”
After taking office in 1980, Gov. William Winter named Reed to lead a committee to recommend improvements to Mississippi’s education system. Those recommendations led to the Education Reform Act of 1982, which among other changes created publicly funded kindergartens and overhauled the makeup of the state Board of Education.
Winter told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Reed “saw a role for totally selfless leadership in the state.”
“I think the state had lost one of its signal leaders, one of its most valuable citizens,” Winter said.
Winter’s successor, Gov. Bill Allain, appointed Reed to the new Board of Education, and he served as its first chairman. Reed would continue to advocate for public schools, including higher funding, well into the 2000s, often working with Winter.
Reed also continued seeking racial reconciliation, telling a group of Methodists in 1965 that, “I honestly do not see how God can solve problems in human relations without our help.”
Reed later was a member of a national Methodist commission on religion and race and served with Winter on a 2001 commission that unsuccessfully sought to change Mississippi’s state flag to exclude the Confederate battle emblem.
Tupelo leaders lauded Reed for helping his hometown grow into a regional center. He was a founding member of the Community Development Foundation, which recruited industry to a formerly agricultural region and seeded community development projects. Reed was also a founding board member of the CREATE Foundation. Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal owner George McLean gave his newspaper to the foundation, charging it to improve education, housing and health care in the region.
“His handprints can be found all over our community and will be looked upon for generations as what it means to truly live as a servant leader,” said David Rumbarger, president and CEO of the Community Development Foundation.
One of Reed’s four children, Jack Reed Jr., was mayor of Tupelo from 2009 to 2013. Funeral arrangements hadn’t been finalized Wednesday night, Pegues Funeral Directors said.
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