Tommy Marshall helped pave way for SPSD

Published 4:28 pm Tuesday, October 10, 2023

By Rupert Howell

Editor Emeritus

After decades of writing obituaries in newspapers I came to the conclusion that nobody’s life should truly be summed up in four or five paragraphs. But that’s what obituary writers do.

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In early spring, when I was a teenager, I would see him go home, put on his khakis and spray wild onions.

Little did I know what was going through O.T. (Tommy) Marshall’s mind in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As a grownup now, I think I understand.

Beside being a vice president at Dunlap & Kyle, a church deacon, veteran, husband and father, he also was a trustee on the five-member South Panola School District Board of Trustees. That unpaid, elected board, consisting of five white males, along with its superintendent and attorney, would chart the course for history of South Panola and Batesville.

If you have been keeping up, South Panola’s State Department of Education Accountability rating is a “B” and South Panola High School recently received an “A” rating. That can’t be taken for granted. Our local school district could be in much worse shape. The facilities are second to none and improvements are consistently being made.

It’s not an accident that the South Panola Schools continue in this direction. But it could have been much different.

Despite continued threats from the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Justice Department in the 1960s to put the district under Federal Court Order to integrate the entire district, as was happening all around Mississippi and the southeast, the board negotiated and perhaps stalled forced integration, winding up with a  new school building and a plan that would gradually integrate the school district.

Facing a federal court order that would deprive the district of federal funding, the Office of Civil Rights Director Leon Panetta (who later served as Secretary of Defense, CIA Director, White House Chief of Staff, director of Management and Budget Office and U.S. Representative) found that South Panola was the only one of six districts threatened with fund cutoffs that had arrived at an acceptable plan, according to Frederick M. Wirt’s book “We Ain’t What We Was.”

Dealing with the federal government on one hand was just one issue, but also dealing with a white population that wanted no part of integration and a black population that wanted to see their beloved Patton Lane School and its faculty remain, must have been quite stressful.

But these five trustees were deciding a fate not just for themselves and their children and grandchildren, but for an entire community, of two cultures, one black and one white for decades.

Somehow through it all, the district remained viable.

With the backing of the business community that knew, “As go the school, so goes the community,” South Panola has since seen support for multiple local bond issues that were passed for expansion and maintenance of infrastructure while some other districts continue to lack that support.

Black administrators, trustees and faculty have made significant strides in helping the district to maintain solid ratings and educate children, all children.

That five-member trustee board didn’t make a lot of friends during those tumultuous days of meetings in the 1960s-70s, but they paved the way for the future of thousands of our residents.

O.T. Marshall Jr., the last surviving member of that board, died this week.

Years later I figured out why he went home and sprayed onions.