Less than a week before he was assassinated, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took the pulpit of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The space behind the altar rail was not unfamiliar to the man many hailed as a “modern day prophet,” as he had spent many years as a pastor before his role in the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in the mid-1950s thrust him into the national spotlight.
In this last sermon, King was grieved at heart, speaking strongly against the Vietnam War and continued racial injustice. He called for a “poor people’s march” on Washington, and he said it was only fitting that the march begin in the nation’s poorest county at the time: Quitman County in the Mississippi Delta. King had visited the county seat previously, describing the sight of shoeless children on unpaved streets, a vision the civil-rights leader said moved him to tears.
This was the Quitman County of Dr. Hilliard Lackey’s youth, and although the Jackson State University professor and administrator says that Quitman County is no longer the poorest county in the nation, obstacles still loom large in students’ path to college, especially at M.S. Palmer High School, his own alma mater. One hundred percent of its students are considered economically disadvantaged, and the school’s reading proficiency rating typically hovers around 20% annually.
Lackey says these disparities often dim students’ college prospects, despite the fact that the school has a 90% graduation rate, which is 5% higher than the national graduation rate and just over 2% higher than the state average.
From the Delta to the Capital
“Many students have a hard time getting a high ACT score because (their score) is impacted by their parents’ education,” Lackey reflects in an interview. “I wanted to give them an avenue to get into college and earn an academic scholarship. These students have a hard time getting enough money, even with work-study and loans.”
Jackson State University’s national alumni chapter finally answered his call for assistance in the heart of the Delta, hosting a scholarship dinner in Lackey’s honor in 1991 to raise scholarship funds for students at M.S. Palmer High School. The banquet was a success, raising around $23,000 for students in Marks who wished to attend the HBCU in west Jackson.
Lackey selected his first “Hilliard Lackey Scholar” later that same year, providing Catina Hanks-Freeman with a scholarship. This year marks the 30th year that a Lackey scholarship recipient has attended Jackson State University with the help of the $1,000 stipend. “It doesn’t cover all of it,” Lackey admits. “But the Lackey Scholarship can cover books and incidental expenses.”
Hanks-Freeman, the first-ever recipient of the Lackey Scholarship, says that for her, the award was about far more than funding. “My heart had always been set on going to tiger town,” she says about Jackson State with a laugh. One thing stymied Hanks-Freeman’s dreams of navy and white, though: her class rank.
Hanks-Freeman was the historian of her graduating class, just missing out on the scholarship opportunities provided to the students ranked first and second. Lackey himself had been historian of his own graduating class, so he knew the sting of being overlooked in favor of the valedictorian and salutatorian, remarking, “The third student wasn’t getting anything, so we said, ‘That’s the one!’”
In the years since, the Lackey Scholarship has gone to students ranked as low as eighth in the class, as well as to the highest-ranked student (other than the valedictorian and salutatorian) who has chosen to attend JSU.
Part of the Family
“We didn’t make a connection at the time (of the award). We just knew I was the candidate,” Hanks-Freeman says of her relationship with her benefactor, but that distant relationship changed quickly once she arrived on campus and fostered a relationship with Lackey and his family. The entire Lackey family included her in their daily life, even on things as mundane as trips to the mall. “They were so loving and caring,” she recalls.
Lackey and Hanks-Freeman also worked closely with the national alumni association at the time, serving as ambassadors for the school’s scholarship programs. “I wasn’t Miss JSU, but I was the face of the scholarship program,” Hanks-Freeman states. “I told them what an honor it was and how thankful I was to represent them and Dr. Lackey in particular.”
Although she originally majored in biology with plans to become a doctor, Hanks-Freeman’s relationship with her now-mentor inspired her to change career paths, leading her to decide to become a teacher instead. The independent school district in Houston, Texas, recruited her to teach biology, but Hanks-Freeman says she still encourages others from her hometown to apply for the program that has helped send Quitman County natives to college.
“My role is to inspire the kids. I remind the parents that this scholarship is available and changes lives,” she remarks. “I had people I graduated with whose children have since received the scholarship, and it sparked a fire in us. I try to remind my peers that this is something that will take a lot of pressure off of them as a parent.”
Reaching Back to Move Others Forward
After nearly 30 years of helping M.S. Palmer graduates attend JSU, Lackey decided to take a more active role in the academic careers of college-bound students at the area high school, adopting a ninth-grade accelerated English class alongside his wife, Lillian Troupe Lackey, in 2014.
In addition to providing teaching and learning supplements for the class throughout their four years of high school, the couple met with the students once a month and helped them set personal goals. Lackey, who teaches in the higher-education program at JSU, also allowed doctoral students to conduct research with the students, often bringing in the doctoral candidates to make presentations to the students.
“The students were highly receptive and very teachable,” Lackey says of his college students’ relationships with the high-achieving high schoolers.
This multitude of investments paid off, as the 21 students secured the top 21 spots in their graduating class when class ranks were published four years later. The Lackeys’ class was also home to the class president, vice president and STAR Student that year, with Lackey remarking that the class took home “every position besides homecoming queen.” Only four of those students enrolled in JSU, much to Lackey’s chagrin, but he is pleased with their progress, nonetheless, proudly saying, “They have all steadfastly stayed in school.”
Hanks-Freeman points to Lackey’s continued, hands-on involvement with students in Marks as the hallmark of a “true mentor” who makes needed changes in a struggling community. “He reached back so we could move forward,” she concludes. “A lot of people don’t reach back to help those who come after him, but that’s what I’m standing on. He prepared the way for me to take care of myself as a functioning member of society.”
Those wishing to donate to the Hilliard Lackey Scholarship fund can donate directly by earmarking their donations “Lackey Scholarship Fund” at https://app.mobilecause.com/form/34eUag?vid=keero.