Despite rising from dissimilar circumstances, a confluence of historic events brought them and their fellow citizens together to try to save their hometown.
Warner Alford, a standout football player at Ole Miss and later its athletic director; and James Brooks, a stalwart football player at Jackson State and later the athletic director at Alcorn State, both graduated from high schools in McComb in 1956 — Alford at all-white McComb High and Brooks from all-Black Burglund High.
Alford emerged from one of the city’s most prominent families. Brooks told me that on many nights during his senior year at Burglund High School, he slept in vacant cars out of necessity. His parents were already deceased.
Alford’s family owned the Denman-Alford store in downtown McComb — an establishment that served the city for decades. Warner’s father, J.W. Alford, ran the iconic store, was a mayor of McComb and involved himself in every positive project there for at least a half century.
Brooks and Alford were outstanding students as well as top athletes in high school, and each held a master’s degree from Ole Miss. Their college exploits and careers as adults had definite parallels.
Both returned home as high school coaches — Brooks to Gulledge High in Tylertown and Higgins High in McComb; Alford to McComb High while also working in the family business.
Both of them moved quickly from the prep ranks to jobs as college assistants. Alford landed at Davidson in North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Ole Miss. Brooks coached at Alcorn State, Mississippi Valley State and Albany State in Georgia.
Years later, after Alford and Brooks had completed their stints as athletic directors, they accepted key administrative positions outside of intercollegiate athletics.
Alford joined the Ole Miss Alumni Association and the University of Mississippi Foundation. Brooks became head of McComb’s recreation department and worked for the Mississippi High School Activities Association and the Mississippi Department of Education.
There is an important intersection in the life stories of Warner Alford and James Brooks. Their biographies are punctuated by the racial strife that rocked their hometown — and mine — in the summer of 1964.
On Sept. 20 of that year, the home of civil rights activist and businesswoman Alyene Quin, known affectionately as “Mama Quin,” was firebombed in the Burglund neighborhood by the Ku Klux Klan.
Brooks, then head football coach at his alma mater of Burglund High, was a first responder to the Quin home, where her children slept and miraculously escaped injury.
That summer, more than a dozen Black-owned properties and churches were victims of Klan terrorism in Pike County and across Mississippi, designed to decelerate a period of heavy voter registration activities by African-American citizens.
Almost two months after the Quin bombing, on Nov. 17, 650 white citizens of McComb signed a “Statement of Principles” published in the Enterprise-Journal newspaper that called for the arrest of those responsible for the year-long series of Klan bombings in the Black communities of Pike County. The demand made on local law authorities worked, as arrests were made and the violence ended.
Warner Alford was one of the first people to sign the petition. “We ran to the newspaper to sign it,” the late Billy Neville, then a young McComb banker who was Alford’s close friend, told me years later. The recent college graduates were joined by their contemporaries, dentist Jimmy McDonald and car dealer Dickie Kendall, in signing the important document.
James Brooks died on Sept. 1, 2020. Warner Alford resides in Oxford. This is the story of two good men whose significant lives crisscrossed and inspired another generation of Mississippians.
Mac Gordon is a native and part-time resident of McComb. He is a retired reporter. He can be reached at macmarygordon @gmail.com.