God knows what every community needs, and He knows exactly who to put there.
And over 60 years ago God brought local pioneer Louis Odneal to Clay County, but he didn’t know at the time that he would be an inspiration to hundreds and hundreds of people living here.
You see, the things that Odneal went through growing up during the Civil Rights Era prompted him to take a stance for fairness and equal rights for all African Americans and for all hard-working individuals.
During that era, Odneal saw all sorts of things. All sorts of negative things, that is. Walking down the street to school each day, he had debris and offensive language thrown his way by white children who rode the school bus, had to stand up on the bus while white passengers took a seat, was told to come around to the back of the restaurant to receive his food and suffered through injustices that seemed to never get any better.
Sometimes when Odneal returned home he thought about all those terrible things that were happening, and Odneal asked God why.
“When I grew up as a child I saw so much wrong and misdo, and I asked the Lord why it had to be this way,” Odneal said Friday. “He said that He is a jealous God, and He is, and He has no respect of person in why we as black were treated the way we were. I always had that desire to make things better for my people because God made us all.”
So on he went through his childhood with his siblings and parents their surrounding him with love and helping him get through that era when so many African Americans paved the way blacks to have the equal rights they have today.
Years later on June 3, 1959, Odneal took a job at Bryan Foods in West Point and soon experienced more injustices, which God laid on his heart to help change. Odneal said as the years passed on many people felt they weren’t receiving fair work benefits and Bryan Foods workers began meeting at B & W to discuss this but decided later to construct their own Union hall, which they did in 1991 under Odneal’s leadership. The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1991 was built on a street that was later named after Odneal in July of 2005 shortly after his retirement from Bryan Foods.
He said during this period Bryan Foods and the UFCW Local 1991 (the Bryan Union Hall) began working well together, and many things were accomplished.
“Under my leadership we never had a spat because a spat doesn’t help anyone,” he said. “It doesn’t help the workers, it doesn’t help the company. We were able to sit down and reason together and work out our differences. In my leadership and in my view I always thought that the company was bigger than all of us. If the company didn’t survive then we couldn’t survive therefore we worked together in harmony and unison. We had our differences, but we were able to work them out.”
Bryan Union workers were also able to organize three Peco Foods plants in Mississippi and were able to receive good wages and fair benefits through their hard work.
Even before his instrumental work as chief executive officer of the Bryan Union Hall, Odneal became a member of the Clay County NAACP chapter and served as its president for 10 years.
“My mother was troubled about me taking on the NAACP because during that time it was dangerous, but I went to my mother and told her, ‘Mother, don’t worry about me. It’s something I have to do,” Odneal said.
Under his leadership at the NAACP, the chapter was able to force banks to hire blacks, got the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate the West Point Casket Company in order for blacks and females to be hired there and integrated the water fountain and washroom. Through the United States Department of Justice, Odneal also forced the Clay County Board of Supervisors to install voting precincts at Tibbee, Vinton and Union Star.
During Odneal’s tenure the Clay County NAACP received many honors for community and civic affairs, and Odneal himself received a host of honors and awards for his service and outstanding leadership to the community. Perhaps one of the most distinguished honors was having Louis Odneal Road named in his honor by former Mayor Kenny Dill, whom Odneal said kept the city’s industrial plants in operation and worked hard for all members of the community regardless of color.
City and county officials also honored Odneal, who worked for Bryan for 45 years, by declaring
June 30, 2004 as Louis J. Odneal Day – the day Odneal retired from Bryan Foods.
In 1978, he received the Outstanding Citizenship Award from the local NAACP chapter, was the recipient of the Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Mary Holmes College in 1996, received the Mississippi School Board Member Recognition Week Certificate of Appreciation in 1996 and many more.
“God has been good to us,” Odneal said. “He blessed us and I give Him all the credit. There’s nothing you can do without Him, I don’t care what you do. If He doesn’t give you the mind, the desire and the will you won’t be able to accomplish anything.”