Political Horizons: Civil rights remembrances

by mark ballard

mballard@theadvocate.com

Mark Ballard.
Mark Ballard.

Fifty years ago tomorrow, James Farmer, one of the nation’s most famous civil rights leaders who was slated to address the “March on Washington,” was arrested in Plaquemine.

He was sent to Ascension Parish because Iberville Parish didn’t have enough room for the number of people arrested.

So, come Aug. 28, 1963, Farmer watched Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on a black- and-white television from his jail cell in Donaldsonville. Four days later the head of the Congress of Racial Equality would be spirited out Plaquemine just ahead of a gathering lynch mob.

The “March on Washington” 50 years ago is one of the touchstone events of the movement to bring legal equality between the races. Ronnie Moore, the CORE organizer who had brought his national leader to a small town south of Baton Rouge, says the Civil Rights Movement didn’t just happen in Birmingham and Selma.

“There were many movements that came together in hundreds of little towns that made the big movement what it was. Plaquemine was like a little battle in the massive campaign of 1963,” Moore said. He now lives in Baton Rouge and works at Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Moore will sit on a panel Friday evening at Plymouth Rock Baptist Church as part of a 50th anniversary remembrance of what happened in Plaquemine. The panel will be moderated by retired Chief Orleans Criminal District Judge Calvin Johnson, who as a teenager was arrested during the demonstrations.

“The problems today are more complex,” Moore said last week. “We need to address the basic inequities in our education system and our economic system. That’s a different battle than taking down a ‘White’s Only’ sign.”

Back in 1963, Moore had made the arrangements for the drive to register black voters in eight parishes that then made up the 6th Congressional District. Voter rolls had been purged in 1958, leaving very few eligible blacks. West Feliciana Parish, for instance, was 68 percent black, but after the purge had no registered black voters. He helped train the teachers, union members, clergy and college students who had volunteered for the CORE drive from July 14 to Aug. 25, 1963.

A group of youngsters on Aug. 31 marched the five blocks down Court Street from Plymouth Rock Baptist Church to Plaquemine City Hall. They were beaten by horse-mounted police wielding cattle prods.

The next day was Sunday, and angered at children having been beaten, churches throughout the black quarter of Plaquemine organized a protest march, in violation of a court injunction.

They were met again by a phalanx of law enforcement with tape over their badge numbers and deputized white civilians, according to news reports of subsequent court hearings.

Farmer wrote in his autobiography that police sealed the town, evicted the reporters, then set about breaking into homes searching for him. They attacked the church. “They knocked out the windows, overturned the benches, laid waste everything they could reach, and flooded the gutted building with high-pressure fire hoses until Bibles and hymnals floated in the aisles,” he wrote.

Spiver Gordon was grabbed by the mob. He still recalls the feel of a hangman’s noose around his neck as the mob threw the rope over a utility pole. “Some decent white state trooper walked up and said, ‘I don’t know. Look, either arrest this man or let him go.’ After beating me up, I was put in a car and taken away,” said Gordon, who now does economic development in Eutaw, Ala.

Farmer retreated with others to Good Citizens Funeral Home, about a block from the church and was snuck out of town in a hearse.

“When we look back at the struggle, we had just to get basic constitutional rights,” said Gordon, who will speak at 50th anniversary remembrance. “These days, we see disregard and disrespect … It’s across the whole spectrum: unemployment, education, the number of people in prison, immigration, those are issues we still have to address.”

“In many ways, things haven’t changed that much since 1963,” said Linda Johnson, a retired Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member who participated in the demonstrations. “Black people think this is the way it has to be and white people think everybody is happy with the way it has to be ... We still talk past each other.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvo cate.com