The hands of time turned back Sunday afternoon when some of Baton Rouge’s civic leaders remembered the Capital City as it was in the 1950s when it was rife with racial tensions.
A forum called the Role of Faith in the Civil Rights Movement in Baton Rouge, sponsored by the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge, drew more than 50 people to the Elm Grove Baptist Church on North 38th Street.
The Rev. Robin McCullough-Bade, the federation’s executive director, said her organization sponsors dialogues and discussions on a multitude of topics, and the idea of having four black civic leaders serve on a panel and talk about the civil rights movement in Baton Rouge was a no-brainer.
“To hear from the black perspective about the civil rights movement is very critical” to understanding what happened, she said.
Charles Vincent, a history professor from Southern University, presented the audience with a view of Baton Rouge in the early ’50s. He discussed the difficulty black students faced in trying to integrate four local high schools — Baton Rouge, Istrouma, Lee and Glen Oaks — and how some of the black students had to be removed from the schools when some of the white students threatened them and cheered when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
He also talked about the trouble civil rights leaders had integrating the Police Department.
“That went over like a rotten egg,” Vincent said of white officers’ reaction to the idea of having a black partner.
With help from the NAACP, local leaders eventually achieved that goal when patrol units became integrated in the 1970s, he said.
“We’re not where we should be, but we’re much better off and far better along in terms of the brotherhood of man that we were in those years,” Vincent said.
The Rev. Conway Knighton, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Baton Rouge, told the crowd that black churches didn’t transition from rural to urban churches until black farmers moved into the cities about 10 years after the Great Depression ended.
“The black church never really had much money,” Knighton said. “We did wonders and we did miracles with nickels and dimes, and America is still wondering today how the black church did that.”
Another aspect of life that people today need to consider, Knighton said, is that education was something of a luxury to black children in that era.
“In that day and time, if you made it to the eighth grade, you had completed your education. High school was not something that most Negroes had offered to them,” Knighton said.
He said preachers tried to convince their congregations that better days were on the horizon and pushed to inspire and convince adults that their hard work would ensure their children inherited a better world than they did.
Sadie Roberts-Joseph, the executive director of the Odell S. Williams Museum of African American History, recalled growing up in the midst of the civil rights era and told stories from her childhood about how faith was key for the black community.
She said Sundays, families would eat chicken, and when the pastor or deacon visited, they got the best pieces of chicken while everyone else was left with the neck and other less desirable pieces.
“But then they gave us the best, too. They gave us increased faith in knowing that God would sustain us (in the civil rights movement) and that God would provide for us and that God would protect us, so I guess it wasn’t that bad after all,” she said.
Charlotte Anderson, of the 4th District Baptist Association of the Baton Rouge Women’s Auxiliary, said she did not attend a meeting in 1953 when the bus boycott was announced and did not learn about it until the next morning when neighbors saw her waiting for the bus and offered to take her to work.
She said she later learned she could walk to work and she could do it pretty quickly.
“And I wondered why I rode the bus in the first place and gave them my 15 cents to begin with,” she said to chuckles from the crowd.
She also told the story about how she almost had a brush with history when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was in town to speak, but instead of going, she chose to stay home and cook dinner for her husband and two daughters. “If I would have known he would become the man he did, I would have left the food on the stove,” she said.
In the end, Anderson said, the community banded together to move past their differences and learned lifelong lessons from an unlikely source: children.
“We learned that what happened yesterday has no effect on our today or our tomorrow,” she said.