Plaquemine civil-rights drive 50 years later (Video)

You’re never too young to stand up to injustice.

That’s what Ronnie Moore says about the turmoil that erupted over the course of a month in the town of Plaquemine in the summer of 1963 after young activists began to register black residents to vote.

More than 300 people — mostly black teenagers — were jailed during demonstrations between Aug. 11 and Sept. 1 of that year, and nearly 20 children were injured during a march.

The violence was widespread. Horse-mounted police officers attacked protestors with cattle prods. Mobs ransacked homes of black residents as they searched for James Farmer, the founder of the Congress for Racial Equality, who was in town to help. Men were beaten and threatened with nooses.

What started out as a summer project to register black voters in Iberville, Ascension, Pointe Coupee, St. Helena, Tangipahoa and East and West Feliciana parishes turned into something much bigger.

“We knew we were doing something greater than ourselves,” said Moore, who as a political science major at Southern University helped spearhead the CORE voter registration drive. “We were standing up because it was time to declare war on something that had been around for 100 years. People recognized the ugly face of Jim Crow.”

This weekend, Plymouth Rock Baptist Church is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Plaquemine civil-rights movement, reuniting several of the key players.

The 1963 Plaquemine events began after a local pastor had extended an invitation to CORE after voter rolls had been purged in 1958, diminishing the number of black residents eligible to vote in local elections, Moore said.

An interracial group of 40 CORE volunteers arrived at the city on July 14, 1963.

The civil-rights protests were sparked on Aug. 11, 1963, when 25 CORE volunteers were arrested on the Plaquemine ferry to St. Gabriel because they refused to adhere to the vessel’s segregation rules. They were booked on disturbing the peace. Most were released four days later.

“Once the movement starts, you don’t have control over where it’s going,” Moore said.

On Aug. 19, 1963, approximately 500 people marched on Plaquemine City Hall singing freedom songs and praying. Among them was Farmer, who had come to Plaquemine to inspire the CORE volunteers during the voter registration drive.

Police officers sprayed the crowd with tear gas, and 17 people, including Farmer, were jailed.

Two days later, hundreds of local protesters ignored a U.S. district judge’s temporary order prohibiting demonstrations in Plaquemine, leading to the arrests of 69 people during a sit-in at City Hall and another 171 for holding demonstrations outside segregated restaurants and the parish courthouse.

More than 100 of the arrestees were transported to jails in Ascension and West Baton Rouge parishes because Iberville Parish didn’t have enough space to house them.

The movement reached its climax on the night of Sept. 1 — three days after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963.

On the night of Sept. 1 in Plaquemine, deputized white residents and horse-mounted law enforcement officers with tape over their badge numbers combed the city looking for Farmer, according to some accounts.

Spiver Gordon, who grew up in Plaquemine, was one of the dozens of local young people who worked with CORE. He was 24 at the time.

Gordon was among the hundreds of protesters who had gathered at Plymouth Rock Baptist Church on the night of Sept. 1 to silently march through the city after nearly 20 children, ages 10 to 18, had been injured the previous night during a march to the home of Iberville Parish’s Sheriff C.A. Griffon Jr.

After troopers stormed into the sanctuary on horseback and bombed it with tear gas, Gordon escaped to the home of a woman who lived nearby.

State troopers went to the house and threatened to arrest the woman who owned it, Gordon said.

“Of course she indicated there was someone in the house,” he said. “I came out and there was a mob of state troopers who met me and immediately began to yell, ‘We got James Farmer!’ But the (Plaquemine) police chief told them, ‘That’s not Farmer, but he’s worse! That’s Spiver Gordon. He lives here and knows better.’ ”

Gordon said he was dragged into the street and beaten with nightsticks.

“They had a rope and they put it around my neck and said, ‘We’re going to lynch you tonight, nigger; we’re going to take care of you,’ ” Gordon said. “There was a decent state trooper that intervened and said, ‘There won’t be any lynching tonight.’ Instead, I was arrested and taken away.”

Gordon, who has since moved away from Louisiana, is now working in economic development in Eutaw, Ala.

That night left a permanent scar on retired Chief Orleans Criminal District Judge Calvin Johnson, who grew up in Plaquemine.

Johnson, who was 16 in the summer of 1963, said he injured his arm when he had to rip it free from a barbed wire fence while he was fleeing from an officer on horseback.

“It was clear on that night these people were out for blood,” Johnson said. “It was just a question of whose blood they were going to take.”

Johnson joined the voter registration drive shortly after CORE’s volunteers arrived in Plaquemine.

“My father was involved in the Voters League and he drove all his children down that path,” he said. “The core of all of this was voting; the right to participate in the democratic process.”

The interracial group of CORE volunteers stayed at Jackson Hotel on Allen Street, one of the few places in the area that allowed black and white people to room together, he said.

There, Moore trained volunteers for nine days on how to teach applicants to pass the state’s voter registration test.

Gordon was responsible for sensitivity and human relations training to help the volunteers maintain their composure in the field in case they were antagonized by white people.

“There was a tremendous fear on the part of black people to even register, and a lot of harassment from white elected officials,” Gordon said. “You had to pass the test to the satisfaction of the registrar of voters. I had a copy of the test. I knew all the answers.”

Gordon said he took the test three times, correctly answering all the questions, but was denied the chance to register each time.

“All (the registrar) said to me was ‘I’m not satisfied.’ ”

In West Feliciana Parish, two black people tried to register to vote during the CORE registration drive. Both were denied, and one was thrown in jail. But on Oct. 17, 1963, the Rev. Joseph Carter, of St. Francisville, became the first black person in that parish to successfully register to vote.

Fifty years later, the picture is much different.

In West Feliciana Parish, there were 2,449 black people registered to vote as of Aug. 1. That’s roughly 33 percent of the total registered voters in a parish in which 46 percent of the residents are African-American.

Iberville Parish on Aug. 23 had 10,548 registered black voters — about 48 percent of the registered voters in a parish where African-Americans make up 49 percent of the population.

However, in the most recent Iberville Parish election, on Dec. 8, only 30 percent of the registered black voters showed up at the polls, according to a report from the parish Registrar of Voters Office.

“It’s really sad; 18- to 25-year-olds are the hardest group to get motivated to register and vote,” said Melissa Bourgoyne, Iberville’s registrar of voters. “This same age group from the ’60s really took voting to heart because of what they went through to get that right.”

Johnson adds: “Today, not only do we take it for granted, we don’t take it at all. It bothers me. It should be a thing like in South Africa where people line up at daybreak to vote. In this country, we need to start making it a thing where more than just 25 percent of the people show up.”

Advocate Capitol News Bureau chief Mark Ballard contributed to this report.