Participants tell youth about rights crusade
PLAQUEMINE — The chorus of “We Shall Overcome” echoed throughout downtown Plaquemine on Sunday afternoon as members of Plymouth Rock Baptist Church gathered in a circle, hand-in-hand, and sang the protest anthem to commemorate the civil rights movement that rocked the town in the summer of 1963.
The group gathered along the 1000 block of Court Street at the site where Plymouth Rock was located until 1974 when the church moved to a new location.
Baziel “Peter” Johnson, a former resident of Plaquemine, was in the crowd Sunday.
Johnson, who now lives in Dallas, said he was 18 years old when horse-mounted police officers charged into the church’s sanctuary on the night of Sept. 1, 1963, and lobbed tear gas into the crowd gathered inside, preparing to silently march through the city.
“It’s a rather bittersweet experience to come back here,” Johnson said Sunday. “I inhaled plenty of tear gas on the street that night. I saw horses run people down in the streets. I had nightmares for awhile about that experience.”
The night Plymouth Rock Baptist Church was raided by state troopers and deputized white citizens was the climax of the Plaquemine civil rights movement. More than 300 people — mostly black teenagers — were arrested and jailed during various demonstrations between Aug. 11, and Sept. 1, 1963.
The crusade was led by an interracial group of volunteers from the Congress for Racial Equality, who were mostly college students from around the nation. The group had been invited to the town in July 1963 by Plymouth Rock Pastor Jetson Davis to register black voters in the state’s 6th Congressional District. Voter rolls had been purged in 1958, diminishing the number of black residents eligible to vote in local elections.
Plymouth Rock Baptist Church served as CORE’s spiritual refuge while they were in Plaquemine.
“Jetson Davis was one of the key leaders in the movement,” the Rev. Lee Wesley, Plymouth Rock’s current pastor, said. “The civil rights movement was born out of the black churches. For any movement, there has to be a vision. And there has to be someone who can communicate that vision and minster to the people so they can buy into the vision.”
Dozens of the church’s young people, like Johnson, joined CORE in its efforts.
But the voter registration campaign ignited into a civil rights movement after 25 CORE volunteers were arrested Aug. 11, 1963, because they wouldn’t follow the Plaquemine ferry’s segregation rules. The ferry moved people and their vehicles across the Mississippi River between Plaquemine and St. Gabriel.
“We were on our way to a party in New Orleans,” Johnson said about that day. “When we got on that boat, we had to make a decision and the white kids decided to sit in the colored area and we sat in theirs. We didn’t think they would arrest us. The movement was born when they put us in jail.”
Plymouth Rock Baptist Church, now located at 58830 Iron Farm Road, honored Plaquemine’s role in the nation’s civil right’s struggle over the weekend with an educational forum Friday and commemoration program Sunday. Both events featured speakers who were key players in the 1963 movement.
Church members had planned to march to the old church site but had to forgo those plans due to a thunderstorm Sunday afternoon.
But the rain didn’t put a damper on the celebration.
The events of the city’s 1963 civil rights’ struggle were preached to the dozens of young people in the audience Sunday who were told the battle for equality is far from over and were reminded of the importance of voting and education.
“We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” Velma Stewart said. “We’re just trying to educate the young folks because they think things just happened.”
Stewart was 16 years old during the Plaquemine civil rights movement and participated in many of the demonstrations.
“We had a passion for it,” she said. “We weren’t afraid because we knew we had God on our side. But we still have to just keep fighting. Some of the doors have been open, but some are still closed.”