Civil Rights leader remains an activist for social justice

Ronnie Moore, one of the leaders of the civil rights movement in Baton Rouge in the 1960s, was in his 20s when he began leading protests — and was arrested for his activism.

But he first took on the role of activist when he was 15 years old, growing up in New Orleans.

He and his classmates, who attended an all-black Catholic school, decided to go across the street from the school to a park that was for “whites only.” They were arrested, brought to the local precinct station and their parents were called to pick them up.

“We didn’t realize the pressure on our parents. They were being forced into a time they weren’t necessarily ready to deal with. But the time had come; you don’t pick the time,” Moore, 73, said recently.

Almost a decade later, Moore and other activists and residents were arrested again, this time in Plaquemine in August 1963 after a protest march, and brought to the Donaldsonville jail on Chetimatches Street — when there was no more room at the Plaquemine jail.

There’s an image etched on Moore’s mind: his watching the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. give his “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., on a black-and-white TV in the Donaldsonville jail.

Ascension Parish Sheriff Hickley Waguespack Sr. brought the TV to the jail after Moore had asked about it.

Watching alongside Moore in the Donaldsonville jail on Aug. 28, 1963, was James Farmer, one of the leaders of the civil rights movement, who had been scheduled to speak in Washington, D.C., that day with King.

Instead, Farmer had elected not to post bail to get out of the Donaldsonville jail but rather to stay until the others were released.

“I think the sheriff went to his house and brought the TV up there. I think he was a man of good will,” Moore said.

Moore’s imprisonment in Donaldsonville wasn’t the last trial he would share with Farmer.

Days after the men were released from the jail, state troopers and deputized locals began searching door-to-door for civil rights leaders after breaking up a protest crowd of hundreds in Plaquemine.

Moore, Farmer and another man slipped into the crowd of a wake being held at a black-owned funeral home and escaped out the back door.

The men were driven away, lying low in the back of a hearse, along River Road to New Orleans, Moore said. A decoy hearse left at the same time for Baton Rouge, he said.

“State troopers came to the door” of the funeral home, Moore said. “The owner, a lady, said they couldn’t come through.”

“After the ride in the hearse, I went back to work in Plaquemine and elsewhere.”

Moore grew up the youngest of five children of Henry and Beatrice Moore Sr. Moore’s father, who was a painter and carpenter and worked in the shipyards, was interested in the civil rights movement; his mother, who sometimes did domestic work, wasn’t.

His siblings weren’t either, Moore said.

“My other siblings grew up normal. They weren’t caught between the voting registration card, the Supreme Court decision and Emmett Till,” Moore said.

He referred to things that were life-changing for him in his youth: a complicated voter registration process administered mostly to black voters, the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 that paved the way for integration and the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955.

By the time he was 21 and a student at Southern University, Moore was the chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality chapter in Baton Rouge.

In May 1962, he testified in Washington, D.C., before a panel chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt investigating the role of Southern police officers, prosecutors and judges in the handling of “Negro protest movements,” according to a New York Times article at the time, after experiences Moore had in Baton Rouge.

Before he went to trial, Moore spent a total of 78 days in jail in Baton Rouge in late 1961 and early 1962 on counts stemming from a protest march he helped organize after young CORE members were arrested when they picketed a downtown store for discrimination in service and employment.

On the day of the protest, Moore said, “I was riding in a sound truck with speakers on the car, trying to make it downtown.”

He was finally tried for illegal use of a sound truck — although at one point other charges were conspiracy to create criminal mischief and criminal anarchy — and spent an additional 30 days in jail and paid a $50 fine after he was found guilty.

He paid another price for his arrest: He was expelled from Southern University as ordered by the Louisiana Board of Education.

In the 1970s, Moore earned a degree in urban sociology from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Today, Moore, who has a home in Baton Rouge, is the program director for Cornerstone Builders, a program of the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans that provides opportunities to serve the community and find paths for people who have served time in prison to get an education.

“We knew poverty would be a long haul in the protest movement,” Moore said, who added he is still an activist for change.

“It’s not going to stop until the war on poverty is won and they shut down the prisons,” he said.

“We are so blessed by his experience and leadership with our Cornerstone Builders ministry,” said Anna Toujas, associate director of communications for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

When Moore looks back on the turmoil of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, he said he remembers how activists were supported and helped by the communities they fought to help.

“People gave us old cars and drove us around and put gas in the tanks. There were many people in the movement who were never on the front lines,” he said.

“The interesting thing was that the activists went out, not giving any thought to where they were going to lay their heads — and before they could even miss that they didn’t have a place to lay their heads, people provided,” Moore said.

“If we had had any thoughts about any of the survival things, we wouldn’t have gone. We were caught up in a purpose.”