Baton Rouge judge recalls MLK speech, March on Washington
“We were prayer warriors. We didn’t think of being afraid. We thought we had to rescue people who did not have civil rights, voting rights.” State District Judge Janice Clark, Baton Rouge
Fifty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and delivered one of the greatest speeches in American history to a peaceful crowd of more than 200,000.
Perhaps the most familiar of King’s words are: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
State District Judge Janice Clark, of Baton Rouge, attended King’s speech as a young girl. Clark deeply appreciated all of King’s words, but said recently the remark that immediately grabbed her was: “We will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ ”
The words are a reference to Amos 5:24, according to the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible, and Clark recognized them from her Sunday school classes at Shiloh Baptist Church in Plainfield, N.J.
“I went (to King’s speech) with my Sunday school class,” the judge noted.
King had always urged his followers, many of them just teenagers like Clark, to remain nonviolent as they protested across the South and elsewhere for voting rights, the right to enter cafes and restaurants and eat a meal in the presence of white people and the right to expect equal treatment under the nation’s laws.
But King’s words followed by six weeks the savage shooting by a white supremacist of voting-rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi.
They preceded by four days a decision by white police officers in Plaquemine, southwest of Baton Rouge, to mount their horses, ride into the sanctuary of Plymouth Rock Baptist Church and throw tear gas cannisters at people planning a silent march for civil rights.
Eighteen days after King’s peaceful words were captured by television news cameras, white thugs bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four little black girls and wounding other members of the congregation.
How could a racial minority, estimated at that time by the U.S. Census Bureau at just 10.7 percent of the nation’s population, continue to peacefully demonstrate against such unrepentant brutality?
“We were prayer warriors,” Clark recalled. “We didn’t think of being afraid. We thought we had to rescue people who did not have civil rights, voting rights.”
Reports of racial violence were not to be ignored, Clark said, “But we were still hopeful, expecting good.”
It helped, too, the judge said, that some friendly white faces were among the black throngs that lined the reflecting pool that led to the Lincoln Memorial that day 50 years ago.
Clark saw supportive placards and banners carried by members of the American Bar Association.
The judge said she had no idea what a bar association was, but asked questions and learned: “It was a group of lawyers. The teachers explained that lawyers have the work of making sure that justice is done.”
Clark said it was then she realized “that lawyers have a place in our society … making sure that justice prevails.”
North of Baton Rouge, in Port Hudson, 78-year-old Jessie L. Scott, recently recalled seeing television accounts of King’s speech a half century ago, when, “We couldn’t go in restaurants.”
Scott added: “All kinds of stuff was going on. After he made that speech, that made a lot of changes.”
Today, she said, “Blacks and whites are going to school together.”
She said, “It makes me feel good when I think of that speech. God had his arm around Dr. Martin Luther King. God sent him to make things better for us. God sent him to make that speech.”
Like Evers, who was murdered by a Mississippi sniper, Baton Rouge attorney Johnnie A. Jones Sr., 93, served his country as a soldier, fighting his way across France in World War II.
When he returned to Baton Rouge, though, Jones had to pick his way carefully through a minefield of racial rules.
A black person who parked or drove a vehicle within 300 feet of a polling place on election day could be arrested if that vehicle bore a bumper sticker supporting a candidate for public office, Jones recalled. He said police officers tended to ignore such bumper stickers on vehicles driven by white people.
Jones said black people were expected to sit only in the back of city buses.
“If a white man went to the back of the bus, everybody (who was black) had to stand up,” Jones explained.
Jones said several black residents planning a boycott of Baton Rouge buses in 1953 hired him as their lawyer.
“The bus boycott lasted about eight days,” Jones recalled. At the time, he also filed suit against the city in an effort to eliminate discrimination in bus seating. He had just received his law degree from Southern University.
Instead of pursuing the suit all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Jones said, black leaders accepted a proposal from the City Council that required white bus riders to seat themselves in the front half of the bus and black riders to restrict themselves to the back half of the bus.
Jones arrived at Plaquemine the evening police officers rode their horses into Plymouth Rock Baptist Church, four days after King’s speech.
“I remember that night,” Jones said. “Some people had to go into a funeral home and hide in coffins to escape a beating.”
Jones said he was unable to make it to the church before learning that police officers were arresting people, so he returned to Baton Rouge.
This is his last year as an attorney, Jones said. He said he would retire because, “I’m losing my vision, and I’m getting hard of hearing. I just won’t be able to do it anymore.”
Jones remains proud, though, that he worked on a successful discrimination suit against Louisiana. In that case, Garner vs. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in December 1961 that a group of black people had not committed any criminal act by sitting peacefully at a counter in a whites-only restaurant.
Thurgood Marshall successfully argued the case before the high court. Marshall, who also had prevailed in the landmark Kansas school desegregation case of Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, later served 24 years as the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice.
“Dr. King would be appreciative of the progress that has been made,” Jones said. “But he would probably think there is much ground left to cover.”
But Jones said he remains optimistic that progress will continue.
“I think within the next 50 years, you’re going to see equality,” Jones predicted.
LSU sociology professor and demographer Troy Blanchard sees in Louisiana’s census data both evidence of progress and some bumps in the road ahead.
“The majority of black households are now owner occupied,” Blanchard observed. “This is important because home ownership is a source of wealth.”
But Louisiana’s white residents have expanded their lead in home ownership by nearly 26 percentage points, Blanchard noted.
Part of that disparity, Blanchard said, is attributable to the fact that nearly half of all black families now are headed by females who average more than a third less income than black males. And both earn less than their white counterparts.
“This is problematic because female-headed families are more likely to be in poverty,” Blanchard said. “Children growing up in poverty face major struggles in achieving educational and career success.”
In Clark’s chambers and courtroom, the judge noted subservience was forced on blacks by southern whites for many years before and for some years after King’s speech.
But significant progress toward racial equality was spawned by King’s words of that day in 1963, the judge said.
“The dream endures,” Clark said, “but the work goes on.”
The judge added: “It’s like a river you keep rolling along.”
King was assassinated by a white sniper in Memphis on April 4, 1968. He was 39 years old.
What was never silenced, though, was King’s hope that “we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”