In late July 50 years ago, a group of young African Americans from Ferriday took a stand for civil rights in a parish known by the FBI as a haven for the Ku Klux Klan.
These teenagers and young adults formed the Ferriday Freedom Movement (FFM), an arm of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an organization seeking voting and civil rights for black Americans.
Anyone associated with CORE or the FFM faced physical harm from white supremacists and a number of brutal cops.
A year earlier in 1964, the most secretive Ku Klux Klan group ever known to exist – the Silver Dollar Group – identified by the FBI as a “Klan within a Klan,” was born in Vidalia. Dominated by 13 hardcore members, this Klan offshoot committed most of the racial violence in Concordia and southwest Mississippi during the 1960s.
Five black men had been murdered by the SDG in 1964, including International Paper Company employee Clifton Walker, ambushed by gunmen outside Woodville, Miss.; sawmill worker Henry Hezekiah Dee and college student Charles Moore, two 19-year-olds kidnapped and beaten in Franklin County, Miss., and drowned in the old river at Davis Island; Vidalia Shamrock porter Joseph Edwards, who disappeared around the time his Buick was found on the Ferriday-Vidalia Highway in Concordia Parish; and Frank Morris, a 51-year-old Ferriday businessman whose shoe shop clientele included both black and white customers.
In June, SDG members gathered for a fish fry at Lismore in Concordia Parish. During the day, Klansmen experimented with bombs. This meeting was the first and only time SDG members from both Louisiana and Mississippi met with one another.
At the St. Charles Catholic Church in Ferriday, Father August Thompson by 1965 had become the go-to person for whites and blacks involved in the Civil Rights Movement. The 88-year-old Thompson, who resides in Pineville today, sought to work within the black and white communities to resolve differences and to pave the way for he preferred to call “human rights.”
Thompson had earlier welcomed into his Ferriday home the writer John Howard Griffin, who in 1962 wrote a book, Black Like Me. Griffin had artificially died his skin to make himself look black and for six weeks traveled the South. In his book, he recounted the racism and indignities he faced on a daily basis.
A year later, Griffin wrote an article for Ramparts magazine about a visit he made to Ferriday to see Thompson. He described the deep-seeded segregation that ruled. At midnight in Thompson’s home, Griffin observed a “sense of uneasiness fills this house. Why? Because I, a white Catholic, am visiting a priest? No, that would be all right. But this priest’s a Negro – and this is the Old South, and a white man does not stay in the home of Negro, even the home of a Negro priest.”
Outside the Thompson’s home, the two had no public place to go for dinner and no place to meet for coffee. A black man could walk inside a restaurant to buy a hamburger for his white boss, but had to go through the backdoor to get one for himself. It was forbidden for whites and blacks to socialize publicly or privately.
Griffin found the only locations the two could enjoy a meal outside the home was within Thompson’s circle of black and white friends in Ferriday and Vidalia. (One of Thompson’s white Vidalia friends was school teacher Bob Doyle, whose home was bombed by the Klan in September of 1964.) When Griffin left town after visiting Thompson, police followed him until he crossed the parish line.
FBI agent Don McGorty, based in Alexandria, visited the priest up to three times a week during the summer of 1965 after deputies were spotted menacingly watching those coming and going from the church and Thompson’s home.
A friend planned to house two white nuns who came to Ferriday that summer to help Thompson open a church recreation center for black youth, but the housing offer was rescinded after the Klan and police threatened the friend. Thompson courageously moved the nuns into his home and set up a cot for himself in the church rectory.
Ronnie Moore, a national CORE leader based in Louisiana, visited Thompson as did Joe Sylvester, the assistant Special Agent-in-Charge at the FBI’s New Orleans’ bureau. Sylvester knew Concordia Parish was a powder keg.
FFM & CORE
That July, CORE sent students to Natchez where Duncan Park was integrated, while in Ferriday the FFM led a voter registration drive and worked to get black citizens involved in politics. In both towns, the Klan unleashed violence but the activism continued.
A visiting CORE leader called Ferriday one of the most dangerous places in America, as did John Doar, the chief lawyer for the Justice Department’s civil rights division who often called Father Thompson. Doar would go on to prosecute some of the killers in the 1964 Neshoba County, Miss., murders of three civil rights workers. Doar told the parents of one CORE worker who was beaten in Ferriday that the town was “outlaw country. Get your son out of there!”
When the CORE workers first arrived, 27-year-old Robert “Buck” Lewis Jr. was indifferent. Well-read and hard working, Lewis had suffered every indignity a black man could face. He especially resented having to say “yes sir” to white men younger than he. But that was only part of it. He saw no chance for blacks to better themselves without the right to vote and without equal rights. He was tired of the intimidation, cruelty and violence.
A day after Rev. A.T. White’s home was bombed, a meeting was held at Sevier High School (now Ferriday Junior High) to discuss civil rights. Lewis also met with CORE workers. He decided he could sit on the sidelines no longer.
On July 27, Lewis was elected the first president of the newly organized, CORE sponsored Ferriday Freedom Movement. Later, Lewis was elected president of the reactivated NAACP. Henry Montgomery had previously served as NAACP head in Ferriday.
On Aug. 6, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law. The previous year, the Civil Rights Act had been passed.
On Aug. 15, the first FFM Newsletter was published announcing the organization’s birth. Samuel Morgan wrote an article explaining FFM’s purpose was to overcome years of police brutality and injustice as well as an end to segregation. Lewis described a beating of four black teenagers by deputy Frank DeLaughter, an SDG Klansman. White CORE workers Mike Clurman and Mel Atcheson, who were also beaten, wrote about registering to vote and nonviolence in achieving civil rights.
That same day, SDG Klansmen in Franklin County, Miss., killed Earl Hodges, a former White Knight who the SDG feared would implicate certain Klan members in the 1964 murders of teens Dee and Moore. Klansmen beat Hodges to death.
Days later, George Metcalfe, the new president of the reactivated Natchez NAACP, filed a desegregation lawsuit against the Adams County School Board. On Aug. 27, Metcalfe was seriously injured when a bomb planted under the hood of his sedan exploded.
While the SDG believed the attack on Metcalfe would dampen the civil rights efforts in Natchez, the result was the opposite. Mississippi NAACP Field Secretary Charles Evers, whose brother Medgar had been assassinated in 1963, rallied the movement. An economic boycott resulted in the city caving in to many of the demands made by the activists who at the core simply sought respect, dignity, fairness and equality.
In the October newsletter of the Ferriday Freedom Movement, there were articles by David Whatley, Pinkey Lee Carter, Louise Birdon, Constance Johnson and Essie M. Lewis.
On the night of Nov. 20, FFM President Buck Lewis, now a target of the SDG and their law enforcement allies due to his activism, was resting on the couch while his wife and children slept in bed when an explosion shattered windows and damaged the front of his home. Lewis ran outside with an unloaded shotgun. Police arrived minutes later and charged him – not the bombers, who were never arrested -- with aggravated battery.
The New York Times quoted Ferriday activist David Whatley as saying that police arrested Lewis “because he’s with the movement. Anyone who participated in any way at all gets the worst from them. When we demonstrate, they take pictures of the people, and if you’ve got a job, they show the picture to the man you work for and when you go to work the next day you’re out of a job.”
Lewis was housed 17 days and 16 nights in the parish jail in Vidalia, unable to make his $2,000 bond. By the time he was released, deputies had conspired with the Klan who waited to ambush him at the outskirts of Vidalia.
But he was rescued by five members of the Deacons for Defense, an organization chartered in Jonesboro, La., in 1964 to protect black communities from Klansmen and bad cops. The driver, Antonne Duncan, accelerated the getaway car through the Klan roadblock. Although pursued by Klansmen on the Ferriday-Vidalia Highway, the armed Deacons outran their pursuers and finally delivered Lewis – safe and sound – to his family in Ferriday. Through many long nights, the Deacons surreptitiously guarded black neighborhoods off Hwy. 84 in Ferriday.
The SDG retaliated against Deacon Lucky McCraney by bombing his Esso Station at the south end of town in December. But he and the others continued to press forward.
Activists in Ferriday, like Natchez, launched an economic boycott in the fall of 1965. FFM, backed by the Southern Regional Office of CORE under Ronnie Moore’s leadership, picketed and boycotted merchants who refused to hire African Americans and tested lunch counters at drugstores and restaurants to see if blacks would be served as required by the Civil Rights Law of 1964. They also marched to town hall to protest police brutality.
FFM filed a desegregation suit against the Concordia Parish School Board in late 1965. In 1966 David Whatley enrolled at Ferriday High. He was cursed and threatened by white men when he entered the school each morning and received, as he recalled in 2010, a daily dose of “slurs, slanders, curses, swears, intimidation in threats. My books were knocked from my hands, my PE clothes thrown in the commode or the shower. When I sat down at the cafeteria everybody in the immediate area would move to another locations.”
Whatley says today that he survived those trying days by trusting in God.