Perhaps the largest Klan rally ever held in Mississippi or Louisiana -- maybe the largest in the South in the 1960s -- was held in Natchez in October 1965 at Liberty Park.
More than 2,000 Klansmen and spectators -- as many as 3,700 according to press estimates -- attended the United Klans of America (UKA) rally which featured an address by Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton of Tuscaloosa, Ala., the head of the UKA.
"That Liberty Park rally in Natchez was by far one of the largest Klan gatherings if not the largest ever held during that period," said retired FBI agent Jim Ingram of Jackson, Miss. "It drew a tremendous following from all over. People came from everywhere."
Longtime syndicated columnist Bill Minor, 86, also of Jackson, covered civil rights for the News Orleans Times-Picayune during the 1960s. He said he attended a UKA rally in Rankin County prior to the Liberty Park rally in Natchez.
"There were about 500 in attendance in Rankin County, but I can't recall any rally bigger than the one at Liberty Park," he said.
"I know of no other Klan rally in the 1960s even close to that," said Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion Ledger in Jackson. Mitchell has been researching and writing about the Klan and the Civil Rights-era for years.
The hours leading up to the Liberty Park rally were busy for the Earcel Boyd Sr. household on Crestview Drive in Concordia Parish.
Boyd, a UKA leader, usually assigned one or more of his five sons to the many tasks involved in putting on this rally and others. All rallies were designed to promote the Klan, boost membership and attack the federal government and Civil Rights.
Leland Boyd, now 57 and living in Texas, said his father usually required him and a younger brother to prepare the crosses which were burned at the end of Klan rallies.
"We usually put a cross together with two-by-fours or four-by-fours, depending on how big a cross was wanted," said Boyd, who says as a young man he rejected the Klan ideals of their father, who died in 1988. "I don't recall if we prepared the cross for the Liberty Park rally."
But as a matter of routine, Boyd said, "We'd staple burlap bags to the cross and make them real tight, then we'd pour kerosene or diesel or coal oil on and let it soak prior to the rally. The biggest cross I remember preparing was about 30 feet high. Most were about 16 feet high."
The UKA rally on Saturday, Oct. 31, 1965, at Liberty Park in Natchez featuring Imperial Wizard Shelton drew record numbers because of Shelton, who was so revered by Klansmen that a photo of him in full Klan regalia, while mounted on a horse, was a prized collectible.
"My dad kept an autographed photo of Mr. Shelton on our wall at home," said Leland.
Shelton's UKA, in which Earcel Boyd Sr. was an officer, was the dominant Klan organization in the country by 1966 as he with the help of local leaders like Boyd recruited many members from the White Knights in Mississippi and the Original Knights in Louisiana. At its peak, UKA membership nationwide totaled 30,000, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The UKA was connected to murders, arsons and bombings throughout the South, including the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963 that killed four black girls, and, according to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the series of bombings in McComb in 1964.
Yet publicly, Shelton usually professed non-violence and at Natchez he drew hundreds to the Liberty Park rally. Press reports at the time indicated an attendance of about 3,700, while according to Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol (MHSP) documents from that period, the number was estimated at 2,500.
"I know there were 2,000 there," said Leland Boyd, who at the age of 13 was in the crowd at a table selling Klan literature and memorabilia. "I remember them (Klansmen) talking about it being the biggest that Shelton had been to."
Making money for the Klan was a big part of all Klan rallies and this one especially.
"We sold things like records (45 rpm), drawings of KKK riders on a horse in the reared up position, bumper stickers, pins and other items," said Boyd He said the records had lyrics that were derogatory to blacks and included racial slurs.
"I still wonder to this day how I survived the mental brainwashing that was ever present in our lives," said Boyd.
FBI agents, Congressional investigators, MHSP, local police and other agencies were on alert throughout the day. The event came just two months after the attempted murder of Armstrong Tire employee and NAACP President George Metcalfe in a car bomb near the Armstrong plant in Natchez.
The rally also came only weeks after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, 1965, which was followed the next day by the Justice Department's suspension of literacy tests in seven Southern states. And it came shortly after major eruptions in black urban ghettoes across the nation, starting in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Aug. 11-16, which killed 34 people.
During the afternoon of the UKA rally in Natchez, more than 600 black citizens, led by NAACP Field Secretary Charles Evers, gathered at the Beulah Baptist Church on B Street and marched to the Adams County Courthouse. MHSP estimated that another 200 awaited the marchers on the courthouse lawn for a civil rights rally. The program ended at 2:40 p.m.
At 4:45 p.m. about 600 white marchers, according to MHSP, including 102 robed Klansmen, paraded to the courthouse, led by four Klansmen mounted on horses, including Ernest Gilbert of Brookhaven and Ernest Parker of Natchez.
Mississippi UKA Grand Dragon E.L. McDaniel of Natchez addressed the crowd on the courthouse lawn. Afterward, the Klansmen headed to Liberty Park where that night McDaniel gave the opening remarks at the rally, Gilbert gave the invocation and Jack Helm, a Klan leader from New Orleans, gave a brief address denouncing President Johnson and Civil Rights. UKA member Jack Seale also addressed the crowd.
Shelton, who died in 2003 at the age of 73, was the keynote speaker for the rally, the last of 12 held statewide. He spoke for one hour and 25 minutes, according to MHSP. An Air Force veteran, Shelton, 36 at the time, had been fired as a tire builder from the B.F. Goodrich factory in Tuscaloosa because of his Klan association.
He and about a dozen local Klansmen, including Gilbert, Parker, McDaniel and Seale, would be in Washington two months later after being subpoenaed to testify before HUAC, which investigated the Klan.
According to MHSP and press reports, Shelton told the Liberty Park crowd that the UKA would lead a political revolution that would remove President Johnson from office and do away with the influence of the black political minority. He said Communism was the greatest threat to America and that the racial unrest at the time was part of a Communist plan.
At a rally in Delaware a month earlier, Shelton portrayed the Klan, according to HUAC, "as last-ditch patriots, warring against communism and immorality." Such statements, said the committee, illustrated "the Klan's habit of misrepresenting actual Communist problems by over exaggeration, distortion and outright" lies.
Shelton also railed against Jews at rallies and once said: "We are one Klan in our unchangeable determination that these United States will be saved from destruction under this foul combination of Negro-Jewish communism."
After passing the collection plate in the Liberty Park crowd, a 30-foot cross was set afire -- a process referred to by Klansmen as a "cross lighting" -- ending the rally at 9:45 p.m.
Only one arrest was reported in Natchez during the long, tense day, according to MHSP.