George Metcalfe and Wharlest Jackson survived 1964, a bloody year in which the Ku Klux Klan initiated a reign of terror never before seen in this region.
But the two Natchez men did not escape the bloodshed. Both paid a heavy price in leading the push for Civil Rights for blacks. Metcalfe was maimed for life in 1965. Jackson was murdered in 1967.
In the mid-1960s, a square of Louisiana and Mississippi real estate was the scene of much violence. This stretched from Ferriday and Vidalia eastward to Natchez, Meadville and Brookhaven, from southern Concordia eastward to Woodville, Liberty and McComb, and was bordered by Hwy. 51 (now I-55) on the east.
Men in hoods and masks roamed the highways and country roads at night. Those who crossed their paths faced grave danger. Dozens were murdered, scores were beaten and flogged, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of real estate, including homes, businesses and churches, were bombed or torched.
While this terrorism continued for years, 1964 was the bloodiest. It was the year the strength of the Ku Klux Klan, especially Sam Bowers' White Knights and Robert Shelton's United Klans, reached record numbers as the Civil Rights movement, backed by new federal legislation, gained a toehold here. It was also the year that the meanest and most violent of the White Knights and other Klan organizations — about 20 men in all — spawned the Silver Dollar Group, a bloodthirsty Klan cell linked to at least three murders.
Friends of Jackson's and Metcalfe's were among those attacked in 1964. Both men were acquainted with Frank Morris, the Ferriday shoe shop owner murdered in December of that year. When Metcalfe and Jackson decided to take leadership roles in the newly-organized Natchez NAACP in early 1965, they knew they were marked men.
"They were both courageous," said Exerlena Jackson, the widow of Wharlest Jackson.
As George Metcalfe fought for his life in a Natchez hospital room after a bomb planted in his vehicle's engine compartment exploded in August 1965, Wharlest and Exerlena were among the first to visit his bedside. They and a few friends sat with Metcalfe at the hospital and then at his home on St. Catherine.
For almost a year, they nursed him until he was able to return to work. All the while, Wharlest Jackson kept his worries to himself.
"He would say nothing," said Exerlena. "It was no use asking him. He always acted like everything was okay. But I knew better."
Exerlena had survived Bloody '64, too, which ended with the murders of at least six black men, although the homicide toll was probably much higher. Among those known to be murdered in this region were:
MURDERS IN 1964
February 2: Louis Allen, a logger, shot to death in the driveway of his home in Liberty. He had planned to leave the next day for Wisconsin to seek a job as a heavy equipment operator. Unsolved.
February 28: Clifton Walker, gunned down on Poorhouse Road just outside Woodville. Unsolved.
May 2: Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Moore, both 19, kidnapped at Meadville, and beaten in the Homochitto National Forest. While still alive, their bodies were weighted and dumped into an offshoot of the Mississippi River. Klansman James Ford Seale was convicted and sentenced to three life terms last year for those murders.
July 12: JoEd Edwards went missing on July 12 and was last seen at the Shamrock Motel in Vidalia. His car was found abandoned a short time later on the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy. Bloodstains were found inside. His body has never been found. Unsolved.
December 10: Frank Morris in Ferriday confronted two men outside his shoe shop, one holding a shotgun and the other spreading a flammable liquid. A match was thrown igniting an inferno. Morris escaped the building in flames, but died four days later. Unsolved.
All the while, the nation focused much of its attention in the summer of 1964 on three Civil Rights workers missing from east central Mississippi — James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, whose bodies were eventually found.
WHIPPINGS, BEATINGS, ROBBERIES, KIDNAPPINGS
In early 1964, law enforcement believed there were four different groups of Klansmen roaming at night in Adams County kidnapping, whipping and robbing black men. Most of the suspects were believed to have been members of the Mississippi-based White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the Original Knights, based in Louisiana. Each Klan organization had what one group called "wrecking crews," which committed planned and random acts of violence. The majority of the suspects committing these atrocities were from Concordia Parish, and the Mississippi counties of Adams, Jefferson, Claiborne, Amite and Franklin.
One Adams County deputy believed that 17 men -- 16 black, one white -- had been whipped and beaten in January and February of 1964 but only four had reported their attacks to the Adams County Sheriff's Office.
Alfred Whitley, an Armstrong employee; James Winston, an International Paper Company employee; and funeral home owner Archie Curtis and assistant Willie Jackson, were kidnapped, stripped and blindfolded by armed men wearing hoods or masks, taken to remote areas and flogged with bullwhips. Whitley was robbed of $45 cash and his payroll check from Armstrong totaling $63.
The victims were questioned by their attackers about whether they were involved in the Civil Rights movement or if they were members of the NAACP. Archie Curtis was the only person involved in registering blacks to vote but as he explained to his attackers, there was no NAACP in Natchez at that time.
The sheriff's office believed that some of the Klansmen who were members of the labor unions at International Paper (IP) and Armstrong Tire & Rubber were among the Klansmen running loose at night. Police thought they knew most of the men who were committing the crimes but said they didn't have the physical evidence to arrest them.
In Franklin County, Leonard Russell, a black employee at IP in Natchez, reported that a man stopped at his Meadville home requesting help with a stalled vehicle. Russell and his wife drove up to the car but quickly proceeded onward when they saw a hooded man standing beside the vehicle. Later, the Russell's home was torched when a grenade was thrown inside.
None of these crimes were ever solved.
A shooting in April in Adams County, however, did result in arrests. Richard Joe Butler, a 26-year-old farm worker, was attacked by a group of six men, all wearing black hoods. According to news reports, Butler was approached by the men as he stepped from his pickup truck.
He escaped on foot, but was shot three times. He survived. In October, the FBI announced the arrests of Ed Fuller, 37, and William Bryant Davidson, 27. Billy Woods of Natchez had been arrested by the sheriff's office two days after the shooting.
Two churches — the Bethel Methodist Church and the Jerusalem Baptist Church — were torched in southern Adams County during the early morning hours of July 12, 1964. Later that day, JoeEd Edwards went missing in Vidalia.
Four locations in Natchez were bombed on Sept. 24, 1964, but the McComb area was rocked with 23 bombings since February. In fact, there were 37 terrorist acts in the McComb area over a six-month period.
United Klans of America wrecking crews bombed 23 locations, including two churches, 14 homes, and five businesses. There were six arsons (four at churches), one shooting, one flogging, one beating and three assaults. In the home of one UKA member, the FBI found 43 items used to commit various crimes, including rifles, pistols, blackjacks, unfinished table legs, ammunition, hypodermic syringes, hoods, goggles, and a deputy sheriff's tin barge.
In Natchez, bombs were placed on the lawns of Mayor John Nosser on Linton Avenue, and contractor Willie Washington. No one was hurt in either bombing, but Nosser's home was damaged. The explosion shook the Mississippi River Bridge.
Next door at the home of Rawdon and Kathie Blankenstein, windows on the side of the house next to the Nosser's home blew out and the couple's three sleeping children — ages 2, 3 and 5 — were covered with glass. Investigators believed that the bombings during this period were "test runs" for future actions.
That same night, stink bombs were thrown into Nosser's stores and into the Chevrolet dealership owned by Orrick Metcalfe, a board member at B&K Bank. Police believed Nosser and Metcalfe were targeted because of comments published in a Chicago Daily News article by Nicholas Von Hoffman entitled, "Anti-Antebellum Natchez: How Things Do Change."
Nosser told Von Hoffman that whites and blacks were "scared" and that "white hotheads" were well-armed and up to no good. Orrick Metcalfe said "there are a lot of rough people here. I don't know what's going on in this town...There's a lot going on here we know nothing about."
By this time, many whites in the community were outraged and frightened over the violence and church bombings.
RUN ON AMMUNITION
Police learned on Aug. 7, 1964, that the sale of firearms and ammunition was escalating. At the Gibson Tri Wholesale Company in Natchez, the owner said he had recently purchased $100,000 of ammunition for retail sales in Natchez and Adams County.
The company typically sold 100 high powered deer rifles, 200 .22 rifles, and 22 target pistols a year. But during the previous six to seven weeks, he said, sales had skyrocketed, particularly .22 bullets in cartons of 10 boxes. He suspected the ammunition was being bought due to "racial troubles."
On Oct. 24, 1964, the FBI and Mississippi troopers announced the seizure of a collection of weapons and ammunition in the Natchez home of Klansman Myron Wayne "Jack" Seale, the brother of James Ford Seale. The cache included several high powered automatic rifles, a shotgun, pistols and hunting knives.
In response to the escalating violence, the FBI, which had been operating out of the home of resident agent Clarence Prospere, opened an office in Natchez in October 1964. Initially, the office housed 14 special agents, and 11 uniformed and 14 plainclothes Mississippi troopers.
Despite the bloodshed of 1964 and although their lives had previously been threatened, George Metcalfe and Wharlest Jackson moved forward with their commitment to Civil Rights. In February 1965, the newly-organized NAACP in Natchez elected Metcalfe as president and Jackson as treasurer.
Both men knew this would enrage the Klan.