The first confrontation between civil rights workers and the Ku Klux Klan in Natchez occurred in the summer of 1965 at Duncan Park.
It came at a time when Natchez was considered such a dangerous area in 1964, that civil rights organizations were reluctant to send in workers until the late summer, just months before Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris died from severe burns suffered in the arson of his shoe shop on December 10.
"But on the other hand," said 19-year-old Mitch Gerfield of New York City, Natchez had not experienced as many bombings by the Ku Klux Klan "that McComb has had."
Gerfield was a volunteer with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and in the summer of 1965 he was spending his time in Natchez with volunteers promoting civil rights for blacks. His comments confirmed what many already knew -- that Natchez was the Klan's center of operation in southwestern Mississippi and east-central Louisiana, including Ferriday and all of Concordia Parish.
Gerfield and other civil rights workers were interviewed in 1965 while in Natchez. Transcripts of those recordings reveal a charged atmosphere where the biggest fears in both Natchez and Ferriday were confrontations with the Ku Klux Klan or bad cops, two groups that often worked together.
Men like James Ford Seale worked the area recruiting new members for the Ku Klux Klan. Seale was recently convicted and sentenced to three life terms for his role in the kidnappings and deaths of two black teenagers who were picked up by their murderers in May 1964 while hitchhiking near Meadville.
Gerfield said there had been a bombing in Natchez in the summer of 1965 at the home of "a white fellow housing civil rights workers over in the Simmons Street area, the south Wall Street area."
Natchez, he said, "has the reputation of being an extremely tough area."
Another civil rights worker, 22-year-old Pete Blickeman of Long Island, a European history major at the University of Wisconsin, said Mayor John Nosser's home was "bombed because he hired too many Negroes in his store. He owns some large A&P type stores."
Some police, said Blickeman, were also Klan members.
"It's as simple as that," he said. "The Klan rides roughshod, every one knows the Klan (has) cops, and people are just afraid from the past."
edutThe entire area, said Blickeman, "is the worst section of Mississippi," although he, like Gerfield, had heard bad things about McComb.
"McComb had, during the fall, 15 bombings," said Blickeman. "It was in a period for two or three months. So it's a bad area."
Edith Black from New Jersey, who was a history major from Smith College in Massachusetts, was also a graduate student at Union Technological Seminary studying Christian ethics. She was among the early civil rights workers in Natchez, arriving in the late summer of 1964 and returning in 1965.
Articulate and bright, she offered perspective on how the South's fight against civil rights was undergoing a change due to pressure from the President and Congress.
She thought Mississippi Gov. Paul B. Johnson, Jr. "has definitely put the pressure on the Klan and the White Citizen's Council to stop overt intimidation of the white civil rights workers, because that's the kind of activity which reaches the northern newspapers and which causes a lot of white liberal action in the North, which pressures the President."
Reporters like John Herbers of the New York Times had been covering Klan-related violence in the South and in December 1964, Herbers, who was based in Jackson, crossed the river at Natchez to spend a few hours in Ferriday. Afterward, he filed a story on the murder of Morris, whose shoe shop was set on fire by two white men believed to have been associated with the Ku Klux Klan and certain members of law enforcement. Burned severely in the blaze, Morris died four days later at the Concordia Parish Hospital.
The first confrontation Edith Black's group had with the Klan, she said, came "when we attempted to integrate Duncan Park, which is the city park, for the first time."
A picnic was announced and advertised by civil rights' workers with signs throughout town. Soon afterward, other signs began to appear in Natchez advertising a different event -- a baseball game at the park between the Klan and the Americans for the Preservation of the White Race.
Those men planning to take part in the baseball game were "encouraged to bring their bats."
Not that civil rights workers needed to be tipped off to the potential violence, but, said Black, "We had a forewarning of what would happen at the park."
On the day of the picnic, Klan members began to circle the house where the civil rights workers were gathered. It was called "Freedom House."
"Their (Klan) cars began to go filing past the house, and a tremendous number of cars kept going around the block and past the house, just waiting for us to leave," said Black.
"We filled about, I guess four car-loads of Negro people and civil rights workers and tried to proceed out to the park, and the Klan was clearly going ahead of us. One car -- a Klan car -- waited till we started, and then cutting in front of us and was right in front of us all the way to the park till we came to the light which was just before the park, and several policemen with motorcycles appeared."
She said a signal was given by the police to a man in the lead car driven by Klansmen "and then the policeman disappeared." Ahead, a vehicle driven by Klansmen seemed to stall "and there was a big pretense about it (car) being broken down."
As the civil rights workers sat in their cars "a man with a movie camera came around taking all our pictures."
But what civil rights workers saw in the park was chilling.
"We could see that there were hundreds of men," said Black. "Some people saw guns, that they were carrying guns, and others saw them with bats, and that kind of weapon, just waiting."
Nearby in a truck with the windows rolled up, Pete Blickeman said he was "scared stiff...I knew my head would probably be smashed in...it was as hot as hell, watching every car that came by or passed me to see if they had a gun."
As some of the Klansmen began to assemble in front of the entrance, the civil rights workers decided the danger was too great.
"We drove off," said Edith Black. "The police had completely disappeared. It was quite obvious what they were going to let happen...and they would show up after the free-for-all was over...It was certain that if we ever got out of the cars and walked out onto the park that the Klan would have made short work of us."
The civil rights workers notified the FBI of what happened. The next day, they returned to the park as the FBI watched and made it inside the entrance. The visit was unannounced and unadvertised, but no one was harmed.
In the near future, Black said the workers planned to return to the park with black residents to "try to use the facilities" such as the "golf course, tennis courts, swimming pool. A lot of us are going to try the swimming pool...the Justice Department has been wired a number of times, but there's no response. So we expect no protection."
Interviews of the civil rights' workers were conducted by students from Stanford University. Notes the university: "During the summer of 1965 eight students from Stanford University spent ten weeks in the southern states tape-recording information on the civil rights movement. The eight interviewers...were sponsored by KZSU, Stanford's student radio station, and their original intent was to gather material suitable for rebroadcasting in the form of radio programs....the interviewers visited over fifty civil rights projects in six states and secured three hundred and thirty hours of recordings, including over two hundred hours of personal interviews...All of the original tape recordings are now housed in the Library of Recorded Sound, Stanford, California."
During that summer of 1965, civil rights' workers in Ferriday were also interviewed by the Stanford students.