David Whatley, only weeks from his court-ordered enrollment as the first black student in Ferriday High School, was asleep in his grandmother's home in late January 1966 when the Ku Klux Klan tried to kill him.
As Whatley and seven members of his extended family slept in the early morning of January 30, 1966, Klansmen threw two sticks of explosives connected to a detonator -- a blasting cap -- near the house. Although the detonator report awoke the household, the explosives didn't fire.
Inside, the noise from the blasting cap sent the family into a panic. Whatley raced from room to room, saw the eight members of his extended family and one guest were alright, then raced outside. There, he discovered that while the detonator had exploded, two sticks of explosives attached to it had not.
FBI records obtained by The Sentinel named two men federal agents believed were involved in the attempted bombing, both members of the militant Klan cell identified by the bureau in 1967 as the Silver Dollar Group (SDG). By this time SDG Klansmen had killed at least five men and would kill another in 1967, a Sentinel investigation has revealed.
The victims included Henry Hezekiah Dee, Charles Moore, Frank Morris, Joseph Edwards, Earl Hodges and Wharlest Jackson.
Before the first murder and until the last, SDG members were part of wrecking crews for three different Klans which kidnapped, beat and horsewhipped dozens of victims. These wrecking crews, secret hit teams that were dispatched across eastern Louisiana and southwestern Mississippi to carry out Klan-ordered violence, torched businesses, destroyed property and left in their wake more than just dead and beaten victims. Their crimes left shattered families and terrified communities, who grieved the loss of their loved ones and friends while also facing the economic fallout caused by these acts of terrorism.
Now 64 and living in Baton Rouge, David Whatley was 20 when he found himself in the crosshairs of the Klan because he had months earlier petitioned the federal court in Shreveport for enrollment into the all-white Ferriday High School. He said he survived those days through the support of his family, his friends in the civil rights movement and his faith in God.
"It was unbelievable, those years," Whatley told The Sentinel during a series of interviews the past two years. "I cannot adequately describe it to you. I just can't.
"I did what I thought was the right thing to do. I have no bitterness over those years, but they were hard."
By 1966, Whatley and his family had become accustomed to sleeping lightly at night and taking turns guarding their home against the Klan. Whatley lived with his grandmother, Alberta Whatley.
"She was one of the few people in Ferriday who would let a civil rights worker stay in her home," recalled David Whatley. "That kind of stand came with a price. Klansmen shot holes through the house, shot out the lights and threw Molotov cocktails. We were attacked three or four times."
A year earlier in 1965, John Doar, Assistant U.S. Attorney General in charge of Civil Rights, was informed that young civil workers in Ferriday from northern states were being beaten, that shots were being fired into the homes of black residents and that the violent attacks were escalating.
When the mother of one of the civil rights workers complained about the violence, Doar warned: "Get your son out of there. That's outlaw country."
In self-defense, Whatley said, at least one man on guard duty carried a shotgun or rifle to protect his family and his grandmother's home.
During the early morning hours of Monday, Jan. 30, 1966, Whatley said a Klansmen threw a high-explosive bomb at the Whatley house at 310 South Fifth Street. Inside were Whatley, his grandmother, cousins Joe Davis and Charlie Whatley; an aunt, Esther Smith, and her children, Irma and William Joseph; another aunt, Mary Whatley, and a civil rights worker who came to Ferriday with others through CORE (Congress of Racial Equality).
"We split up guard duty every night," said Whatley. He said the relative guarding at the time the bomb was thrown had fallen asleep.
Whatley said Klansmen usually circled the block a few times before attacking: "When they did this at our house we would show ourselves and they would usually flee."
An FBI report concluded: "Two sticks of explosives" were used in the Whatley bombing and "apparently only the detonator had exploded and no damage was done." Whatley said an agent told him later that the "explosive package itself did not ignite. The FBI did a ballistics test and said that if it had gone off it would have" caused extensive damage to the Whatley home. "They (Klansmen) had used oil well blasting powder and the blasting cap was not strong enough."
FBI documents identified two of the suspects in the bombing as SDG members. One was Sonny Taylor, a logger from Harrisonburg who, FBI records indicate, became a paid FBI informant in 1967 in the wake of the carbombing murder of SDG target Wharlest Jackson of Natchez, a leader in the local NAACP and an employee at Armstrong Tire.
The other SDG member identified in the documents was James Frederick "Red" Lee, who was living in Lismore in Concordia Parish at the time. Lee was an Armstrong Tire employee, FBI records show.
Longtime FBI agent Jim Ingram, who died in 2009, told The Sentinel in 2008 that a handful of key SDG members who became FBI informants "would inform only to a point." An example of what Ingram meant is found in Sonny Taylor's comments regarding the Whatley bombing. According to a capsule report in FBI files, Taylor said he "lost some sleep" the night of the bombing and "got his feet wet," adding that he "screwed up, too."
Whatley, who never knew the identities of any of the Klan suspects until told by The Sentinel, said he didn't know Lee or Taylor, who are both dead.
The two SDG Klansmen were also among several considered as suspects in the planning of the car bombing that seriously injured Natchez NAACP President and Armstrong employee George Metcalfe just five months earlier in August 1965. FBI records indicate that days prior to that attack that Metcalfe had signed a petition to integrate Natchez public schools.
Whatley's decision to file a federal petition to integrate Ferriday High may have been the trigger that led Klansmen to attempt to bomb the Whatley home. An informant told agents in 1967 that on Aug. 23, 1965, four days prior to the Metcalfe bombing, Lee and Taylor experimented with explosives placed in a tree stump and wired to the ignition coil of a car. The stump was shattered when one of the men turned the ignition switch of the vehicle firing the explosive, records show.
A month after the attempted bombing of the Whatley home, federal Judge Ben C. Dawkins of Monroe directed the Concordia Parish School Board to admit Whatley to Ferriday High School. The Sentinel reported at that time: "Judge Dawkins' directive called for admission of David Whatley, a 20 year old Ferriday Negro who had applied for admission to the high school. The School Board had turned down his request on grounds of his age."
A junior at Sevier High when he became involved in civil rights activities, Whatley said he had previously met with family and other civil rights workers to determine how to move forward for blacks on opening the doors of Ferriday High School. Through the assistance of the NAACP and CORE an organized effort began to integrate public facilities and schools as allowed by Congressional action.
"We had held meetings at Mercy Seat and Mt. Olive churches and there were several youngsters who wanted to get in Ferriday High School for a better education," Whatley recalled last week. "Ferriday High had superior teachers who had a superior education. The school also had better books and better equipment.
"We had several meetings and a few students were prepared to seek admission to Ferriday High. But then the white employers told the parents of these students that they would be fired if they went through with it.
"So I, with my grandmother's support, agreed to go to federal court and seek entrance. I had to explain in our brief why I wanted to integrate the school."
The court process took some time, Whatley said.
Whatley said many whites throughout the community opposed his entrance into Ferriday High, but he said there were some who were sympathetic and understood what he was trying to do. "But those who felt that way faced the same opposition I did."
The first day at Ferriday High was intense, said Whatley. "A lot of white men from throughout the area were at the school that day and the days to follow. People would be lined up at the windows inside the school watching me."
Whatley said he encountered "slurs, slanders, curses, swears, intimidation and 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 location."
Once, he said, a man in his 40s' dressed in cowboy attire approached with a cigarette in his mouth and asked, "You think you're a bad nigger?" Whatley answered that he was only interested in getting an education. The man then rubbed out his cigarette with the toe of his boot and raised his fists. Whatley said he intended to defend himself but a fight was avoided when teachers intervened.
When at the Ferriday High prom he and his date, Willie Ray Feltus, a black teen, walked onto the dance floor, "everyone else stopped dancing. They made a circle around us and watched."
The pressure never abated and months later he was arrested by Ferriday police for stealing, a crime he said he did not commit. He said he was then held in the Ferriday jail for two weeks without going before a judge for a hearing or being told the identity of his accuser.
During that time, Whatley said the local draft board met and drafted him. He said Police Chief Bob Warren drove him from jail to the bus station at Vogt's Drugs and warned him to get out of town. After retrieving a few belongings from home, Whatley left Ferriday on the bus for Fort Polk and the U.S. Army.
In the spring of 1967, Whatley said he was made a first gunner on a machine gun reconnaissance in Vietnam when a land mine exploded. Seriously injured, he said he was transported to a U.S. medical facility in Japan and underwent surgery. He required a year of recuperation and later completed his overseas tour of duty in Korea. "I often thought about the fact that I wasn't good enough to attend Ferriday High School but I was good enough to go and fight for my country."
Whatley said he completed his GED and ultimately was awarded a diploma from Ferriday High.
"I just wanted the opportunity to improve myself," he said. "I'm a better man for it all. God got me through it."