In early summer 1965, Michael Clurman's parents contacted the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to inform the agency of the dangers faced by civil rights workers in Ferriday, including their 21-year-old son.
Clurman and four other workers were canvassing Ferriday's black community under the sponsorship of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), just six months after the murder of Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris.
Some of these workers were beaten and following several arsons and fire bombings by the Ku Klux Klan, Clurman's parents hoped a phone call might not only alert the Justice Department of the extreme danger their son and others were facing, but also provide them some protection.
"My parents called John Doar early in the summer when we started to get into some scary (situations)," recalled Clurman this week.
Doar was an Assistant U.S. Attorney General in charge of Civil Rights under Attorney General Nicholas deB. Katzenbach. Doar was informed that CORE workers in Ferriday were being beaten, that shots were being fired into the homes of black residents and that the violent attacks were escalating.
Clurman said his mother wondered "where was this war versus the Klan that President Johnson had promised?"
Doar, well aware of the climate in Ferriday, said: "Get your son out of there. That's outlaw country."
Clurman and another CORE worker were the first to arrive for work in Ferriday in early summer 1965, representing CORE's first civil rights effort in Concordia Parish. They were attacked the first day.
"At the beginning we commuted to Ferriday from Natchez because we couldn't find any local people in the black community who would provide us with a place to stay," said Clurman. "They were afraid. Everyone was."
Clurman and other CORE workers were warned early on that there was a strong connection between some sheriff's department deputies and the Ku Klux Klan.
"There was a particularly notorious sheriff's deputy, I only remember as 'Big Frank' who drove a couple of local guys to within 100 yards of where we were canvassing on the first day," said Clurman.
An FBI agent "assigned to the town said that he didn't trust Frank and he was known as a Klansman."
Shortly after the attack, Clurman's parents contacted their Congressman -- Richard L. Ottinger of New York -- about their concerns over their son and other civil rights workers who were attacked over the course of the summer. Ottinger wrote Katzenbach, the U.S. Attorney General. By late summer, Katzenbach's Civil Rights' deputy, John Doar, reported to the Congressman:
"Upon receipt of the information that two CORE workers, Michael Clurman and James Edward Brown, were assaulted by two Negroes who had just got out of a Concordia Parish Sheriff's car (in Ferriday), the Department of Justice instituted an immediate investigation. FBI agents spoke to the victims the same day as the incident occurred, July 3, 1965.
"On the basis of present information the prospect of a successful federal criminal prosecution is not bright. Evidence is lacking that the assailants acted under the color of the law or that they were involved in a conspiracy to deprive citizens of civil rights. We are continuing the investigation, however, and will advise you for our final determination."
Clurman said he learned later that his two attackers were put up to their deed by the deputy.
"They were told that we were in the black neighborhoods to pick up black women," said Clurman. "They later apologized." He doesn't remember their names.
During the summer, Doar did "beef up DOJ's presence considerably" in Ferriday, said Clurman.
Federal observers with the Justice Department moved in soon afterward, joining a small number of FBI agents.
A year earlier, Klan violence erupted throughout the South and by the end of 1964, two men attacked Frank Morris at his shoe shop in Ferriday early on the morning of Dec. 10, 1964. They torched the building, which also was his home, after forcing Morris at gun point to the back of the shop. He died four days later from the severe burns suffered in the blaze.
Today the FBI is reinvestigating Morris' murder, one of dozens committed during the civil rights era. Morris' case file is said to be among the largest in FBI archives.
Clurman faced his first attack in Ferriday the way he was taught by CORE. He didn't fight back.
"That's what we were told to do," he said.
Just 17 days later, on July 20, 1965, Clurman and other CORE workers were attacked by a white man. Clurman said Mel Atcheson of Iowa "got beaten, kicked in the face. I ran away from this guy."
Another CORE worker named Archie Hunter was not attacked.
Both Clurman and Atcheson are white.
Hunter, said Clurman, was a black CORE worker from Harlem.
"After the guy finished beating Mel, he left," said Clurman. "After the attack, Archie threw down his hat and started yelling at people. He really let them have it."
"We come half way across the country and you stand right here in the middle of your community and don't help us," Archie shouted.
After that, said Clurman, "we got invitations" to stay at various locations.
Clurman said the Klan's presence was felt every day.
"They weren't in sheets," he said. "but there was no mistaking who they were."
During the early days of his Ferriday stay, Clurman said he "gave an impromptu talk before some black high school young people out in a field. I kind of gave a rabble-rousing speech."
Clurman said "we were just trying to get people to register to vote and to address the complete segregation of the town. We were organizing the Freedom Democratic Party, trying to get them to view segregation as a problem that they could do something about."
As the audience began to break up, two men approached Clurman -- one a recent high school graduate and the other a veteran of the Air Force.
"They were very skeptical," said Clurman. "They came up and said you integrate the swimming pool, you're going to get killed. While everybody else disappeared, these two local men stuck with us all summer."
Clurman said the speech he gave was "an exhilarating thing for me," an example that "although we were scared most of the time in Ferriday, we weren't scared every moment."
Later, in the parking lot at the Ferriday Police Department "two guys whizzed a rock right past my eye," he recalled. They weren't policemen, he said, just two bystanders.
Clurman said his parents were "proud and worried" over his CORE work. During the times when Clurman's father didn't hear from his son he would tell friends: "Michael is either shot, lynched or forgot to call."
Nineteen-years-old when he started working for CORE, 21 when he came to Ferriday, Clurman is now 63 and considering retirement. He grew up in New York but has lived his adult life in Boston where he works as a software developer for financial databases. He lives just a few miles from Boston in Sudbury.
He raised some of the money needed to travel to the South through his synagogue.
His politics today, he said, are "middle of the road. I'm not a flaming radical. I'm interested in all sorts of thing. I'm glad that the racial cast system in the South has disappeared largely and the rigid cast lines."
Today, he said, "The first name which comes to mind in connection with Ferriday is that of Father (August) Thompson, the black priest who had been featured on the cover of 'Ramparts Magazine' shortly before I arrived. Father Thompson was active in the civil rights movement. He was also friendly with the FBI agent.
"Unfortunately I can't remember the names of any of the other brave local people who worked with us that summer. It's been 42 years! "