Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The world is a better place, even Monroe, Louisiana benefited directly, although he never made it no further than the airport.
In 1965, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were pressing President Lyndon Johnson to pass a voting rights bill to end voting discrimination in the South.
Monroe played a part in the passage of the bill because a delegation from Monroe, led by Dr. John I. Reddix, Attorney James Sharp and others testified before Congress about the 1956 voter purge in Monroe in which all 5,782 Black voters were removed from the voting books to clear the way for the election W.L. Howard as mayor.
Dr. Reddix was the fire brand of his generation. He courageously filed suits to desegregate ULM, the Monroe City School System, and the Monroe Fire Department among others. He was a pragmatist whose actions were tied to Dr. King’s national effort.
Dr. Reddix invited Dr. King to come to Monroe for a voting rights rally. It was to happen during the second week of March 1965 after the Selma, Alabama March.
The highlight of the rally was designed to show how Voting Rights of Blacks in Monroe had been stripped away from them in 1956 for nine years.
Howard did not want to revisit the Voting Rights fight, he feared King would put Monroe on the national news because CBS news was covering all of the rallies. Instead, Reddix said Howard devised a decoy action to stop King from coming with the help of unsuspecting Negro leaders.
Negro leaders in Monroe were told that Monroe would begin following the 1964 Civil Rights act and blacks would be hired in stores, allowed to eat in restaurants, and drink out of any water fountain they chose. He never mentioned that he had learned that King was planning a rally in Monroe at the First Baptist Church.
Howard met some resistance selling his desegregation plan to many racist elements of the city. It was simple: Monroe businesses would show Monroe Negro leaders that Monroe can be peacefully desegregated without Martin Luther King and they will stop him from coming. They would shift the focus from voting rights to public accommodations.
In the Spring of 1965 barriers began to fall, almost 50 businesses desegregated without protest on the same day. Others followed days after. It was small, but it was historic. Negroes were allowed to eat at the Virginia Hotel, Piccadilly and other facilities and were not asked to move away from lunch counters or sit in the back.
Impressed, Negro leaders met Dr. King at the airport and after a brief meeting with him detailed all that had been done by Howard. They expressed their faith that desegregation could be accomplished without a rally. King left. A few days later he went to Selma, Alabama. There were marches, bloodshed and violent protests. Ultimately the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed.
Howard told Negro leaders that they had averted a blood bath in Monroe. He praised them for thinking of the city as a whole rather than with an attitude of suspicion and distrust.
However, Dr. Reddix said Howard tricked leaders into thinking he was taking ground breaking action by enforcing laws that had been passed by Congress in 1964. They did not understand that the real issue, the big picture was voting rights.
The irony of it all is that last week a Federal judge dismissed the suit that held the Monroe City School Board’s feet to fire. The judge declared the district “unitary” meaning the district no longer needs a federal watch dog.
It was a handful of blacks in 1965 that drank the kool-aid thinking they were right and turned King around. Today, four blacks on the city school board drank the same kool-aid and sold out the community when they voted to end Dr. Reddix’s suit against the Monroe City Schools which had been our protection for 53 years.
All four of them may have helped build fine buildings and other improvements, but they will be remembered most for selling their people out because, like those who did not understand in 1965, these leaders in 2018 sold us out, too.
Who are they: Rodney McFarland, Brenda Shelling, B.J. Johnson and Darryl Berry. Together they had the power to stop the court action, but instead they ignored the big picture and made things worse.