As we celebrate the 4th of July, we celebrate freedoms attained, but we also celebrate freedoms not yet attained.
On July 4, 1970, a group of nearly 200 young people gathered to attend an “Honor America” celebration at the Monroe Civic Center that resulted in a day of incarceration in the Monroe City Jail.
The group was called the “Black Youth Council.” Its name spelled trouble because “Black” was still a term associated with radicalism. It was a youth reaction to the “White Citizen’s Councils” that existed across the state promoting racial segregation while singing Jimmy Davis’ “You are my sunshine.”
The adults had a group as well. It was called the “Black Citizen’s Council,” led by Anthony “A.G.” Facen. The adults filed suits that ultimately desegregated the Ouachita Parish School Board and the Ouachita Parish Police Jury.
I directed the Black Youth Council, having just turned 20 years old. The teen leaders included Jerry Davidson and Charles Stewart. We were determined to press for desegregation of public facilities in the city. Stores downtown would not hire blacks in any capacity other than janitors. The new Eastgate Shopping Center didn’t hire blacks either.
Before taking any actions, I insisted that we strategize, read newspapers, and read public documents for details, because often the devil is buried in the details. We assembled reports of each business in Monroe, noting the number of Blacks hired, and we focused heavily on business that received black patronage.
When we began our non-violent push we staged pickets and organized boycotts of businesses that refused to hire blacks. Daily, hundreds of young people and college students walked picket lines in front of Eastgate Shopping Center and a new hamburger outlet on 18th and Louisville called “Burger Chef.” Although the chain was owned by State Superintendent of Education Louis Michot, it refused to hire blacks.
Daily we picketed Burger Chef and soon literally shut down the Burger Chef operation, which would not hire blacks, but even served black customers with a condescending “back door” attitude.
Each day the protest grew. Dozens of Monroe police arrived in riot gear with billy sticks in hand.
There was a total news blackout of our actions, which gave birth to the “Rapping BlacK” news leaflet, today known as the Monroe Free Press. The news leaflet informed the community and more youth showed up.
Our plan was to gather national media coverage, but our protest followed Dr. King’s model, it had to be non-violent. So we practiced how to protect our heads, by dropping to our knees and covering up if police attacked.
Then the arrests began. Nightly, the police arrested scores of youth, until they realized that we intended to fill the Monroe City Jail and the parish jail. We ran to the police cars singing, “I ain’t scare of no jail, cause I want my freedom, want my freedom now.” Scores were being arrested every night.
As fast as they were arrested, they let us go after the crowds thinned. They kept our lawyer, Paul Henry Kidd, busy protesting the cycle of arrests and releases.
On June 29, 1970, I celebrated my 21st birthday in the Monroe City jail. Over 200 were arrested that night.
Monroe’s Police Chief, James Kelly, vowed to break up the group of radicals, but the city would not allow us to get any publicity. We could not fill the jails because they arrested us, then released us with no charges or court dates. Break up the crowd, avoid public attention and confrontation was Mayor Howard’s plan.
On July 4, 1970, our plan was to integrate a city-sponsored “Honor America” day at the civic center that was being promoted for whites only. When we arrived, we were met with a force of nearly 40 police officers who arrested us as we stepped foot on civic center grounds.
We were charged with trespassing on city property. We expected to get arrested and were prepared for the worst. We were all jailed until the program was over, then released. However, Rev. John L. Russell, “Sexy Syl” Harris, and Larry “Snuff” Neal refused to leave the jail.
They were eventually pulled from the jail literally holding on to doors trying to stay. Outside, 50 of us sat on the steps, refusing to leave the police station. We wanted to be jailed to call attention to the injustices, instead, we were physically manhandled by officer Jerry Cowart who called us UnAmerican and ordered to leave the jail.
We spent our 4th of July in and out of the city jail.
Today, things have changed. Many of those young people have died.
Reverend Russell is semi-retired but still fighting.
I turned 70 on Saturday. Over the years I was arrested 17 times under Mayor W.L. Howard and once under Mayor Jamie Mayo.
I celebrate freedoms attained while agitating for the unattained.
I’m not tired yet.