Civil Rights educational, commemorative program Aug. 23, 25

Staff Writer
Plaquemine Post South
The old Plymouth Rock Baptist Church on Court St. was the scene of many civil rights demonstrations in 1963. The church has since moved to Iron Farm Road and will host a Civil Rights educational forum Aug. 23.

PLAQUEMINE - The Plymouth Rock Baptist Church will take you back in time with a civil rights educational forum Friday, Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. and commemorative program on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013 at 3 p.m. at the church.

Please come out and share in the forum and participate in the program.

This is a chapter from the book "To Serve The Living" by Suzanne E. Smith a History Professor at George Mason University.

The chapter explains what happened on Sept. 1, 1963 and how terrified people were.

A week before the March on Washington, scheduled for Aug. 28, 1963, James Farmer, head of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), traveled down to Plaquemine to participate in a rally and march sponsored by local blacks to generate interest in a voter-registration drive.

Farmer, who had led CORE's campaign of Freedom Rides to desegregate interstate highways, was eager to support the effort of the Louisiana black leaders and some 200 marchers. When the protesters reached downtown Plaquemine, the police were waiting and promptly arrested everyone involved. Because the local town jail could not hold all those arrested, Farmer and others were transferred to another jail in the nearby town of Donaldsonville.

Bail for each participant was set at $500, which left Farmer, as the leader of one of the most important and active civil rights organizations in the country, facing a dilemma.

On the one hand, he was scheduled to speak at the March on Washington and had the financial resources to bail himself out. On the other hand, CORE did not have the money to bail out everyone who had been jailed. If Farmer left the others in jail while he went on to Washington, he risked weakening the morale of the Plaquemine activists.

In the end, Farmer decided to remain in jail, even as other national civil rights leaders pressured him to appear in Washington. Louisiana police officials ended any remaining debate about Farmer's situation when they leveled additional charges against him that precluded any possibility of bail.

Consequently, Farmer was left to watch the broadcast of the March on Washington from his prison cell on a small black-and-white television set. Three days after the march was over, as Farmer recalled, "all of us were released from the Plaquemine and Donaldsonville jails. Upon my release from jail, all hell broke loose!"

All hell broke loose indeed. Soon after Farmer's release, a group of Plaquemine youths decided to organize a local protest against the racial segregation of the town's public buildings. The Plaquemine activists, inspired by the resounding success of the March on Washington, soon found themselves in violent conflict with Louisiana state troopers, who were intent on ending any civil rights groundswell in their neighborhood-especially when it took the form of protest led by outside agitators like James Farmer.

Aware of the local hostility toward outsiders, Farmer resisted all requests to lead the march himself and insisted instead that the young people rely on the leadership of local black citizens. As Farmer stayed behind the scenes at the parsonage of the Plymouth Rock Baptist Church, the Plaquemine chief of police stopped the marchers before they even reached town.

Again, they were all arrested and held until the state troopers arrived. According to Farmer, the "troopers arrived on horseback, riding like cowboys, and they charged into the crowd of boys and girls as if they were rounding up a herd of stampeding cattle."

The troopers, who came bearing cattle prods and Billy clubs, began attacking the young students with reckless abandon. Many of the young people were injured when they fell to the ground and were trampled by horses. The wounded youths ran back to the Plymouth Rock Baptist Church for protection and first aid.

The following day, a Sunday, the local black ministers of Plaquemine organized a march to protest the state troopers' brutal treatment of the young people of their town. In a repeat performance of the previous day, the state troopers violently confronted the marchers, attacking them with Billy clubs and the electric shocks of the cattle prods. When the stunned and injured protesters retreated once more to the Plymouth Rock Baptist Church (quickly renamed "Freedom Rock"), the troopers surrounded the church and began bombarding it with tear gas.

The trapped activists panicked and tried to escape through the back door of the parsonage. The troopers were waiting outside, however, and forced the protesters back into the church building with another volley of tear-gas canisters. The poisoned air created a scene of complete chaos.

At that moment Farmer, who had been caught in the middle of the attack on the church, realized that the state troopers' main goal was to capture him. As he recounted, a couple of trapped activists overheard one of the troopers proclaim, "When we catch that goddamn nigger, Farmer, we're gonna kill him."

As dusk began to fall, Farmer devised a plan: the protesters would retreat to the Good Citizens Funeral Home located about a block from the church. He sent two individuals to creep through the waist-high grass behind the church and ask the owners of the funeral home if they would shelter the group. The owners agreed, though as Farmer admitted, "I doubt they knew what they were taking on."

In groups of twos and threes, the activists crawled through the tall grass to the funeral home. It took several hours before all 300 of them were safely packed into the rather small business establishment.

The state troopers, for their part, quickly figured out where the large group of activists had hidden. When one of the troopers kicked open the door of the funeral home and shouted, "Come on out, Farmer. We know you are in there. We're going to get you."

Farmer was ready to surrender himself for the sake of the others, but he was stopped in his tracks. The Plaquemine activists knew that a lynch mob was waiting for him outside and refused to let him leave the building.

At the height of this life-and-death crisis, Farmer's ultimate rescue came from an unexpected but somehow appropriate source: the local funeral director.

As Farmer recalled so vividly, Lizzie Powell, "who had previously held herself apart from the movement," confronted the troopers and demanded a search warrant.

He continued: I can never know - she herself probably does not know - what inner revolution or what mysterious force plucked her from her caul of fear and thrust her forth to assert with such a dramatic and improbable gesture her new birth of freedom.

A funeral hall is as good a place as any for a person to come to life, I suppose, and her action sparked a sympathetic impulse in everyone who watched as she planted herself in front of the first trooper and shook a finger in his face.

While Powell told the trooper that he could not enter her place of business without a search warrant and pushed him out the door, Farmer and the other activists began to plan his getaway.

The state troopers were already busy setting up roadblocks around the town in an effort to seal off any possible escape routes. Then, Plaquemine activists came up with the idea of using the funeral home's two hearses, which were equipped with shortwave radios, to get Farmer away from the agitated lynch mob.

One hearse acted as a decoy as Farmer, Ronnie Moore, a CORE field secretary in New Orleans and Reverend Jetson Davis, the minister of the Plymouth Rock Baptist Church, crammed into the back of the second hearse. That hearse's armed drivers then sped out through the roadblocks and back roads of Louisiana on their way to New Orleans.

Aptly enough, their destination in New Orleans was another funeral home that was prepared to give the hunted activists safe haven.

In another memory of the tense night, Farmer recalled, "At times during the wild ride, I thought I was already dead ... But when at last we climbed out of the hearse into the hot New Orleans night, we were, by grace of God and the extraordinary courage of many ordinary men and women, still very much alive.

Farmer's perilous escape from the hostile lynch mob of Plaquemine, is an amazing story on several levels, not least because it highlights the key, though often unseen, role that African American funeral directors played in the modern civil rights movement.

In the Plaquemine showdown, we witness the bravery of Lizzie Powell, whose singular act of courage in the face of a lynch mob vividly captures the unusual yet compelling relationship funeral directors often had with the tumultuous civil rights struggle.

In their position as the most financially stable business leaders of their respective communities, African American undertakers often were drawn into civil rights protests even if they were not necessarily interested in leading the marches.

Local activists knew they could call upon their funeral directors for bail money, to negotiate compromises with local white leaders, or-in the worst cases-to prepare the bodies of slain civil rights workers for burial.

Moreover, as the James Farmer incident proves, African American funeral directors could use their funeral homes, caskets, and hearses as fronts to hide anything from civil rights meetings to weapons to protesters under attack.