Civil rights reformers fought apathy and a way of life
Marva and Ed Paul, of Franklin, recall the civil rights struggle of 50 years ago in St. Mary Parish.
(The Daily Review Photo by Preston Gill)
St. Mary Parish activists who toiled to break racial barriers 50 years ago recounted their experiences organizing a movement for change that had mixed greetings from fellow blacks and resistance from whites in no hurry to change a society where they held the power and influence.
While discrimination angered some, others were content to let equality gradually become a reality. The fight to secure equality for blacks was no cakewalk, those who led the fight said.
Marva Paul of Franklin, remembered walking picket lines at West Brothers department store in Franklin as eggs were thrown at her. Yet, she recalled there were no truly violent incidents.
“There were about 150 people participating in the picketing,” she said. “They were young and old. Parents often brought their children.”
She left for a march in Baton Rouge and recalls her mother explicitly instructing her not to join it. Her parents, like the parents of some of the others involved in the movement, were concerned over her safety, she said.
Paul said the violent images on television of whites attacking civil rights marchers throughout the rest of the South were bound to cause concern for their own safety. She said many were not only frightened and nervous, but some had the slave/master mentality and “knew their place.”
Her husband, Ed Paul was actively involved in forcing a change. He is the grandson of a former slave and was born a little more than 70 years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
“I was quite aware of the injustices all around me,” Paul said as he sat on the edge of his couch with his wife of 53 years. “Blacks were all relegated to the … the dirty work … and they were paid a pittance for their labor,” Paul said. “Indeed I was angry about our treatment.”
Paul said he could not tolerate maintaining the status quo.
“It permeated my thinking… I did not want my children growing up in that kind of world,” Paul said. “I wanted them to have a good education and access to the American way of life.”
While violence was not used in St. Mary Parish, there was an occasional cross burning, Ed Paul said. The powers-that-be worked to maintain peace because they knew it was not in the best interest of the parish for things to degenerate into violence, he said.
Some of the activists thought the situation could become dangerous. This was especially after the June 12, 1963, murder of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss., according to Ernest Middleton, who was active in the movement in Franklin at that time.
Middleton, now 76, said he and others began quietly carrying guns in case they needed to protect themselves. Middleton, whose brother Charles is a parish councilman, said with a laugh “I know there was someone who told a man he would pay his bail if he would whip my ass.”
Charles Pratt, a recent city council candidate in Morgan City, does not count himself among the activists of the time. His family lived comfortably from their father’s scrap business, he said. He left Morgan City in 1955, got an education at UCLA and a job with the Rand Corporation, and then moved back in 1972. He recalls what it was like for his family and friends.
Poor whites, mostly Italian, and blacks lived together on the south side of the city across the railroad tracks without incidents, he said.
“I didn’t see much racism here, but, if you were seen talking to a white girl, you might find yourself in jail but, those were isolated incidents,” Pratt said.
There were places that said “Whites Only” which sometimes meant blacks had to use the bathroom in the field, Pratt said. While whites did not tolerate blacks entering their restrooms, some whites had a different opinion about black women entering their bedrooms, he said.
“Black women were exploited,” Pratt said. “Just look at the number of mulattos. It was cool as long as it was done clandestinely.” Pratt believes those past incidents should be left behind and attention focused on the present and future.
Paul, and others, knew blacks could effect change if they asserted their power economically. Thus was born the idea to picket West Brothers.
“The merchants were experiencing a healthy profit from the money spent by African-Americans,” Paul said. “We began picketing West Brothers because they would not hire blacks as clerks or for other responsible positions.”
Raymond Lockett joined Middleton and about 30 other young men in forming an organization to change the way the parish operated, which became known as Citizens for Action. Both men eventually completed doctorate degrees and become successful college administrators, but in the 1960s they were looking to ameliorate the ills of social injustice in St. Mary Parish.
Lockett, 78, said law enforcement worked to maintain order as the protestors picketed
“I remember police arrested this one white guy that was bothering the picketers,” he said.
Both Lockett and Middleton expressed disappointment that generally ministers in the black churches did not join the bandwagon for change in St. Mary Parish.
“Quite a few people were willing to accept the status quo,” Lockett said. “But, we were going to do what we had to do to ensure our rights.”
Middleton said he had served his country in the Army during the Vietnam era, gotten an education and returned home to Franklin in the hopes of improving his community. About that time, he and his wife took a stand to integrate the local theater.
“’The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ was playing and Rose (his wife) wanted to see it,” he said. “But I told her I am not going up there and sit in the balcony in the dark” where blacks were expected to sit.
When arriving at the theater he was asked by an employee if he minded “going around” to where the blacks entered.
“Yes, I mind going around,” he said and then went in and sat in the middle of the white section.
Middleton was visited by a black minister who advised him that people wanted to work with him, but were concerned he would rock the boat, he said.
“Not only will I rock the boat,” Middleton said he told the pastor, “but I will sink the damn boat if I have to.”
After participating in the pickets outside of West Brothers, Middleton said he was called into a meeting with some prominent white citizens and told he was an up-and-coming young man that could be a credit to his race, he said. But he was warned he would lose some opportunities if he persisted in his “activities.”
Middleton asked what they were referring to and he was shown a folder containing a photograph of him picketing the store and told they had heard he would not just rock the boat but sink the boat.
Pressure from concerned whites or contented blacks did not discourage Middleton from continuing such “activities” but made him determined to persist and to work for blacks having a greater say in the political process.
Blacks had not yet realized the power they held by coalescing together politically and using the strength of their votes, Ed Paul said.
They would get a major tool in August 1965, with the Voting Rights Act. The Act would help register blacks and get them elected to public office.