Civil rights activists worked to increase black vote
Blacks made up about 18 percent of registered voters in St. Mary Parish two months before the Aug. 6, 1965, signing of the Voting Rights Act, but today make up 34 percent of registered voters.
Black voter numbers more than doubled from 3,175 to 6,483 seven years after the Voting Rights Act became law.
Of 33,470 voters in St. Mary Parish, 11,203 are registered as black. Whites make up 62 percent and “other” is 4.5 percent of the voters.
Blacks hold elected positions in four of the five parish municipalities, including mayor in Patterson and Franklin, and on the parish council.
Activists involved in the movement to register black voters and elect black candidates say it took many years of work to overcome barriers in place for generations.
Ed Paul, 80, of Franklin, was instrumental in establishing the Human Relations Council in the late 1950s, which worked to clear barriers in employment for blacks and then in organizing voter registration drives. Once, the group was able to register about 170 blacks in a single day, he said.
This happened a decade before the Voting Rights Act banned literacy tests and poll taxes used throughout the South.
Louisiana mandated literacy tests for everyone unable to verify at least a fifth-grade education. Even blacks with a college degree were forced to take it while whites were often excused no matter how little education they had, the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website claims. Determination of who “passed” and who “failed” was entirely up to the whim of the Registrar of Voters — all of whom were white.
The registrar was free to choose which portion of the Constitution required an explanation, the website said. For example, black applicants were asked to interpret the full faith and credit clause or the privileges and immunities clause of the U.S. Constitution, but whites were asked to explain the meaning of the freedom of speech or freedom of religion, the website said.
Paul’s wife, Marva, said literacy tests were effective in stifling black registration.
“The absurd questions that blacks were asked discouraged many from even attempting to register,” she said. “We went door-to-door getting people to register to vote. Therein lies our freedom and our liberty.”
Ed Paul said it was going to take black people standing up, demanding respect and an equal standing at the polls.
“I never felt inferior to a white man and I was never going to kowtow to the Jim Crow laws,” he said
Raymond Lockett, 78, a retired Southern University history department head and native of Franklin, said there was a concerted effort to get blacks registered as early as 1953 when a group of black Masons met in Morgan City to plan a march on the parish courthouse in Franklin to demand the right of blacks to vote.
Word got out about the planned march and “people in the power structure” decided to bring in a group of seven blacks to get registered to vote and the march subsequently didn’t take place, Lockett said.
Ernest Middleton said he worked with Lockett and about 30 or so young people, all under the age of 40, to get more blacks registered.
“We called ourselves The Citizens for Action,” Middleton said of the group. “We were the pariahs of our time. We had to buck the tradition.”
Some people in the white and black communities thought the young reformers were “arrogant and uppity,” he said.
The activists worked with the black community to educate them on the importance of getting registered to vote.
By the middle 1960s “we were running people for office and we needed their votes so we needed them registered,” Middleton said.
Not everyone shared his passion for change, he said.
“Some were not in league with what we were doing and were trying to undermine us,” Middleton said of both races in the community.
Locket said some blacks, especially those who were well-connected and living comfortably, were reluctant to rock the status quo early in the movement because they felt loyal to some in the white community.
Whites did not use violence, but attempted to subvert the movement and keep blacks from getting elected through other means, Lockett said.
“They would buy someone a chicken box or give them $50 and get them to attack black candidates,” he said.
Citizens for Action put up black candidates for city council in Franklin but initially they were defeated, Middleton said. The group persevered until the color barrier of elected officials was broken.
“Eventually our efforts were a success,” said Middleton, whose brother Charles “Butch” Middleton is now serving on the parish council.
While these activists helped break down the barriers, each one of them expressed concern in different ways that black youth today do not know the history of the struggle and appreciate their opportunities.
Many young blacks think everything has always been OK in St. Mary Parish,” Lockett said. “They have become nonchalant and very apathetic.”
Marva Paul said she is disappointed in how many young blacks are not registered. She said it should be important to everyone that they have a choice and a vote in their government.
Human nature is to seek the path of least resistance, Ed Paul said. Everyone, blacks included, need to resist that tendency, he said.
That includes working for an education, working to instill values and morals in children, resisting destructive vices, respect for other human beings and deciding to do something with their opportunities in “a brave new world,” Ed Paul said.
Party affiliation of the races
White Black Other
Democratic 35 78 29
Republican 36 3 21.8
Other Party 29 19 49.2
Political party racial composition
White Black Other
Democratic 44.4 53 2.6
Republican 91.8 4.2 4
Other Party 67.8 23.9 8.3