Celebrate Black History: Plaquemine Riot!
PLAQUEMINE, LA (WAFB) - You may remember vividly the fire hoses used on black churchgoers wearing their Sunday best in Alabama. Those images are burned in our memories from television of the day. However, an event far more dangerous and dramatic took place in Plaquemine, Louisiana on September 1, 1963.
James Farmer, the founder of the Congress On Racial Equality (CORE), had been on a crusade to inspire local black populations to recognize the vast discrimination based on race and take a stand against it. He set out with volunteers from up North but as he moved through the South, he picked up Southerners as well.
When he hit Plaquemine, he found an already active civil rights movement. Linda Harleaux, who was a teenager in 1963, was the daughter of one of the three top Plaquemine leaders of the movement. W.W. Harleaux was principal of the black-only Iberville Elementary School.
Linda Harleaux and others were instructed by the CORE delegation on how to lead non-violent protests, how to expect to be arrested, and how to behave in order to be beyond reproach. Linda said CORE also showed her how to link arms with other protestors to keep authorities from breaking them apart, or piercing their protest lines.
Linda said the movement became a youth movement when arrests were hanging in the balance. The threat of arrest was enough to deter older African-Americans who also feared for their jobs.
"That's who did the demonstrations and everything: the young people," Harleaux said. "It wasn't like the older adults, because like I said they were afraid. They didn't want nobody to know that they were out here doing that. And like we would demonstrate, walk up to City Hall and different places. They would come and just stand on the side and look!"
The street on which Linda Harleaux lives bears the name of her father, a salute by the City of Plaquemine to his significant contributions in winning civil rights for blacks.
She walked to the site of the former Plymouth Rock Church. There's a marble platform for a brass plaque on what is now a parking lot. There is a rusting furnace and its chimney made out of rusting metal that probably dates back to the 60s. Cardinal's Super Market is still intact and sits adjacent to it on the corner.
Plymouth Rock was where the black community held its rallies and classes on how to protest. It was the headquarters for the movement in the town.
Film shot by a New York crew a week earlier in Plymouth Rock Church showed about 500 people, mostly young, in their 30s and under. The windows were open and the faces were wet with sweat. It was August and September.
Ronnie Moore was a Baton Rougean who had volunteered for CORE and was sent to Plaquemine to help out. He stood before the crowd, chanting the things that showed discrimination in their daily lives, and in a rhythm they would chant "Give Me Freedom." It was just one of many anthems shared in these moments.
In late August 1963, James Farmer was in Plaquemine, and his speeches were thrilling and inspiring. Many whites in Plaquemines saw the CORE volunteers, and especially Farmer, as stirring up whites who were "just fine" before CORE arrived.
That's why when Plaquemine Police heard another rally would take at the church, they enlarged their response. They enlisted whites who owned horses and troopers on horseback to storm the church with tear gas and cattle prods. As the crowded church group screamed, horses pounded into the building stepping on people, and riders threw tear gas and landed a pre-cursor to the taser anywhere they could make contact.
Outside people ran for cover. Many ran to homes of friends nearby. One teenage boy said he hid in a nearby cemetery.
Farmer headed out across the yard in the back of the church and found himself outside the Good Citizen Funeral Home. They quickly took him in to hide him.
Farmer wrote this passage in his journal about that night.
"Doors were kicked-in and houses invaded as the troopers loudly proclaimed, "We want Farmer!"
Negroes beaten in the streets were told, 'We'll let you go if you tell us where Farmer is."
Two Negro girls heard troopers say, 'When we catch Farmer, We're going to lynch him!'
Hearing those bloodthirsty threats, I started to walk over and turn myself in. I was stopped by local citizens who insisted that if I surrendered, I would not be alive in the morning. They persuaded me to take refuge in a hearse. With another hearse as a decoy, I thus escaped from the frenzied mob, composed by law enforcement officers."
Farmers notes are detailed and can be read in his journal that he wrote for publication on CORE's mission in Louisiana in 1963. It's fascinating. CORE also has a different description for distribution nationally.
Linda Harleaux said that some of the people who were active in civil rights activities back then are city officials now.
9News visited Plaquemine Police Headquarters to find its staff are more than 50 percent black now.
"Well, you know, every now and then you have a situation that seems to appear to be a little racist. But for the most part, that's non-existent," said Assistant Police Chief Robbie Johnson.
He said when it does appear, they correct it and move on.
On the day after the riot in Plaquemine, Farmer did an interview with WWL in New Orleans. In fading, flickering film, he was asked by a WWL reporter, "Do you think there will be any more Negro demonstrations in Plaquemine, or do you think that the people were quelled by the alleged brutality of last night?" Farmer replied, "Oh I don't think the Negros' demand for freedom can ever be quelled by brutality."
The following is James Farmers' journal about his time in Louisiana in 1963 that was published:
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