Ferriday, La.—David Whatley, the first black student to integrate Ferriday High in 1966, returned from tortuous days at school only to face just as many threats outside his home. Come nightfall, he’d study his lessons by a spotlight illuminating his grandmother’s lawn while keeping watch for violent Klansmen enraged over his involvement in the civil rights movement.
In 1965, Klansmen had bombed the home of Whatley’s neighbor, Robert L. “Buck” Lewis Jr., who had raced outside with a shotgun to defend his family against the perpetrators. Minutes later, he, not his attackers, was arrested.
Not far from Lewis’ home lived Antonne Duncan, who days later ran through a Klan roadblock when he and other African American men transported Lewis home after his release from jail. Later on, Anthony “Lucky” McCraney’s gas station was firebombed, marking the sixth act of racial violence in Ferriday within a two-month period, according to CORE documents. Klansmen had learned that McCraney was a member of a secret organization of black activists, the Deacons for Defense and Justice.
These men had long been outraged by one horrid memory – the 1964 arson murder of Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris. No one was ever arrested for the killing. Morris, a black man who had operated a business with a devoted interracial clientele for 30 years, had become a role model for young black men, many of whom got their first jobs as children helping Morris around his shop.
David Whatley was among the men inspired by Morris’ life and angered by his murder, and he would become the youngest member of the group that took on Klansmen and bad cops when they organized the Ferriday chapter of the Deacons for Defense and Justice. The Deacons were unlike any such group before or since. Born in Jonesboro before spreading most notably to Bogalusa, Homer and Ferriday, the Deacons’ main purpose was to fight fire with fire and to protect their communities.
Violent Klansmen had long been embedded with corrupt cops, some of whom wore robes themselves. The Deacons believed that arming themselves was the only way to hold off the Klan and protect their homes, neighborhoods and the white and black civil rights workers who came from across the country to help achieve equality.
‘RIFLES ON OUR SHOULDERS’
Ferriday’s population of more than 4,500 residents was roughly half black and half white in the mid-1960s, a time when black citizens quietly celebrated civil rights wins and white supremacists desperately tried to halt legislative and social change.
Representatives of the non-violent Congress of Racial Equality flocked to Ferriday, deemed an “outlaw town” by the U.S. Justice Department’s head civil rights attorney, John Doar. CORE’s main task was to test whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were being implemented, and for this their workers suffered in Ferriday.
Two white CORE members, who practiced the non-violent approach championed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were beaten. One of the men who was attacked, Michael Clurman, told the Concordia Sentinel in 2007 that his co-worker, Mel Atcheson of Iowa, was beaten and kicked in the face by a white man on the streets of Ferriday in July 1965.
Atcheson, who was familiar with the Deacons for Defense and Justice, later told FBI agent Don McGorty that Ferriday resident Victor Graham had contacted the Jonesboro Deacons and that a month later, in August 1965, the Ferriday chapter was formed.
The creation of the Deacons’ groups is outlined in a 606-page FBI file released through the Freedom of Information Act to the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication Cold Case Project, which investigates Klan activities.
McGorty reported that the Deacons membership in Ferriday totaled 23. They met weekly and conducted all-night patrols. In addition to each member owning his own weapon, the agent wrote, the unit allegedly possessed three semi-automatic carbines and two walkie-talkies used when patrolling.
David Whatley, who was a CORE member himself while a student at Ferriday High School, confirmed in a recent interview that the Ferriday Deacons were armed.
“We’d walk nights with rifles on our shoulders like you would see in some foreign countries,” Whatley said.
Whatley also was at a great risk for Klan attacks because CORE workers were housed in his grandmother’s home, where he also lived. Their only protection came from the Deacons, he said.
One night in January 1966 as Whatley slept, his first cousin and fellow Deacon, Joe Davis, fell asleep during his shift to guard the Whatley home. Klansmen took advantage of this, throwing a bomb just outside Whatley’s bedroom window. But only the detonator exploded, not the bomb itself, sparing the family from tragedy.
Whatley contacted CORE’s central office after the attack, sparking an FBI investigation. He said the bureau concluded that if the bomb’s two sticks of blasting powder would have ignited, the house might have been destroyed.
Two suspects were identified in FBI documents as members of the Silver Dollar Group, a Klan offshoot believed responsible for Morris’ murder and seven others in Louisiana and Mississippi over a three-year period.
Whatley said Klansmen also shot out the lights on his grandmother’s house and drove around the home several times for days to intimidate the family.
“We would make it known that we were alert and we were awake, and they would flee,” Whatley said. “This went on month after month while I was in this school system.”
BEATINGS, BOMBINGS & ESCAPES
Robert Lewis, whose home was bombed by Klansmen, drew inspiration from the sacrifices of the CORE workers. Lewis decided that if two visiting white men like Atcheson and Clurman were willing to take a beating in the name of civil rights in Ferriday, it was time for him to take a stand, too, and in August 1965, Lewis got involved with the CORE-sponsored Ferriday Freedom Movement.
That drew the ire of Klansmen, and three months later, some of them snuck up to his house and threw a gasoline bomb at it. Lewis raced outside with a shotgun. With five children at home, Lewis kept the weapon unloaded. When he saw one of the perpetrators fleeing the scene, he instinctively raised his gun and pulled the trigger, only to hear an empty click.
Despite the damage the bomb caused to his home and the threat it posed to his family, Lewis was handcuffed by Ferriday police and charged with aggravated assault, according to FBI and CORE documents. Later, he was transported to the parish courthouse jail in Vidalia.
Lewis later told the Concordia Sentinel that it was a “dreaded thing” for a black man to be placed into a police car and taken to jail.
When Lewis was released after serving two weeks, Whatley and Antonne Duncan were part of a Deacon team organized to get him home safely. Duncan believed Klansmen would await Lewis’ release and that deputies would notify the Klan that a black activist was being released from jail.
Duncan and a few other young, armed Deacons piled into his brother’s canary yellow Pontiac to rescue Lewis, who also received help from a white bondsman from New Orleans. Had Duncan and the others not rescued Lewis, the police might have dropped him off at the railroad crossing in Vidalia, where Klansmen often waited when black people were released from the jail.
Duncan was at the wheel, and when they reached the tracks with Lewis in the car, they bolted past Klansmen waiting there. They quickly gave chase, pursuing the yellow Pontiac for several miles before Duncan watched their headlights start fading away. Soon, Lewis was back in his Ferriday home and reunited with his wife and children.
That was not the only time Whatley helped an imprisoned black man in Ferriday.
Once arrested himself on a false claim and held in the local jail for two weeks, Whatley said a primary function of the Ferriday Deacons was to protest the unlawful arrests of local black men.
“The main force that we had was marches,” he said. “We’d march on the jail. If they held somebody in there that actually hadn’t done anything but was falsely accused, we would support them by showing up in court.”
One unique feature of the Ferriday Deacons was that they had what Whatley called the “Junior Deacons League,” composed of a half dozen teenagers.
As a Junior Deacon, he and other members were vigilant and on call when the older Deacons needed them.
“It was kind of a barbershop-type of thing where you sit around, you talk about what has happened, who did this and who did that and what to expect next,” Whatley recalled.
Although both the Deacons and its younger subgroup were secretive, they let members of the black community know they would protect them from the Klan and law enforcement. They handed out flyers and leaflets to local congregations and spoke at churches.
Whatley said Deacons held meetings at Mercy Seat Baptist Church, where shoe shop owner Frank Morris had served as an usher, as well as Mount Olive Baptist Church and St. Charles Catholic Church.
“You open the doors of your church, you tell your members what’s going on and let them know that this is good for everybody involved,” Whatley said, “So when there was a problem, there was a way of communicating to them what was going on.”
The Deacons’ connection to churches inspired the group’s name. Jonesboro Deacon and evangelist preacher Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick told the FBI they chose to call the group the Deacons because that indicated it was for the good of all people.
A handful of members throughout the state also served as deacons within their churches, while others worked as teachers, construction workers, farm hands and general laborers.
The late Sammy Davis Jr.—no relation to the famous entertainer—was elected Ferriday’s first black mayor in 1984. He told the FBI in 1965 that though he was not a member, Deacons had sought his advice and counsel. Davis furnished the bureau a list of Ferriday Deacons, and he identified former Harlem Globetrotter Johnny Lloyd, who was a four-sport coach at the local black school Sevier High, as a Deacon.
When the group began to phase out in Ferriday and the other towns by 1966, the FBI stopped keeping close tabs on the Deacons. The dismantlement was due to several reasons, including the broader enforcement of civil rights laws, the progression of the Vietnam War and the election of African Americans to school boards, town councils and police juries. Black people also became deputies and police officers.
The Deacons came to life solely to protect their communities and others victimized by Klansmen and police. Once their mission was complete, members quietly returned to their modest lives.
For years, David Whatley has wondered how men can be so motivated by hate. Battered and ostracized while he attended Ferriday High, Whatley would go on to serve in Vietnam. He would return home wounded physically and confounded mentally over how he could have been considered good enough to risk his life for his country in Vietnam but not good enough to attend the local high school.
“We spent all those years hating each other for reasons we don’t know,” Whatley said.
Whatley said it was important for Deacons and activists to demand change in lawful yet effective ways during the civil rights era, and he said that still holds true for the nationwide protests against police abuses today. He said anyone who wants to resolve racial injustices and divisions should do so legally, rather than violently.
“Let’s do it intellectually–not forcefully,” Whatley said.
According to FBI documents, Ferriday Deacons included David Whatley, Leo Graham, Victor Graham, Herman Brown, Levado Brown, Richard Thompson, Samuel White, Frank Fleming, James Fleming, Fred Brown, Shine Calhoun, Stafford Redvine, FNU Jones, Anthony “Lucky” McCraney, Simon Smith, Antonne Duncan, Lionel Hooper, Vernon Smith, Anthony White, Joe Davis, Jeffrey Scott, Mack Moore and Johnny Lloyd.