A dozen times over three decades, Claiborne Parish resident Frederick Douglass Lewis had tried to register to vote in Louisiana, only to be denied time after time.
During his adult life, he had held numerous jobs to feed his family. He worked as a farmer, carpenter, stonemason and insurance salesman. He also taught Sunday School.
In almost every way, Lewis, who was born in 1905, had done his best to do what was right. All he had ever wanted was just a chance, a fair fight if nothing else, to enjoy the rights afforded to white Americans.
Lewis paid taxes but did not benefit as much from the taxes he paid. Because he was not allowed to register to vote, he didn’t have a say in government. He could not serve on the police jury, school board or in the state Legislature.
After years of frustration, Lewis decided he and his African American brothers had to do more.
On a summer night in 1965, he and a handful of other black men secretly formed a new chapter in Homer of an organization that would help bring about significant change in civil rights in Louisiana.
These men became members of the Louisiana-born group known as the Deacons for Defense and Justice. It sought, among other things, to protect those, black or white, who fought to advance the liberties and freedoms that had only been provided to white Americans.
Newly released documents of the FBI’s efforts to track the Deacons and the Ku Klux Klan a half century ago provide an inside look at the black men like Lewis who risked their lives to protect their communities. The LSU Manship School of Mass Communication’s Cold Case Project obtained the documents through the Freedom of Information Act.
Created in Jonesboro, the Deacons spread to Bogalusa and then formed other main chapters in Homer and Ferriday. FBI documents and recent and older interviews with Deacons and other activists in archives at Stanford University and the Wisconsin Historical Society chart the formation of the group in each town and identify the men who not only fought for civil rights but also saved lives.
The FBI first learned of the Deacons in early January 1965 and was informed a month later that the group planned to arm its members to defend their communities against attacks from the Klan and other white segregationists. At a time when the Klan was initiating violent attacks in black communities throughout the state, the FBI feared a potential war between Klansmen and Deacons.
By that summer, agents in Claiborne Parish questioned Sheriff R.W. Wasson. He said he knew most of the members, including Lewis, adding that many were long-time residents and none had records of violence.
Homer Deacon Joe Lester Green, who operated a grocery store, told agents that Deacons met every Tuesday night at the Masonic Hall with an average attendance of 10 to 12 members.
SEGREGATIONIST WILLIE RAINACH
With less than 5,000 residents, Homer, located 35 miles northeast of Shreveport and 20 miles south of the Arkansas line, was the parish seat of Claiborne Parish, its courthouse constructed months before the Civil War broke out. In 1965, there were five traffic lights, one bank and several segregated businesses downtown, including the Purple Cow restaurant and Rex’s Barbershop.
Reportedly named for the Greek poet Homer, the town was 17 miles southwest of the Summerfield home of one of Louisiana’s most toxic segregationists, Willie Rainach, who served in the Louisiana Legislature, headed the racist Louisiana Association Citizens’ Councils in 1958 and failed in his bid for governor in 1960. Rainach also led a statewide purge of black voters from the rolls. Once enforcement of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 began, Rainach founded the first private school for whites in Claiborne Parish.
Legislators like Rainach passed laws that made racial segregation legal in every aspect of life. There had long been water fountains in public places marked “white” and “colored.” Students attending black schools in Claiborne Parish, like those throughout the state, used textbooks handed down from white schools. In many cases, pages were torn out.
In the Homer newspaper, political attack ads denounced TIME Magazine for naming Dr. Martin Luther King its “Man of the Year” and urged people to use their votes for governor to “Defeat King, CORE, NAACP and this type radical influence.”
For as long as anyone could remember, life had been dictated by white segregationists who met in public schools to openly discuss opposition to integration, while blacks were forced to meet privately in homes or in churches to advocate change to the old system.
The views of William Rainach reigned over Claiborne Parish during the decades when Frederick Lewis was denied the right to vote and the power that came with it. It would take a strong and persistent alliance to combat Rainach’s influence and break down the long-standing segregationist policies.
CORE, THE LEAGUE & ONE CHURCH
The Deacons for Defense and Justice in Homer likely would have never been established were it not for the Claiborne Parish Civic League, founded in the 1950s. The league had not gained much momentum until Lewis, the newly elected president, revived it in January of 1965.
In testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1960, Lewis, then 55, said that when poll taxes were abolished in Louisiana in 1934, he and a friend went to register. In the Claiborne Parish courthouse, the two men were stopped by the sheriff, who asked, “What election you boys expect to vote in?”
“All of them,” Lewis answered.
The sheriff responded, “Well, I tell you, anybody come in here trying to vote, trying to vote in the white primary, is going to get the hell knocked out of them.”
Lewis filled out his form anyway but was told by the registrar of voters–without a valid explanation–that he did not qualify. Over the years, his attempts to register were continuously thwarted, and by 1960, when he appeared before the commission, he was still not registered.
Four years later, only 96 out of 9,755 African American residents in Claiborne Parish were registered.
But with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Lewis successfully guided voter registration efforts in Homer and advocated for monumental change. At the center of the movement and of the black community was Friendship Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church, founded in the early 1900s, where voter registration plans were conceived, perfected and enacted.
Long a refuge for blacks, the church–a humble wooden structure–is where Lewis began one of his main objectives, to establish a Head Start Program for African American youth, according to a National Register of Historic Places application filed in 2016 by the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.
Klan publications often raged against Head Start, a federal program designed to prepare children age five and under from low-income families for school.
When the superintendent refused Lewis’ plan for Head Start, he recruited help from the Congress for Racial Equality, better known as CORE, which masterminded the planning and implementation and created a budget for the program.
LEGACY OF THE HOMER DEACONS
At a voter registration meeting at the Friendship church, munitions worker and longtime parish resident George Dodd discussed the fact that local police would not protect blacks from Klan attacks. He felt the black community could provide that protection with some organizational help.
Soon some of the men from Homer talked to friends in Jonesboro, who had created the first Deacons organization. The Jonesboro Deacons assisted Homer in becoming the third town in Louisiana to establish a chapter.
Organized in June 1965, the Homer Deacons chose Dodd as president and Lewis as vice president. The FBI documents indicate that the group started with 12 members, and a Deacon later told an interviewer from CORE that there may have been as many as 40 members at one time.
That summer, FBI agents questioned Dodd about the Deacons. He said the group’s purpose was to “meet force with force” when the Klan or segregationists used “terror tactics” against blacks.
By then, the civil rights movement in the parish had gained traction. After meeting with civil rights leaders, the parish hired black policemen.
The first successful integration in the parish was that of the Claiborne Parish Library. Leaders of the movement followed this success by testing restaurants in the area. These tests, which were like sit-ins, resulted in the integration of four restaurants, including the Majestic, the Purple Cow and Steak House. Lawsuits were filed to test the new civil rights laws against discrimination and segregation. Targeted were the school board, hospital and other public entities.
By 1966, the Head Start Program that Frederick Lewis first imagined as president of the Claiborne Parish Civic League was finally established. Sponsored by the Southern Consumer Education Foundation, the program started in five black churches: Friendship CME, Ebenezer Baptist, Friendship Baptist, Dolly Chapel CME and a church in Athens.
In Homer and Claiborne Parish, the Deacons, though prepared for bloodshed if it came to that, achieved their goals without a single violent encounter, according to the FBI documents. Their success came instead through unity with church groups and other activities and an aggressive agenda.
Through their alliance, the Deacons and CORE managed to begin the process of uprooting the seeds of hatred that Willie Rainach and other segregationists had embraced decades earlier.
According to FBI documents, members of the Deacons for Defense and Justice in Homer included President George Dodd, Vice President Frederick Lewis, Secretary Otis Chatman, Financial Secretary Joe Lester Green, Treasurer Roy Smith, and members Bill Pitts, Emerson Banks, Grant Banks, Napoleon Green, Othar Lewis, Willie James Morris and James Bennett.
Note: This is the third story in a four-part series documenting the Deacons for Defense and Justice in Louisiana in the 1960s.