Blast from the past! A half century ago the town of Jonesboro was a battleground

CORE volunteers, workers and local activists gather to rebuild Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Jonesboro, one of the two black churches destroyed by arsonists in January 1965. Of note shown are(l-r) 1st on front row: Alvin Culpepper; 3rd – Charlie Fenton (CORE); 4th- Rev. E. H. Houston (church pastor). Second row, fifth from left, Cathy Patterson (CORE). Top row, fourth from left, Ronnie Moore (CORE). In the doorway, left to right, Mike Lesser (CORE) and Jonesboro residents Eddie Scott, Lee Gilbert, and Freeman Knox. (Source: Photo courtesy of the Ronnie Moore Papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA)

On a July night in Jonesboro in 1964, the rumble of engines encroached on a quiet, black neighborhood then known as “The Quarters.” As residents stepped out onto their porches, they observed a line of cars—maybe 50 in all—with two to four men in each vehicle, their faces covered by white hoods.
As the Ku Klux Klan motorcade paraded through the neighborhood the intruders jeered and cursed. In their wake, sheets of paper fluttered through the air before settling onto the unpaved road. Once the cars moved on, neighbors gathered the litter from the streets. The KKK leaflets threatened retaliation if African-Americans engaged with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights group that assisted black communities with voter registration and integration of public facilities.

CORE arrived in Jonesboro earlier in this “Freedom Summer” of 1964. The activists busied themselves organizing voter registration drives from within the confines of black churches. They also joined demonstrations to desegregate public accommodations, such as the restaurants and the community swimming pool. CORE’s presence, as well as the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, moved racial tensions to a new height.

Alarmed by the motor parade and the threat against CORE some residents ran back to their homes to defend their property, while another group headed to the Freedom House, CORE’s lodging, and stood guard until daylight. The next day hundreds of black residents crammed wall-to-wall onto the second floor of their Masonic Hall building, the KKK leaflets clenched tight into their fists.

One attendee at this meeting was Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick. Named after the abolitionist, Kirkpatrick was a force in both stature and ambition. He stood tall at 6-feet-4-inches and weighed 260 pounds. Formerly a football star at Grambling University, Kirkpatrick in 1964 was the gym and football coach at Jackson High School, the segregated black school in Jonesboro. The students nicknamed him “Boogie Chillen” because he carried his guitar around the school and played songs during classroom breaks.

This birth of the Deacons for Defense and Justice in Louisiana came at a time when Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was preaching non-violent civil disobedience. However, Klan violence against black neighborhoods in rural areas like Jonesboro was ramping up with frequent cross burnings, arsons, harassment and murder. Armed self-defense seemed like the only option, and the Deacons may have been the first, and certainly became the largest, group in Louisiana to espouse this view.

Six months after the Masonic Hall meeting, in January 1965, Jonesboro CORE Representative Charles Joseph Fenton advised an FBI agent of the establishment of the Deacons. For the first time, the organization was on the radar at the bureau, which was closely monitoring Klan activities. A young, white New Yorker thirsty to make a difference, Fenton had taken on the role as liaison between CORE and the Deacons.

Fenton explained that the Deacons had “purposes much the same” as CORE. However, according to an FBI summary of the interview, Fenton also said the group was “more militant than CORE and that it would be more inclined to use violence in dealing with any violent opposition encountered in civil rights matters.” He added that armed Deacons patrolled and defended the black section of Jonesboro at night.

In March 1965, according to FBI files, a United Klans unit from Monroe arrived in Jonesboro with plans to retaliate against civil rights activists wanting to integrate the white high school. Local Klansmen sometimes asked out-of-town units to handle certain projects. Targeted in Jonesboro were the black high schools, CORE headquarters and black neighborhoods.
When the Monroe Klansmen made it to Jonesboro, they were greeted by three police officers, including the sheriff, who warned them to abandon their project because the FBI was aware of their plans. Also alerted was James Malcolm Edwards, a chiropractor in Jonesboro, who was named Grand Dragon (or statewide president) of the Louisiana Realm of the United Klans of America in late 1964.

In late February 1965, shortly before the Deacons filed formal papers with the Louisiana Secretary of State to become a nonprofit organization, Kirkpatrick and other members of the Jonesboro group visited Bogalusa. Deacon’s Vice President Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas, as well as Fenton and another CORE activist, William Yates, also went to Washington Parish. There, they met with the Bogalusa Voters and Civic League. Their discussion centered on establishing a Deacons chapter in Bogalusa, the second of what would become four chapters in Louisiana.

According to FBI records, officers who served the Jonesboro Deacons were Percy Lee Bradford, president; Earnest Thomas, vice-president; Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, secretary; Cosetta Jackson, treasurer; and Allen Scherrah, financial secretary. Members included Henry Collins Amos, Otis Martin, Olen Satcher, Elton Lee Patterson, Charlie White, Elmo Jacobs, Harvey Barnes, Edd Barnes, Jesse Lewis, Rudolph Patterson, Hose Barnes, W. C. Flanagan, J. B. Bolds, John Jackson, Johnny Bonier, Asper Reed, Frank Bolds, Joseph Doyle, Edgar Joe, Harvey Johnson, Rev. Sanders Thompson and Army Johnson.

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