Black, tired, happy feet have been marching and protesting for “Black Lives Matter” causes in Jackson Parish for a long time because injustice is and has been alive and well throughout the parish. Racism still occupies a seat at the table of brotherhood. Marchers and protesters will continue the journey until Jackson Parish and surrounding communities are awakened to their voices crying out for change. The voices of these young marchers who are saying we have had enough, it’s time for change, must not yield to the pressure to silence and undermine their commitment to secure racial justice and equality for all people. People of all colors have the right to and must march peacefully and fight vigorously to end systemic racism. They must continue to fight until the walls of injustice and discrimination come tumbling down. May the young protesters be encouraged by the words of the Negro National Anthem, …let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us, facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us (black, white, brown, yellow) march on till victory is won…
History reveals that in the nineteen sixties Jackson Parish was considered a “hot spot” of racism and was the scene of months of civil protests and unrest created primarily by actions of fear and intimidation on behalf of the local KKK. It was also during this period that the Deacons for Defense came into existence, an organization that became the counter to the KKK. The Town of Jonesboro became a venue for and the center of direct action by citizens of color. Churches were burned, KKK demonstrations were routinely held, sit-ins were staged at local white owned restaurants such as M&D’s Café on main street, local white law enforcement actions were challenged, African American students were arrested for attempting to integrate the local library, and a large number of African American students were hauled off to jail in the bucket compartment of a garbage truck for protesting at a local white owned grocery store located in the Black community. Caravans of KKK cars with covered license plates frequently made their way through the streets of communities of color tossing out propaganda literature in their wake.
While Jackson Parish has no statues of confederate generals mounted on horses, confederate flags flying in public spaces, or parks and schools inundated with and named after confederate soldiers, research indicates that Jackson Parish was named in honor of President Andrew Jackson who was a slave holder, a supporter of state’s rights, supported the institution of slavery and he oppressed Native Americans. It was Andrew Jackson who removed Native Americans from their ancestral lands. Jackson parish is also cited for having taken over 40 years to settle a desegregation lawsuit filed by Margaret M. Johnson in 1969 against the Jackson Parish school board. More conspicuous research disclosed that African American citizens have never been employed in the Jackson Parish Registrar of Voters office, which provides another reason that black and white feet must continue to march and protest against injustice anywhere and everywhere.
I reflected upon a personal and an unforgettable experience I had in 1960. Sheriff Van Beasley, (in a make shift interrogation) threatened me and several of my teenage African American friends (with my dad at my side) with the words; “Boy, I don’t care who you are, who your daddy is, I am going to stomp a mud hole in you if you don’t leave white girls alone.” Those became chilling and fighting words and stemmed from an allegation of which I had no personal knowledge. The claim by Sherriff Beasley was totally inaccurate and based upon conjecture and false pretense. However, those words made me feel lower than a cockroach, which people stomp and kill. I felt that I did not matter, that I did not belong in Jonesboro or better yet, I had no place in America. That was one of the rare moments that my dad, a mild mannered personable man, well respected by both black and white citizens stepped up and said: “You will have to stomp a mudhole in me as well!”
After the confrontation and for whatever reason, Sheriff Beasley excused me and my dad but continued the interrogation of my other friends. Those words were etched in my memory and all these years later remain in my mind. Some thirty plus years later, in 1997, when we relocated to Jonesboro, Sheriff Van Beasley, (whom I want to believe now had a contrite and repentant heart) came to our house (totally unexpected) and parked his big white vehicle in our driveway. As he emerged from the vehicle, he greeted me and extended a hand of friendship, welcoming me back to Jonesboro. He then presented me with a deputy sheriff’ commission and badge which I held for many years. I am not sure how much contrition was involved, but I am sure it took a lot of courage for him to go to a guy that he was going to “stomp a mudhole in” and in his way, so to speak, apologize as he did in his own unspoken way.
Flash forward to 2006 when Leslie C. Thompson was elected as the first African American mayor of the Town of Jonesboro and two weeks after his election, a group of white citizens began a recall petition to have him removed from office. Six years later, in a second term, Mayor Thompson was indicted, convicted on three counts of malfeasance in office by an all-white jury and sentenced to serve 11 years at hard labor, plus five years of probation and pay $51,000 dollars in restitution to the Town of Jonesboro. Mayor Thompson served a total of four years, one half of which was served in state prison. Upon being released from state prison, Thompson successfully filed a writ of certiorari with the Louisiana State Supreme Court requesting the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling of the appellate court. The Louisiana State Supreme Court overturned all three counts based on prosecutorial misconduct due to racial bias. Nevertheless, Mayor Thompson was recently retried (February 2020) on one count of malfeasance in office which ended in a mistrial.
Looking back at past events and the history of racism in Jackson parish, reflecting on the fact that just a few years ago while African American citizens were protesting at the trial of Mayor Thompson, standing on the lawn of the court house expressing one’s right to peacefully assemble and protest, the court house sprinkler system was turned on to discourage citizens protesting.
The most recent protest march and rally in Jonesboro occurred on a Sunday in June2020. Days following the rally, I had a moment to talk with Mayor Leslie C. Thompson (who attended but did not speak at the rally) regarding the event. These are some of his reflections and thoughts about the marches and protests sweeping across the world after the public killing of men like George Floyd and most recently the murder of Rayshard Brooks, his thoughts about the endless murdering of young black men: “As we march and protest, the issue is not whether we are able to control the crowd but whether we are able to control our destiny moving forward. We, as a people have been crippled and then blamed for limping for far too long. Systemic, institutional racism has been Americas’ tool to demoralize and dehumanize Blacks in this country since slavery. George Floyd’s murder presents productivity for the first time in my generation, a legitimate intellectual dialogue, designed to confront and ultimately eliminate this evil from our society.”
I also had an opportunity to chat with Police Chief James “Spike” Harris about policing in Jonesboro in view of the killing of black men in America as well as the recent march and protest held at the courthouse square in honor of the life of George Floyd. These are some of his comments: ‘As the first African Amerian Chief of Police for the Town of Jonesboro, Louisiana, I must admit that the recent killings of young African American men by law enforcement has been exceedingly difficult to stomach. The recent protest march was led by many African American men and women who did an outstanding job of putting this event together. We have our problems here in the town of Jonesboro, however in light of everything going on around the world, I can honestly say from my perspective that this community is standing strong and we have yet to have any issues with rioting, killings, looting and destruction of businesses that we see happening in many cities across the nation and world We have a long way to go with race relations in the United States especially when it comes to education, economics, employment, housing, health care, racial injustice and other areas.”
Communities of color across America have suffered much too long under an oppressive regime of systemic racism, a system that judges Black people by outward appearances. African American citizens have had to contend with a system of discrimination that judges and devalues them based solely upon the color of their skin. May the rallies and protests produce a nation of repentant and contrite hearts that will bring an end to years of pain and suffering, years of intentional racial torture and poverty, years of exclusion from meaningful educational opportunities, decent housing and quality health care, and the years of lynching and killing of young men of color by police. May justice come for every American citizen.
The journey and fight to and for true freedom and overcoming injustice and racial discrimination is in the hands of young African Americans like Ja’Keshia Lard and a cadre of young black and white protestors who are marching around the world chanting “enough is enough.” The torch is being passed to them and the eyes of the nation are upon them. People struggling today in ghettoes and slums, in rural poverty, in a constant war for survival are depending on them. They have to take up the banner and lead the way for substantive change in the nation. It is their voice, their activism, their persistence for change that will make the difference.
Older African American citizens like me are standing on the sidelines, emotionally broken and teary eyed at the protests and marches, because we have tasted bitterness, worked the vineyards, been educated in the school of hard knocks. We are watching, encouraging and cheering them on. People are counting on them, people born and unborn are depending and counting on them to change the world and make America a better nation for all. We encourage them to keep the faith, to never give up on their hopes, dreams and aspirations, to fight a good fight, and to do justice to all mankind and we beg of them, please do not let this moment for criminal justice reform, for equality in America, pass or slip away without waging a vigorous fight for change. Fight for justice for George Floyd, and for people all over the nation to have the right to breathe.
This is their moment in history, their call to duty, their season and their opportunity to make lasting changes in Amerian politics. This is their moment to stand firm in addressing issues of structural and systemic racism, abject poverty, poor schools, blighted neighborhoods, police brutality, political and economic inequality that has kept people of color yoked to failure, pain and misery, oppression and caged in an environment that is hostile, and unforgiving. This is no longer acceptable. Together, let us once and for all send institutionalized racism and injustice back to the pits of hell from whence it came. A change must come!! God Bless and keep America.
Dr. Herbert Simmons, Jr. is an associate Professor, Department of Criminal Justice, Grambling State University, former President, Grambling State University Faculty Senate and former Chair, Department of Consumer Education and Resource Management, Howard University, Washington, D.C.