Deacons group protected ‘outlaw town’ Ferriday’s black community from Klansmen in 1960s

Photo Credit: Alyssa Berry/LSU Manship School News Service

Published: June 22, 2020

By: Karli Carpenter, LSU Manship School News Service

Watch the video by Abigail Hendren

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.

David Whatley was just a teenager when this photo was snapped a half century ago. By 1965, he was a member of the Deacons for Defense and Justice junior group and in 1966 he became the first black student to attend the all-white Ferriday High School. (Photo courtesy of the Concordia Sentinel)

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.

Read more at brproud.com

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