This article appeared in the National Times 8 February 1981
STANDOFF IN BUCKEYE AND BAYOU COUNTRY
After 25 years of bitter campaigning, US desegregation policies have come unstuck in a dirt-poor town in the deep South.
"It used to be that southern politics was just 'nigger' politics, you could 'outnigger' the others . . . you get 35 to 40 per cent (of blacks eligible to vote) registered and it's amazing how quick they learned to say need 'Nee-grow' . . . – Andrew Young 1975.
"It infuriates me when people say they're against busing when they're really against integration." – Bill Wilkinson, Grand Wizard of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, 1981.
The burly young white in a cowboy hat strutted out to the middle of the street. With a flourish the unfurled the local paper before setting it alight.
A hundred or so blacks collected on the steps of the Federal courthouse in Alexandria, Louisiana, booed and abused him. A crowd of whites gathered on the pavement opposite cheered as the paper turn to ash.
That edition of the Alexandria Daily Town Talk affronted them because "there's a picture of coloureds on the front page," said an elderly white militant. When police and State troopers nudged the whites back to their side of the street, the tingle of violence in the air resolved itself into jeering and a flurry of placards.
"Only way something will happen is if these niggers get out of the place," said the same man, Angelo Milazzo, a retired grocer.
Alexandria, in red clay country 115 km west of the Mississippi River, is a commercially dispirited, sullenly ugly town in central Louisiana hardly noticed by the outside world between 1864, when it was burnt to the ground by Yankee soldiers, and January 1981.
In January a dispute over school desegregation flared into a battle significant for its timing. Before the nostalgic conservatism of the country was made explicit by the election of Ronald Reagan it was clear that the struggle towards racial equality is stalled.
The lame-duck Congress late last year voted to cut off funding for the Justice Department's enforcement of busing. Carter vetoed the resolution but Reagan has expressed support for it.
Antique, resilient opponents of integration such as Senators Stromboli Thurmond of South Carolina and Jesse Helms of North Carolina are among the titans of the incoming crowd. In a sense their best efforts will waste powder and shot: the fundamental failure of US civil rights legislation of the past quarter-century is that white attitudes towards blacks have hardly changed.
Last December in Charlotte County, Virginia, which is about 100 miles from Washington but decidedly the Deep South, a white man who had shot and killed a young black man he found in his daughter's bedroom was acquitted of first-degree murder. The daughter testified that she had called out, "Don't do it, Daddy." It was known in the town that she was having an affair with the young black and universally agreed after the trial that it would not have been possible to find a jury to convict her father.
Mention of the Deep South continues to invoke such images as the white sheeted fanatics of the Ku Klux Klan, or Governor George Wallace wedged into a doorway at the University of Alabama to prevent the enrolment of two black students.
As it happens, the various Klans are resurgent in the north.
Busing, which has become the symbol of forced integration, is strenuously resisted by whites throughout the country.
Although it is 25 years since the US Supreme Court ordered the public schools desegregated with "all deliberate speed," more than half the nations 6.6 million black students attend schools which are more than half black. A fifth are in schools that are virtually all black, most located in the urban ghettos of the north – in New York, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia.
School buses were stoned in Boston when armed troops escorted children to class. Californians elected anti-busing candidates last November. Since then a Federal Government integration order in Los Angeles has resulted in 25 per cent of white students dropping out of the public school system. Many enrolled in just-opened segregation academies.
Freedom schools, then they are called in the south, where the race rhetoric remains raunchier. In the south civilised whites will tell you openly that they're opposed to integration. "I feel like we've lost our school system," said a courtly older lawyer whose family has lived in or near Alexandria since before the Civil War.
"I hear they want to send those little white girls to an all-Nigra school. It's inhumane," said at genteel librarian in a neighbouring town.
The distinguished political writer Robert Sherrill, who long ago escaped to Washington, DC, said of his native region: "if you find someone is willing to talk about race, it means the south has won."
It was not the first time schools in Alexandria and the surrounding parish had been subjected to a desegregation order but it was the first time the community offered massive resistance.
When Federal Court Judge Nauman Scott ordered several outlying all-white schools be closed, 700 parents at Forest Hills High protested, flew the flag at half-mast, and paraded through the small town as a bugler played Taps.
One set of parents occupied the school for a fortnight, until Judge Scott threatened to imprison them. They responded by setting up their own school in a local church.
The real trouble blew up at Buckeye High, and all white school 32 km from Alexandria. The school, named after a grove of poisonous buckeye bushes, service three scattered all-white hamlets when many residents are Catholic Cajuns, descended from the French-speaking Arcadians of Nova Scotia, who settled in Louisiana. The majority are related.
In this semi-isolated district of pine forests and bayous, simple country pleasures predominate. A Buckeye teacher told me about their pet, an alligator in the oxidation pond behind the school. In summer there are hog roasts in the swamp: in winter, varsity football.
What the desegregation order meant to Buckeye was that 109 junior high students affected by a rezoning were supposed to transfer to a racially mixed school 32 km away. Only 22 did; the others enrolled in schools promptly set up in nearby churches and church halls.
"How far is this going to go?" said Buckeye principal Charles Waites, a thin-lipped, lanky patriot who used to be coach, a significant role in American schools. "Before you know it, you're into socialism."
It is not fair to suggest that all opposition to busing is based on racial prejudice. It is an unwieldy, uneconomic system with its shortcomings most evident in rural districts. The Buckeye kids bused to the integrated school are up for a three hour round trip. Schools are closed irrespective of academic standards for the physical conditions. Northern liberals will argue, as southern segregationist to do, that busing fractures the community.
In the south, States' rights has been a catch-cry of the past century but Americans generally are skittish about Federal Government tinkering in matters close to home. Hard as it was to figure out what he meant, any time on the campaign trail Ronald Reagan said something like "I know from my own experience that our Government increasingly has sought to impose itself between parent and child…" he received a roar of approbation.
Among the Buckeye kids enrolled in private schools were Michelle Laborde, Ramona Carbo and Lynda McNeal, all now 13. Michelle was particularly dismayed because she had been elected cheerleader and class favourite.
When she heard that Buckeye's Junior Pom Pom squad were to be allowed to cheer at senior games, she begged her parents to get her back to the public school.
The Labordes consulted a lawyer and arranged to hand over Michelle's custody to a couple resident in the buckeye zone. The parents of her friends Lynda and Ramona followed suit.
A State Court judge called Richard E. Lee approved custody change and, ignoring a Federal Court threat of contempt, took to personally escorting the girls to school. So Lee in his turn was trailed to Buckeye school by up to 35 reporters and cameramen.
For all their sensitivity about government meddling, Americans are notably serene about the merciless intrusion of the media. "To tell you the truth," said principal Charles Waites "it wasn't so much disruption. After the first hour most of the cameras were gone."
Persued hungrily by the press, Judge Lee became a celebrity about five minutes after becoming a local hero. Congratulatory letters poured in from every State. The ballad of Judge Lee was an instant hit on Alexandria radio. "Thank God for Dick Lee," said a neon sign outside a ramshackle gas station on the road to Buckeye.
Every second lawyer in the Deep South glorying in the handle Lee also claims kinship with the renowned Robert E. A portrait of the Confederate general hangs in Dick Lee's office, over a table with a miniature cannon. On another table is the nest of wooden decoy ducks. Like any good ole boy in Louisiana, Judge Lee spends his spare time hunting.
These days his bulk is smoothed into a pearl-grey lawyer's suit, but Lee used to be a deputy sheriff and is reputed to be fast with his fists.
"Hell," he told me, "Ah hate racism. But we're Americans - when it comes to the point where the Federal Government can tell us where to live then we're in a sad state of affairs . . .
"Do you know right now that at Buckeye High they no longer have a junior football team. Judge Scott has destroyed the values of that community."
What happened in Alexandria actually began in the 1860s when the South lost the Civil War and Congress passed the 14th amendment, guaranteeing equality under the law. The Civil Rights Act a century later initiated what southerners resentfully call the Second Reconstruction. "We went along with it because we didn't want to be thought rednecks and hillbillies," said the lawyer, whose family is part of the ancient regime of Alexandria.
Such families still control the commercial life of the town but the place is economically stagnant and lacks the charm of politically corrupt, oil-rich New Orleans, to the south.
The streets downtown look decayed by day and are deserted by nightfall. What entertainment exists is to be found in the motel bars, burger joints and honkytonks beside the highway in a mile-long strip interrupted by vacant lots and a modern Baptist church with a neon message atop its roof: "Christ in (blink) you we are (blink) saved pray (blink) daily pray (blink) without ceasing (blink) pray . . . "
Next door, is a western-style bar called JR's ("Live Entertainment Mechanical Bull"),a replica of a thousand such bars which have spring up in every two-bit town in America since the success of the film Urban Cowboy.
When Judge Lee visited JR's on an uncommonly blustery Friday night early in January, he was given a standing ovation. "That man's got a lot of guts," Dianne Eddlemon, a luminous honey-blonde of 20 working behind the bar, told me. "It's the first time someone's stood up for the whites."
Alexandria has 50,000 residents, two-thirds of them white, and it was difficult to unearth a contrary opinion among them. Most seemed to be minutely informed about the judicial toe-to-toe. What especially incenced them was the federal judge's refusal to accept the custody change as valid.
“Ah have a very deep feeling for mah country,” said Ina Laborde, an energetic union organiser and the mother of the popular pom-pom girl. Mrs Laborde was the spokeswoman for the girls’ parents and , as such, also besieged by the media.
“It’s very sad when I see the American flag flying now,” she told me. “I think of friends and relatives who died so we could live in a free country and I’m having trouble believing we’re free.”
“States’ rights have been used here from time immemorial to maintain the status quo,” said Louis Berry. There are several other black lawyers in Alexandria but Berry is most frequently involved in civil rights lawsuits. His office looks out on the shantytown houses where the blacks live. The KKK burned a cross on the vacant lot opposite late last year.
Pushing 65, Berry easily recalls a time when busing was not an issue in Alexandria. In his school days the white kids caught a bus and the black kids walked – a good distance, since the nearest school they could attend was across the Red River and in another parish.
Years later the blacks were permitted to ride at the back of the bus (and the front of the train, immediately behind the engine).
Berry filed the original integration suit against the local school board in 1967. It seemed to him almost comical that his plaintiff in that case is now grown up with a child of her own at school, “But, we’re still in litigation.”
On the first day that Federal Court Judge Scott hauled Judge Lee, the Buckeye three, their parents, school principal Charles Waites and a few others before him on contempt charges, I stood in the lobby downstairs chatting with some ancient backwoodsmen who’d travelled to town to show support for Lee.
The most loquacious was Dewey Phillips, better known as .101, famed locally for floating down the Red River on a mattress all the way to New Orleans, back in 1931, a 28-day feat undertaken to prove that the Alexandria Bedding Company’s mattresses could withstand the yearly floods.
Phillips, now 77, once stood on a segregation ticket, but lost in spite of daubing “.101” on every fence in the district.
His friend Shorty Foreman was expounding his views on race (“our forefathers brought ‘em over years ago to work for us, they’re not the same type of people”) when .101 noticed the lawyer Louis Berry walk into the court.
æSee that no-good nigger,” he bellowed, “he started all this, someone gonna put a bullet in his head . . .”
Along with several hundred others, Dewey and his pals turned up at the courthouse next day for a loudly announced rally. The white demonstration included a mule wearing a saddlecloth lettered “Thank God for Judge Lee.”
Jocelyn Barnes, a black woman whose eight-yer-old son is bused 64km to school and back, held a placard with the slogan made famous by black leader Jesse Jackson: “It’s not the bus, it’s us.” The blacks sang Happy Birthday and held an impromptu prayer meeting: that day was the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s birth.
The whites, who had control of the public address system, played The Ballad of Judge Lee.
Terry Luneau, the burly 20-year-old who burnt the local newspaper, told me: “Integration stinks.” Others were not quite so direct. Dale Smith, from Buckeye, pushed back his white straw cowboy hat and said: “My kids will not be put in that bus like common animals.” Asked what he did for a living, Smith earnestly said he was a school bus driver.
J.W.Rollins, a fierce character with a long red beard and long red hair, both unusual in this bucolic locality, said he’d retired after 16 years as an oil rig mechanic in the Gulf of Mexico. “ I got a little girl who was in a public school,” he recalled. “They had a few niggers in there and my baby had a nigger kindergarten teacher, but it worked out pretty good. I got in there to see the teacher and she was like a nanny I had when I was a kid.
“This year there were 17 blacks in her class and a black principal. I was in there a few minutes and I got the hives, man. You gotta act on that first impression.” He enrolled her in a Baptist school. “My baby doesn’t know anything about the black-white situation.”
Upstairs in the courtroom, the moderates reached a compromise. Judge Scott said he would not fine the opposing team $1,000 a head a day for contempt if the Buckeye three went to the racially mixed school. If they enrolled instead in a segregation academy he’d keep their school records to ensure they got no credits for the renegade weeks at Buckeye (which they did and he did).
“Mah daughter is held hostage by the Federal Government,” Ina Laborde told me, vowing to carry the fight all the way to the Supreme Court. For once, Judge Richard E. Lee had no immediate comment for the media.
No one invited the Ku Klux Klan but they came anyway, and hangers-on started their rally in the parking lot opposite the courthouse.
Grand Wizard Bill Wilkinson had arrived early enough to find a seat in the courtroom, so the outfit was under the temporary command of the local Kleagle, former dog-catcher Bill Hertz, a short, spotty-faced man of 31, in a three-piece aqua suit and metal-tipped cowboy boots.
“I cain’t hardly speak unless I got my robes on,” Hertz told me, but he and his men stayed in mufti, in spite of my suggestion that actual white sheets would make a better story. “I think y’all like blood better ‘n we do,” said Hertz. He said they were cautious “because the niggers are waiting to start something. Most of ‘em are radicals, you never know what they’ll do, they don't believe in God.”
None the less, when he and his followers darted off around the corner, I followed, assuming a surprise attack, They ran around a second corner and pulled up short outside the portable loos. “No,” said Hertz, emerging, none of them were armed. Unasked, half a dozen of them unbuttoned their jackets and held them wide open to prove this fact. There was a bit of wistful chit-chat about .38 magnums and such left in private arsenals at home.
“I’d love to go to Australia,” said Bill Hertz suddenly, “I'll tell you what, it’s one of the whitest countries in the world.”