Reddix invited King to Monroe in 1965, Blacks turned him around

Prominent Blacks met Dr. King at the airport and turned him around after 200 white businessmen desegregated Monroe before King arrived in March of 1965.

By Roosevelt Wright, Jr.

In March of 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. was invited to come to Monroe by Dr. John I. and Mrs. Frances Reddix, who were leaders of the civil rights movement in Monroe. Dr. Reddix was the face of the fight, Mrs. Reddix was out of the public eye, but a critical partner in the planning and execution of civil rights actions in our city.

In the weeks preceding King’s visit to Monroe news spread that he was to make his arrival. W.L. Howard, Mayor of Monroe, was concerned that King’s appearance in Monroe would lead to racial confrontations that would result in conflict in Monroe. Howard was meticulously building an image for Monroe as the “Pacemaker City of the South.” He feared King’s arrival, with the accompanying media that followed his every appearance, would result in bloodshed and trouble that would hinder the gradual progress that he sought.

Howard: Reddix Was Divisive

Reddix and his wife Frances, rose to prominence challenging Howard during the voter purge of 1956. Dr. and Mrs. Reddix invited King to speak in Monroe. For nine years he fought in the courts to restore the voting rights of the local Black community stripped away in the 1956 purge. At that time over 5,000 Blacks were purged from the voter registration rolls. In the aftermath of that purge, Howard won election as Mayor. Reddix and the more militant members of the Monroe leadership associated Howard with the purge, although Howard denied any connection with the purge, which was being orchestrated by the White Citizen’s Council.

Howard viewed the Mr. and Mrs. Reddix, as a divisive presence. He surrounded himself with what he considered to be a more rational circle of Negro leaders who included: Ibra January, Sr, Herman Marbles, Morris Henry Carroll, Joseph Pendleton, and others. These he entrusted to help Monroe survive what Howard thought would ultimately be the destruction of Monroe by violent civil rights protests.

King’s Activities in Shreveport

When Howard learned that Reddix had invited King to Monroe, he immediately began a series of meetings designed to demonstrate Monroe’s ability to desegregate itself without the violence and negative publicity associated with the freedom marches and protests led by Martin Luther King, Jr.

King was a frequent visitor to Shreveport. Between 1958 and 1962 King came to Shreveport numerous times, organizing Blacks as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and making speeches at Shreveport churches. In Shreveport, King was a frequent speaker at local churches including Galilee, Antioch and Little Union Baptist Churches. He had special friendships with Dr. C.O. Simpkins and The Reverend Harry Blake and frequently ate at the Freeman and Harris restaurant. King never led a march in Shreveport, but his visits attracted racist groups and were intensely observed by white officials. Black leaders in Shreveport helped King avoid a planned arrest by white officials on a suspicion charge by whisking him off a train to Dallas and taking him to Mississippi to avoid the planned confrontation in Shreveport.

King Was Concerned About Voting Rights

In Shreveport and as well as other places King spoke of voting rights. He viewed them as an inherent right of every American. He told Shreveporters at a Galilee Baptist Church gathering that “the greatest move the Negro can make is the short step to the ballot box.” Voting rights issues were on King’s mind in 1965. The SCLC was paying attention to a developing struggle in Selma, Alabama. It was a town with a large Black population with virtually no Black voting presence. He was drawn there. In Monroe, the fact that 5,285 Blacks had been removed from the voting books for over nine years was brought to his attention by Reddix’s letter.

Monroe was loosely connected to the National Civil Rights movement but did not share any national prominence. A branch of the Congress Of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.) operated in Monroe out of the Miller-Roy Building on DeSiard Street. Reddix was closely associated with the young men and women who participated in C.O.R.E. He often provided the leadership and direction to its efforts to desegregate Monroe and promote voter registration. However, Monroe was generally being ignored in the national civil rights battle. It was just another of thousands of Southern cities sweltering in the despair of racial discrimination. In 1960 Dr. Reddix, Morris Henry Carroll and The Reverend P. Rayfield Brown, III testified before the Civil Rights Commission in New Orleans. They provided data about Monroe’s voter purge, it raised eyebrows in civil rights circles. Monroe became a prime prospect as a civil rights battleground, because of the voting rights struggle of Dr. and Mrs. Reddix and their organization called the “Guiding Voice.”

Potential for Trouble In Monroe

The potential for racial trouble was tremendous in Monroe. Whites were uneasy over the passage of the May 1960 Civil Rights Act, the federal courts were pushing for school desegregation, Militant Negroes led by C.O.R.E. were demanding equal access to public accommodations, and local Negro activists were “stirring up trouble” by demanding full voting rights. Also, there was growing tension in the white community being led by the new Grand Dragon of the Original Ku Klux Klan, Robert Fuller who preached racial segregation and a group of white activists which called themselves the “White Citizen’s Council.”

News that King would be making an appearance in Monroe was disturbing to Howard. Not only would it refocus attention on the voter purge in Monroe but it would revive Black community hatred toward him that he had been trying to change. Certain that King’s appearance would result in racial conflict, Howard put together a plan to demonstrate that Monroe could desegregate without the violence and negative attention that usually followed him.

It was a tricky situation for Howard. King’s major interest in Monroe would be voting rights. An equally important issue for Blacks was equal access to public accommodations. The local C.O.R.E was distributing leaflets and flyers in the Negro community protesting the lack of Negroes in employment in white-owned business in Monroe. In addition, the organization protested the fact that Negroes were not allowed to eat at white-owned restaurants in the city. Howard chose not to involve himself in the growing school desegregation dispute, a position he held until the early 70’s. He decided to target public accommodations as a symbolic way to demonstrate his doctrine of gradual change.

Howard Calls Meetings

In early 1965, Howard called two meetings with white business leaders. The first meeting was held with the city’s largest employers. The second was held with restaurant owners. It was attended by over 200 white business leaders in the Monroe Community and was held at the Virginia hotel. White business leaders came curious as to the nature of the meeting but were disturbed when they heard Howard’s presentation.

“I told them that I have thought about it a lot and felt that it was time that Monroe moved forward to desegregate the city. I said it was the right thing to do.” Howard recalled. There was a warm exchange of words between Howard and many of the white business leaders who accused him of being a “Nigger Lover.” Many resolved that they would never hire Negroes in any positions other those traditional for their race. However, there were some who followed Howard’s lead.

“I told them we needed to remove the barriers or we would face unnecessary trouble that would not be good for business. I told them that I had hired Negroes at my business and at city hall. The young lady I hired to work a computer was so fast that you could hardly see her hand move. I asked them to remove the barriers. One man who was a banker blessed me out. I told him that he was a Baptist and asked him how he would feel if I told him that I would not hire him because he was a Baptist. He said ‘I’d whip the hell out of you.’ Then I said he should understand what it’s like when someone is not hired just because they are a Negro. At the close of that meeting, a pledge of 17 jobs were placed in my hand. Ed Whestone with Southern Bell pledged five jobs if I could find Negroes to fill them.” Howard said.

Howard then met with Negro community leaders close to him: January, Carroll, Pendleton, Abraham Bowie, and Marbles. He informed them of reports he received of Martin Luther King’s planned trip to Monroe. He also told them that he was confident that Monroe could be desegregated without King. He told them about his plans to gradually desegregate Monroe without incident. He asked them to trust him and help him break employment barriers for Blacks. The group agreed to help Howard. When Reddix learned of Howard’s effort he felt it was a case of too little too late. By ignoring the most important issues of voting rights, desegregation of public accommodations and school desegregation, Reddix felt Howard was trying to sidestep the movement with purely symbolic gestures designed to slow the progress of the protest movement.

Despite Reddix’s reservation, Howard proceeded with his plan. Days after his Virginia Hotel meeting he told his circle of Negro leaders to look into the Negro community and get him the names of qualified people who would fill the 17 commitments that he had available.

“I told them that the biggest mistake we can make is to send in people to fill applications who are not qualified or who don’t show up or get themselves fired,” Howard recalls.

January and others searched through the community and contacted people to fill the slots, one of them was Ethel Belt, who was hired as a bookkeeper at Ouachita Bank. Others became tellers, phone operators and other positions not usually associated with Negro employment. The Negro leaders involved were impressed with Howard’s actions but were also sensitive to Reddix’s contention that Howard’s actions was a “Smoke Screen” designed to sidetrack the push for full voting rights with symbolic actions.

Howard called the second meeting of business leaders at the Virginia Hotel. He told them his plan to desegregate restaurants without legal action to avoid civil rights trouble in Monroe. After a vigorous exchange, the restaurant owners agreed to Howard’s appeal. A date was set for the action to take place. Howard’s Negro circle of supporters were notified to send persons to the selected restaurants to test the desegregation efforts.

Among the first restaurant’s to open its doors to Negroes was “Hemps Cafeteria” on DeSiard Street.

“My wife was eating in Hemps that day. She was angry with me because I didn’t tell her that there would be Negroes coming that day. Ten or twelve Black folks came into the restaurant. You could hear a pin drop in the restaurant. They were served without incident. My wife was so angry with me because she said I should have told her because someone could have been hurt. I told her that outside the door several plainclothes police officers were there to guarantee there would be no trouble,” Howard said.

Across the city, on the same day, other restaurants opened their doors. “That night Henry Carroll and his lady friend were served in the restaurant at the Penn Hotel. He said they enjoyed a great dinner and left a sizeable tip.”  Howard added.

Howard crossed swords with some restaurant owners over the desegregation efforts. When one learned that his son had served Negroes in his absence, he told Howard that it would never happen again. “I told him that was his choice, but he may as well get ready for it because Negroes would be back. I told him that the first time they came, there was no trouble because there were plainclothes police officers everywhere. I told him, if you have trouble when they come back, don’t call me, because we ain’t coming. I told him if he didn’t believe I would do it, try me.” Howard said.

Howard believed that his plan would work best if it was done without publicity. “I met with Jimmy Noe and with Mr. Ewing (Owner of the Newsstar). I told them that I wanted to keep them in the loop so that they would know what was going on. I told them why. But I made it clear that we did not need any coverage about what was being done before it happened or even after he was done. They agreed, and nothing was reported or written about what we did,” Howard said.

Buoyed by what they deemed was a pivotal day of civil rights gains, Howard’s circle of Negro leaders shared his conviction that Monroe could be desegregated without incident if the community followed Howard’s leadership. Reddix characterized their willingness to forego the issue of voting rights and public accommodations rights for a “smokescreen” as a sellout.

When the day came for Martin Luther King to arrive in Monroe, Howard’s circle of Negro leaders made plans to meet with him and explain what was being done in Monroe. To insure that he did not speak, The Reverend Prince Cornelius Keal, pastor of the First Baptist Church, had boards placed over the windows and doors of the N. 8th Street Church where some were trying to get King to speak. Keal was pastor of both the First Baptist and Tabernacle congregation and was a major religious leader in the city. Keal joined the delegation of Negroes that met King at the Monroe airport as he stepped off his plane. The group talked with him at the airport, telling him that they supported Howard’s efforts to desegregate Monroe. King was told that his presence would only cause trouble and slow progress already made. King promptly reboarded his flight.

Shortly after, the world heard of King’s appearance in Selma, Alabama, in a voting rights protest that is remembered around the world.

“When he left here, he went to Selma. What happened in Selma could have been what happened in Monroe,” said Howard who believes his actions in 1965 saved Monroe from racial confrontations that could have resulted in injury and death.