1966 a watershed year for Minden – Minden Press-Herald
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1966 a watershed year for Minden

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This edition of the Press-Herald commemorates the transition of the newspaper to a daily paper on July 18, 1966. The fact that the Press-Herald made its change in 1966, is just another of a series of events that made 1966 a watershed year in several areas of local history. In this article, I’m going to examine a few of those events largely dealing with the rolling back of racial barriers.

If you had to list one year when the nearly century long era of Jim Crow society came to an end in Minden, 1966 would be that year. It was the year that the world of “separate but equal” arising out of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 disappeared and the Southern apartheid of our nation began to fade from the local scene. It was not an overnight event, but there can be little doubt that 1966 is the year that the true change began, so it is appropriate that we look back at those aspects of 1966 as we celebrate the birth of a daily local newspaper that coincided with a more unified local community.

Integration

The first massive changes to Minden in 1966 came in the form of a Federal Court order handed down by Judge Ben C. Dawkins of the Western District of Louisiana. In November 1965, several parents of local black children filed a suit, Blaine A. Gilbert et al v. Webster Parish School Board, challenging the segregated status of local schools.

This suit was one of a series of suits being filed in neighboring parishes and all across the South, where the structure of the schools was almost universal in its segregated nature. As such, decisions by Federal Judges based in Brown and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were swift and simple – the era of segregated schools must end under Federal mandate. Dawkins set up guidelines in his decision announced in December 1965 and ordered the changes begin in the Spring Semester, starting in January 1966.

School Board Meets

On January 10, 1966 the Webster Parish School Board met to consider applications for transfer submitted during the previous week, January 3 through January 7, 1966 for transfer to majority white schools by black students.

Under the plan approved by Judge Dawkins, the integration was to be phased in over a three-year period, with four of the 12 grades in local schools integrated each year. For the Spring Semester of 1966 grades one, two, 11 and 12 at the local white schools – Stewart and Richardson Elementary and Minden High School were to be integrated. In the Fall of 1966 grades three and four at Richardson and Stewart and grades nine and 10 at Minden High with grades five and six at Richardson and Stewart and grades six, seven and eight at Lowe Junior High to follow in the Fall of 1967. Although Dawkins’ ruling applied to the entire parish, the plaintiffs for the suit all resided in Minden and the only changes ordered at that time were in the Minden schools.

The nature of the process was strenuous for the parents and children wanting to make the change. Applications had to be submitted and evaluated by the school board. Few tried to make the change and when integration did take place it was a very small trickle, leading to the flood of change that would eventually follow in the next decade.

Press-Herald Reports

Integration first came to the schools of Minden on the morning of Monday, January 17, 1966. Here is the special account from the Minden Press of that afternoon:

“Color bars in three schools were lowered quietly without incident today as five Negro students entered Minden High, Stewart Elementary and Richardson Elementary Schools for the first time.

“All five students arrived at the school shortly after 8 a.m. today in the company of their parents. Principals talked to the enrollees and their parents prior to placing the students in assigned classes.

“Two are enrolled at Minden High and Stewart and one transferred to Richardson. A sixth student, Shirley D. Lewis was approved for transfer but did not report to Stewart this morning.

“Other making the transfer included: Beverly L. Hampton, second grade from J.L. Jones to Richardson; Blaine A. Gilbert, first grade from Jerry A. Moore School to Stewart; Roslyn A. Hill, second grade from Moore to Stewart; Elroy Allums, senior from Webster High to Minden High and George Washington Jr., junior from Webster High to Minden high.

“The five transferred under terms of a court order requiring the school board to desegregate grades one, two, 11 and 12 this term. The order calls for grades three, four, nine and 10 next fall and the final four grades in the fall of 1967.

“No other schools in the parish currently are involved in any transfers. However the court order involves the entire parish school system.”

The First Class

I was a student in one of the first integrated classrooms, that of Miss Audrey Hortman at Richardson Elementary. Beverly Hampton was my new classmate and later that year, as you will read, her father J. D. Hampton would break new ground in local politics as a candidate for Mayor in the Democratic Primary.

Another student in that room was Lee Colten, son of the former publisher of the Minden Press and Minden Herald, Tom Colten, a man whose election that fall as Minden’s new mayor as a republican would be another first for Minden. (I’ll save that story for later this year on the anniversary of that campaign.)

Beverly’s transfer had been the only one strongly questioned by the school board, because of the distance from her home to Richardson, which was much further than her former school at Jones. (I might add that I was attended Richardson also as a matter of parental choice and I lived further away from Richardson than Beverly.) Eventually the move was approved and she joined the other new students in our school.

I cannot imagine the pressure she must have felt as the only black child in an all-white school, but she survived. Ten years later in 1976, she and Roslyn Hill who was one of two to break the color barrier at Stewart that same day, were among my fellow graduates at Minden High School.

We all had come through the final completion of integration of a local school – the partial integrations of 1966 and 1967, a larger integration in 1969, expanded faculty integration in 1971 and finally complete integration in the summer of 1974, when we at MHS received the entire student body of Webster High School as new classmates.

Again, it all began in the watershed year of 1966, when school segregation began to crumble in Minden.

Winnice P. Clement

The next change, although largely symbolic came when one of the most controversial figures oft the local Civil Rights Era, Parish Registrar of Voters Winnice P. Clement retired in April. Here is her story excerpted from her retirement article in the Minden Herald of April 28, 1966.

“Mrs. Winnice Clement’s announced plans to resign from her post as Webster Paris Registrar of Voters after almost 26 years of service probably brought a variety of reactions, both here and as far away as Washington, D.C.

“To some, her May 1 resignation date is as welcome as the announcement of World War III; but to others – especially Federal agents scattered from here to the nation’s capital – it probably will be more like the end of World War II after crossing verbal swords with her and her attorneys for the past nine years.

“Though the registrar’s office has probably been known principally as a battle ground in the past decade, she recalls it was not always that way. She said the job did not become difficult until 1956 when an all-out effort was started to hike Negro voter registration. (Ed. Note: At this point I feel compelled to point out that the actual effort that began in 1956 was by the White Citizens’ Council to remove black voters from the rolls. It was that controversy that prompted Gov. Robert Kennon to fire Mrs. Clement in May 1956 and Gov. Earl Long to reinstate her. The effort to increase black registration began in earnest in 1958.) Since that time the office has been the battle ground with Mrs. Clement caught between the pressures of staunch segregationists on one side and the power of the Federal government on the other.

“When she took office in 1940, there were 7,002 persons registered to vote, none of who were Negro. By October 1956, the registration had climbed to 12,957 whites and 1,775 Negroes. However, the regular four-year purge of voters rolls required under periodic registration came about two months later, setting the stage for a civi rights court battle that was not concluded until the Fall of 1963.

“The lengthy court battle, which included investigations and counter-investigations and suits and counter-suits, finally ground to a halt in the Fall of 1963, when Judge Ben C. Dawkins Jr. enjoined Mrs. Clement from any discriminatory practices in processing voter applications, including the use of any examination.”

Although Mrs. Clement’s departure was largely symbolic and the implementation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 the previous August had opened the registration process to all on an equal basis; the absence of such a visible figure from the voter registration battle in Webster Parish was another sign of the changes to come. At the peak of the crisis, black voting registration in Webster Parish had dropped to around 10 people in 1962. As we will see, that number had mushroomed after the Voting Rights Act took effect.

Some Background

That change in voting rolls was demonstrated by the next watershed moment in the municipal Democratic Primary in August 1965.
For those of you who have come to Louisiana after 1975 and the birth of Edwin Edwards’ “Cajun Primary”, yes, Louisiana once had a “normal” election process that included party primary elections. This marked the first local election since the numbers of black voters had increased and a concerted effort to encourage black voter participation had taken place in Minden.

One of the first changes came in those election officials who oversee the balloting in each precinct, the commissioners. Even during the years of Reconstruction, when black elected officials served for about 15 years in the Minden town government and briefly in the parish government, the mechanism of the election had always been completely white. No blacks had been allowed to exercise any authority in the supervision of the elections and certainly not in the counting of ballots. Anyone familiar with the legacy of the Returning Board and the dual sets of election returns in Louisiana’s Reconstruction history understands why that was not allowed in a parish such as Webster that was under Redeemer Democrat control.

Mayor’s Race

With that background, the first edition of a daily Minden Press-Herald, issued Monday, July 18 with a headline that I’m sure many white Mindenites never expected to read: “Six Negroes Drawn For Commissioner Service.”

At that time in Webster Parish commissioner’s name was drawn by a lot from those submitted by candidates. Each candidate was allowed to submit a list for each precinct in which they were scheduled to campaign. Webster Parish Democratic Executive Committee Chairman Henry Hobbs reported that, “… eight Negroes were drawn during Saturday’s commissioner selection session. However, two of the eight were declared ineligible because they live outside Minden.”

The identify of the candidate who submitted the prospective black commissioners was a man who had already shocked many local voters when he had earlier filed to be a candidate. Challenging two-term incumbent Mayor Frank Norman was J.D. Hampton, father of my classmate Beverly Hampton and one of the plaintiffs on the desegregation suit that had changed local schools. Hampton’s official campaign announcement that appeared in the Minden Press-Herald on July 20, 1966 was as follows:

J.D. Hampton Jr.

“I was born in Webster Parish 31 years ago and have been a resident of Minden for the last 15 years, along with my wife and 3 children. I am a graduate of Webster High School, a veteran, and am presently employed by the LAAP. For the past year, I have been chairman of the United Christian Freedom Movement and am a member of Mt. Zion CME church.

“I am asking for your support because I believe that we need a better mayor for a better Minden. We need a concerned mayor, a mayor who is interested in everybody’s problems, an active mayor who is on the spot when anything happens and who works a full day every day. We need a mayor who has experience and the desire to aid the people of Minden whenever they need assistance.

“Above all, we need a mayor for all the people. I do not believe either in “black power” or in “white power,” but rather in the power held by all the people, which is expressed throughout their elected representatives. If elected, I would not be a “Negro mayor” for negroes, nor would I be controlled by any special group. I would instead be a mayor of Minden for all the people of Minden.

“I believe that we can build a better Minden. We can have a Minden where problems are handled with firm leadership and understanding. This has not been the case to date. For example, last September the present mayor fired 19 of the city’s garbage collectors because they requested a pay raise. Garbage collection was then allowed to deteriorate at the hands of prisoners and inexperienced employees, and the city had to hire its new employees at an increased ate of pay. This injury to the citizens of Minden, and to the city’s former employees could easily have been avoided had the mayor made any attempt to negotiate a reasonable settlement. Furthermore, we all know that this city lacks recreational facilities for our children, who spend too much of their time roaming the streets and who all too often end up in court. The present mayor has failed to take the lead in mobilizing the city council, the recreation committee, and all interested citizens to develop programs and facilities which will keep our youth active and safe.

“Most important, we can have a Minden where the mayor takes the lead in making every possible effort to attract new industry. My election alone will prove to manufacturers that Minden is indeed the “friendliest city int he South.” And I promise that no opportunity will be missed to bring new jobs and new prosperity to our city.

“Minden has a great future. We need a better mayor for a better Minden. Vote Hampton – Number 36 on August 13.”

In the same issue, Mayor Normal issued his own official announcement.

Frank T. Norman

“I have lived in Minden and Webster Parish all of my life. I received my education at Minden High School, Ringland College and Louisiana Tech.

“I was married to the former Mildred Bryant of Simsboro, Louisiana on August 1, 1937. We have one daughter, Frankie, who also graduated from Minden High School and Louisiana Tech. She is now married to Ray Tompkins and they have two children, Norman, age 5, and Janet, age 3.

“I am a member of the First Baptist Church and have served from time to time on the official board.

“I am a member of the Lions Club.

“I am presently serving on the board of directors of Minden Industrial Development Corporation.

“I am a member of practically all bodies of the Masonic Lodge, both York and Scottish Rite. I am now serving as Grand Commander of the Grand Commandery of Louisiana. I am also a member of the Knights of Pythias and the Woodmen of the World.

“I was elected to the City Council in 1952 and served two terms as Public Safety Commissioner. I was elected Mayor in 1958. Since that time Minden has grown tremendously – both in population and in industries. Since then I have worked very closely with the State Municipal Association and I received much knowledge beneficial to the operation of a municipality, having served as President of the Louisiana Municipal Association in 1964. By observing he progress and growth of the city, both in its operation and otherwise, I believe my record will stand on its own merits.

“I am asking you to agin elect me to the office of Mayor of Minden and I pledge by continued efforts in trying to make this the best place in the world to live. I am deeply grateful for the confidence that you have given me int he past and I humbly ask for your continued support. Vote for No. 37 on the ballot.”

Ignoring the Opposition

The campaign was not as tempestuous as Hampton’s announcement statement might have indicated. Hampered by a lack of funds, his campaign advertising largely consisted of a small add that appeared in the local newspaper on several occasions. It featured his picture and the following text: “Vote for — More recreation — More industry — More leadership — J. D. Hampton, Jr. for Mayor, No. 36 – A Better Mayor for a Better Minden.

While no one ever thought Hampton could win the primary, Norman and many in Minden seemed to pretend as if he did not even exist. The Press-Herald, in its election coverage, never again mentioned Hampton’s name in a news story. Only mentioning that the Mayor’s race was on the ballot. In the few ads that Normal ran in the newspaper he didn’t advance a platform or even mention having an opponent. He merely asked voters to exercise the right to vote on August 13.

There were some indications that while there was little chance that Hampton could win the election, the vote totals might surprise some casual observers.

Surprises at the Polls

The first was a general dissatisfaction with the way things were going in local government. That would be reflected more in the General Election later in the year when Norman would be defeated. But it was also very clear that the voting population for this election would be very different from the one that voted in 1962, at a time when just over 100 black were eligible to vote in all of Webster Parish. The new Registrar of Voters reported the following to the Minden Press-Herald. “Preliminary figures show that 5,411 persons are qualified to vote in the city election. This is almost double the number of voters who were eligible to vote in the 1962 city election. By the end of June. . . 1,680 Negroes were registered to vote in the City of Minden and an additional 106 Negroes registered during July prior to the deadline, although some of these may not reside in Minden.

A record number of absentee votes for the city, more than 200 were cast in the days leading up to the election. When the votes were tallied on the night of August 13, Mayor Norman had gained reelection with 2,729 votes to Hampton’s 1164 or 70% to 30%, a landslide victory. But, it was truly amazing when you consider that Hampton’s vote total was about ten times the number of blacks who were even registered to vote less than a year earlier. Hampton had carried four of the ten precincts in Minden, and even more surprisingly, had gained votes in all ten, even one that had an all-white voter base.

Truly this was an indication that Minden’s politics had left the Jim Crow era and were moving toward the place we are today.

It would be more than a decade, and yet another Federal Court order eliminating the Commission Form of government and mandating redistricting before we would elect a black city official, but we still have not elected a black mayor. But today, black voters play an active role in our local politics as should be expected in the United States.

As of July 7, there are 4006 registered black voters in Minden or 46% of the voting population. That move toward all citizens having an equal chance to participate in Minden city government began with the events of 1966.

So as you can see, while 1966 is a very significant year for the Minden Press-Herald as it came into existence as a daily paper, in a greater way, 1966 was the year that many of our fellow citizens became full participants in the local community for the first time.

John Agan is a local historian