Robert Thompson is a native of Baton Rouge. He graduated high school from Southern Lab school, and spent four years in the Marine Corps. He is a Vietnam War veteran, and retired from the postal service after 25 years. He is a member of the Unitarian church of Baton Rouge, where he served as the Social Justice director for 10 years. Robert is a trained facilitator for Dialogue On Race LA for more than 20 years. He’s been a volunteer mentor for Humanities Amped for the last four years, and he’s also served on the Together Baton Rouge Executive Committee for the last 10 years. Robert has been married to his wife, MiJa for 45 years, and has 4 kids and 3 grandkids.
John And Calvin
“...during the depression he was able to bring the community together- black and white…”
Now, one family mystery is our name- Thompson. The first time we see John, who is my great grandfather, he's listed as John Moreau. And then the next census he's down as John Thompson. Where he got the name Thompson, we don't know. I understand why he was listed at first as Moreau, because he was on the Moreau plantation in Moreauville, Louisiana not far from where he ended up living. But where he got the name Thompson nobody really knows. There were some itinerant doctors- not real doctors, but they were able to look after the sick and stuff, and they were called Thompson Doctors. I'm thinking he may have been influenced by that- he may have met some of them.
They were Catholics, and my Grandfather, Calvin, and his brothers weren't happy about the arrangement of where they had to be in the Catholic Church. My grandfather really wanted to go into the ministry, but they had no hope of being priests. They had to worship from the balcony and they couldn't take communion. Some Lutheran missionaries (missionaries to the missionary fields in South Louisiana *laughs* came to establish a missionary church among the local black people in Mansura. So my Grandfather and his brothers got interested. By then they had finished their education, so they were going to send them to the seminary in- Springfield, Ill. . But because of the times, once they found they were black they wouldn't allow him to attend- It was called Luther College. Which was the name Lutheran seminary. So they ended up actually creating a school in New Orleans for my grandfather and great uncle to attend, and get their degrees as Lutheran ministers.
The thing about my dad's side of the family that I think is important is that we know great Grandfather, John, was an actual slave until he was almost 30, and then my Grandfather, Calvin, was very active with the NAACP in an effort to get black teachers significant pay. And I think it's also significant that John who, like I said, was a slave until he was almost thirty, had four sons, and was able to get all four of them educated with a college degree. Granted, two of ‘em were ministers, and I think one was an educator, and another one went- I think into the merchant marines. But that’s the first generation out of slavery. And the difference with both families (and I think this is what gave us both a leg up, and I didn't realize this until I was grown) was the fact that both families owned land. Coming into post-slavery, coming into Jim Crow, both families owned land. There is a historical marker on the site of the church that my grandfather ran in Mansura, Louisiana that talks about how during the depression he was able to bring the community together—black and white to do a food co-op. Even before the depression he got everyone to do kinda this co-op community. He saw that the people were eating good during the summer, and they were not doing well in the winter. So he said, “You raise hogs, you raisin’ cows, I'm growin’ corn, we all growing beans, so why don't we put up half of this, and we’ll spread everything around, and in the winter we’ll all have stuff that we've put back and we’ll do just as well in the winter.” So he got them into canning and putting food away for the winter, so when the depression came they already had, like, a canning business going, and it worked so well that they were actually selling food back to the government. That's what the historical marker is talking about. Calvin was our earliest- I have to say community organizer in our family. That's the first one I can point to.
Where We Come From
It Takes A Village
“I had a community that I belonged to, and as long as I stayed within that community I knew I was fine”
Growing up in Baton Rouge in the 50’s and 60’s, everybody knew what we were up against, and I can remember the elders trying their best to shield us from that world. At the time in a lot of the department stores, black people couldnt try on the clothes. My daddy wouldn't buy clothes from a place that wouldn't let us try them on.
The community pretty much centered around the churches. We grew up in a mixed family. My daddy was Lutheran and my mother was Seventh Day Advenist, so we went to church on Saturday and Sunday. But the churches looked out for the community. I can remember many times doing food drives, or, acting like we were the taxi- taking people home who didn't have cars, and visiting the “sick and the shut-in” as they say in church. We looked out for each other, and it was a lot more interaction. Of course you didn't have the technology that we have today. There wasn't anything on TV. but white life, and of course you learn to transform white life into... kinda real life. But for the most part we did more things together than I think we do today. We were aware of the community. We knew our black doctors and lawyers and teachers. We knew where they lived. You knew if somebody saw you doing something wrong it was gon’ probably get to your parents before you got home, which that happened to me several times *laughs*.
My momma always taught. She was an educator at heart. Her whole emphasis around education was making sure black kids got a decent education, or at least an opportunity at a decent education. She was a teacher and principal at the Seventh Day Adventist school for 25 years, and when she retired from there she started her own school, MLK Christian Academy, and did that for another 25 years. Again, the whole motivation behind that is to give black kids a decent education- a good, caring education. Not just the nuts and bolts of education, but also knowing that they had value. Mom was socially active in that way and her brother, my uncle Dupuy, was active in the Civil Rights movement. He ran for mayor in Baton Rouge in 60. That's when things really got heated. His house got shot up, and because we lived so close together, I guess they mistaken our house for his house, and we had some objects thrown through our window. There were demonstrations goin’ on in Baton Rouge that we were aware of, and again my parents pretty much shielded us from a lot of that. They were afraid for us to get involved, but of course, me being me, I snuck off a couple times and got involved. I remember the bus boycott and how that went, and there was controversy on that. Some people felt like we gave up too soon. Like we coulda held out for full integration, which we didn't get, but it did set the stage for at least a framework on how to integrate a system or institution.
Boy Meets World
“That was my first run-in with Jim Crow. After that, I realized there was definitely something going on that I didn't know about.”
I was born in 1947, so I lived most of my formative years under Jim Crow, and Baton Rouge was pretty locked down as far as segregation was concerned until about my senior year in highschool. My earliest incident I can remember was when I was eight. My mom had just had my sister and, of course, the hospitals in Baton Rouge were segregated. New Orleans had a black-owned and operated hospital— Flint-Goodridge Hospital was the name of it, so that's where she had my sister. She had to go back to New Orleans for her postnatal care, and left me in the care of a great uncle to pick me up on the bus from school, and take me to my grandmother's house on North Street. We got on the bus and I was all excited about it, because we had a car, so we never got a chance to ride the bus. For an 8 year old kid that was pretty exciting. When I got on the bus I plopped down right behind the bus driver. I didn't know anything about blacks ridin’ the back of the bus or anything like that, and I remember my uncle was just waving frantically for me to come back where he was. I act like I didn't see him. I was really enjoying the ride until we got to our destination. My uncle got off and left out the back door, and waited for me to come out. I was about to leave out the front door which was also a no no. Just as I was about to step off the bus the driver slammed the doors, which were kinda like accordian type doors. They trapped me in between half on the bus and half off, and drove up the street. I was terrified. I could hear the passengers screaming for him to stop. He drove me like that for about a block and opened the doors and I fell out on the ground. I can still remember his face. I can remember wondering why he was so angry with me?... What made him so angry?
By the time I got back down to my grandmother's house my uncle was pretty terrified and, of course, my uncles and them tried to file a complaint. They never talked to me about it, and I doubt if anything was ever done. That was my first run in with Jim Crow. After that I realized there was definitely something going on that I didn't know about.
The second time would have been when my brother and I found out there's a second [white] Seventh Day Adventist church (the church my mother belongs to) which is news to us. The [white] church was on Government Street and the Black church was on S. 14th. We felt like if anyone would cross the racial barrier it would be the Seventh Day Adventists, and that surely they didn't know we were there, and we would go over there and settle this misunderstanding. We walked over to the church- we had our suits on and everything, and as soon as we stuck our little black heads in the door the preacher literally jumped down from the pulpit and ran down the aisle to stop us from coming in. By that time the ushers and everybody were rushing toward us, and everybody in the congregation had turned around, looking at us. We got as far as the little vestibule just inside the door, and they hustled us back outside. What really struck me was they whipped out their bibles and my brother, who is a minister (a Seventh Day Advenist minister I might add), could pretty much go toe to toe with them. I was 13 and my brother was 14. Even at that age he knew his Bible. He had his Bible out and they were going back and forth about why we shouldn't come in and why we should wait. That was actually a crack in two walls (race and religion). I was realizing how ingrained this racist practice of segregation was, and even religion wouldn't cure it. It made me realize there were two Americas.
Soul On Ice
“You know as a black man you gotta read. You’ll never be able to do the things that you wanna do unless you read the thoughts of other people. You'll never be able to experience enough to know enough. You have to read! .”
I ended up going to a Seventh Day Advenist college, and that was probably the worst place for me, but because of family dynamics I felt that was the choice I needed to make, so I ended up there. Long story short I ended up getting put outta there for what I thought was pretty minor, but they were pretty authoritarian and very religious. In their beliefs, transgressions needed to be punished, so I ended up getting put out. At the time I didn't know it, but if you weren't in college you could get drafted. Before I even got off the campus I got a draft notice, and one of the guys who had a twin brother who went to Vietnam and was killed told me, "Whatever you do, don't go in the Army- don't let em put you in the Army". So the Marine Corps wasn't my first choice. It was my last choice other than the Army, and they did guarantee aviation, so I ended up doing four years in the Marine Corps, and spent 13 months in Vietnam. That whole experience, I think, really matured me in ways I don't think I coulda gotten otherwise.
After boot camp and my training stations I finally finished my specialty school which was aviation ordnance. When I was checkin’ into the barracks, this black Marine comes up to me and introduces himself to me as Ascottie (I find out later his name is James Harris, but everybody calls him Ascottie). The first thing Ascottie asked me was, “What you reading?” I can't remember anybody ever asking me what are you reading. And of course I'm like, “Reading?! I'm not in school, I'm not reading anything.” He kind of looks at me real funny and he goes, "You know as a black man you gotta read. You’ll never be able to do the things that you wanna do unless you read the thoughts of other people. You'll never be able to experience enough to know enough. You have to read." And I'm goin, “Okay, oh yeah, okay whatever *laughs*” From that point on everytime Ascottie saw me he'd say, “Hey what you readin’?” And I’d say, “I dunno...”
Ascottie was the first organizer I had ever met. The black power movement was going strong. This would have been '68, probably after Martin was killed.. and Bobby Kennedy. So, there was a militancy that was starting to form, and the black Marines were starting to pull closer together it seemed— not taking any crap. Ascolttie figured out that the way that the black Marines could get the attention of headquarters was for us to assemble- just assemble. Just all the black Marines on the base at a certain time, meet in the parking lot of the PX and that's what we did. The base went nuts *laughs*. MP's were circling around us, and finally one of the head officers wanted to know what was goin’ on, what were we doin’, what were we protesting... and of course it was nothing. Nothing, we just here, we just wanna show who we are. After that moment we broke up, but the point was made that at any moment we could pull together this group of people. We never did it again, but it was a moment. But of course (this is something I haven't thought about), Ascottie got sent to Vietnam shortly after that! *Laughs*
When Ascottie got sent to Vietnam, it was almost a sigh of relief that I didn't have to run into him and say, "No, Im not reading anything." A few months later I got shipped out- my squadron goes [to Vietnam]. I get off the plane and we had to go to the place to get our gear. There's a big 6-by—a big truck—to pick us up and take us down to the quartermaster. Who's in the back of the 6-by? It was Ascottie...
"What you readin’ Marine?" And of course I wasn't readin' anything. So later that day he comes by with a book and he says, "I want you to read this- I want you to read this and Ima check on ya. I don't care how long it take... Ya know, just- Ima just check back on ya and see how it's goin."
The book was Soul On Ice by Eldridge Cleaver. The thing that sticks out to me about that
book was, here was a guy who didn't seem to be a heck of a lot more educated than me, had similar experiences, but he wrote a book. I mean, he ended up in jail, but he wrote a book about his experiences that was just as valid as anybody else's experiences. And it was kinda like a light bulb that was like what else... who else is writing stuff that I don't know about *laughs*. I discovered James Baldwin; discovered Dick Gregorry... I think the name of the book was Nigga; The subtitle was, Momma dont get mad that’s just the name of my book **laughs*
So, that really opened the door to me understanding what reading, and educating yourself was all about. That set me on a path to- I guess you call it self-education. I haven't stopped.
James "Ascottie" Harris
War Abroad, War at Home
“There was an exchange of gunfire that just- you can't imagine my mind- I just got back from Vietnam, hadn’t been in town long, had a great day, and walked up on this scene where it's like a shoot out at the O.K. corral.”
When I came back from Vietnam I lived in Orange County. Orange County was probably one of the most racist counties in California. Growin’ up I always thought of California as this promised land. I always thought when I finished my time in the Marine Corps I would probably live in California. I was livin’ off base with two other guys, and rented a real nice apartment in a real nice neighborhood. I got stopped in front of my apartment by the police, asking what was I doin’ in the neighborhood blah blah blah, and once I said I lived there I had to show ‘em my key. First time that happened it was like, Mmmm, okay 'ya know, I'm sure we're the first black people in this neighborhood, so I'll give' em one. But by the third time it was like, Oh no, this is terrible. This is definitely something wrong here. I ended up moving to Los Angeles, which I thought would be a little better but it actually ended up being worse. I mean there were what I would call predator police. They would just be out lookin’ for any sort of way to pull you over. I even had a cop pull me over, ask me if he could search the car and of course after sayin’ no once and sitting out there five or six hours and they still end up searching your car. So, of course I said sure and they searched the car. One time I was stopped, in the trunk there's a shami and a car battery. The battery had turned over and spilled the acid on to the shami and turned the shami into this pile of brown black goo. These guys look at that and say, “What is this?” I say, “I don't know *laughs*laugh looks like a battery turned over onto the shami.” But they called in the drug squad thinking it was some kind of heroine.
Another time I was driving down Santa Barbara Blvd. I saw this cop car parked across the street and knew they were predators. I saw them see me, I knew they were gonna stop me. I thought I was clean, but sure ‘nuff they found I had a warrant for a cracked tail light lense. I had gotten stopped before for the cracked tail light and I fixed it. I was supposed to report to the courts but I never did. They ended up taking me to jail on a Friday night and it was a long weekend— Monday was a holiday. So I was gonna be in jail from Friday evening til Tuesday morning- Tuesday afternoon as it turned out. And if you can imagine what the downtown L.A. lock-up can be like on a long weekend. I can't even explain the people that they threw in the cell. I was in a holding cell from that Friday evening ‘til Saturday evening before they moved us to the actual cell block. The holding cell was jam packed by the time they let us out. The humanity that was thrown in there was just- you can't even imagine. That motivated me to say maybe California's not the place I wanna be so we loaded up the truck *laughs*and we moved to Baton Rouge.
I hadn't been in Baton Rouge but maybe a week when I ran into an old friend- my best friend I went into the Marine Corps with, we hooked up. Got with a friend of his, and we decide we gonna go downtown. I was tellin’ them ‘bout this new band I heard about so we go down to - it was call Riverside Mall then. Third Street was blocked off, so you could walk in the middle of the street and stuff. We went down there, it was a great day- it was a beautiful day. It was January 10th, 1971. We bought some records and we were coming up North Boulevard. Just as we crested the hill coming toward what was South 13th we saw a big crowd. We thought holidays, we thinkin’ must be a parade, so we pull off somewhere- 15th street I think. The crowd was so big we couldn't get any closer, so we parked there and we run down to the corner. Just as we get to the corner it's like pick-up trucks and police cars. It look like farmers just out of the field with shotguns roar up to the corner and all hell broke loose. There was an exchange of gunfire that just- you can't imagine my mind- I just got back from Vietnam, hadn’t been in town long, had a great day, and walked up on this scene where it's like a shoot out at the O.K. corral. I think four people were killed. I don't know how many people were injured, but it was the Baton Rouge riots, and I ended up right in the middle of it. I ducked down 13th Street, made it back to the car, and we got the hell outta there. There were helicopters in the air. I could see the M60 that I used to fire outta the helicopters- guys hangin’ out the doors. It was a bad scene for several days- matter of fact, there were reports that the black Muslims were coming from Chicago. Three busloads of ‘em were supposed to be coming. Highway patrol, city police, all congregated at the bus station waiting for the buses to come, and the first bus to pull in they surrounded *laughs* with guns drawn, and of course there wasn't no Muslims, it was just regular bus riders tryna figure out what the hell was goin’ on. That motivated me to leave Baton Rouge.
A Different World
“I saw what freedom really looks like. All of the advantages of being an American citizen.”
I was staying with my parents when that situation happened- when I walked into the Baton Rouge riots. One of my best friends in the Marine Corps was a white guy we called him Thebe. He called to find out where I was because we had kinda lost contact, and I answered the phone, and he was on his way from Midland, Texas to Atlanta. He was tellin’ me that they had jobs, so it was like, Okay, well I need to go to Atlanta. It so happened that by the time he got to Baton Rouge and left with him, he had already set up a place for us to stay until I got an apartment, and had the job set up for me if I wanted it.. So we moved in with this white couple, John and Karen Lott- I will never forget them. The sweetest people in the world. I can't explain how it felt that there was such a lack of... I mean, they knew Thebe from when they were kids, and they treated me no different than they treated Thebe. They had already set up the job at GRC, Georgia Retardation Center, and all I had to do was fill out the application if I wanted the job. That was really the first time I could say that I was really aware of a fully integrated situation. I can't even describe how I felt... ‘Ya know, black people recognize the little hiccup when you walk in a situation where they not expectin’ you to be black and you get that little, “huh!” and they catch themselves right away! Yeah, no hiccup, no flinch. I saw what freedom really looks like. All of the advantages of being an American citizen. All the rights and privileges that 'ya know, just the ease to move around, to say I want to rent an apartment and pick a part of town and confidently go there and fill out the application. Not worry for one second whether or not they gonna rent you the place because of your race... Matter of fact, I rented a house that a white couple I knew were movin’ out, TThey said, “You can move in here and we’ll just clear it with the landlord.” So I moved in, and the landlord came by after the first month to collect the rent. He doesn't say a word, but then I get a phone call: “My daughters movin in town and I-I- I'm gonna need that house.”
But as things worked out the couple who moved out knew a (white) guy who lived around the corner who had a house. When they found out what happened to me they told this guy and he was really upset, so he said, “C’mon... rent this house.” On one hand racism showed its ugly head, but then on the other hand it was like, no we're not gonna...
We lost a kid at GRC, and no matter how you can look at it or justify it, we shoulda seen it, and it hit us pretty hard. Thebe was from Midland, Texas, so he’s tellin’ me bout Denton,Texas, and North Texas State, a place that he went to school— “You could probably go back to school or whatever.” It all sounded good, so why not? Wasn't nothin' holding me in Atlanta, so I moved with them to Denton, and that's where I got the job at Denton state. And I did go back to school for a while... I took some classes at North Texas State- that's where I met your momma.
Be The Change
“My proudest moment was taking the wheelchairs into the unit, and getting them outta those beds”
I think the biggest institutional change that I was a part of was when I was in Denton, Texas working at The Denton School for the Mentally and Physically Handicapped. When I first started there I worked with older guys who were kept in bed 24/7, and they were all fed this pureed- slop is the best way I can describe it. And the way it was done just was so inhumane. GRC was like an ideal place for special needs individuals, and the whole institution was set up around the residents and made sure that they were safe and got everything they needed. It was like the Disney Land of mental health institutions. And this place was completely the opposite. After being there for about a month, maybe two months, I just decided I wasn't- I couldn't do it like that. There had to be a better way to recognize the humanity of these people we were taking care of, so I started with a\the feeding line. Just feeding a human in a normal way. You take your spoon and you let ‘em take a spoonful. The way we did it before was you just hold their heads back and their mouths open and you rake the food in, which was just so cruel, and just dismissive of their humanity. They had a system that was more like a car wash than anything else. You had the feeding and washing and bathing and the clothing, and it was just a whole system.so when I started with letting them take a spoonful at a time it pretty much slowed the whole thing down, and of course pissed off the head people off, but I just couldn't do it any other way. And finally it got to the superintendent and they called my supervisor in, and told her that she needs to either fire me or find someplace I could do the work. So she moved me off of that unit to somewhere else.
A couple of months later they hired a psychiatrist who was looking for a team to do some baseline work. It's unbelievable that this institution had been in operation this long and had never had an on-campus psychiatrist or psychologist. He told my supervisor that he was looking for people who could kinda work outta the box, so she recommended me working with them. One of my first jobs was to go back to that first unit (choking up) that I was working on, and figure out which one of these guys- what kinda diets to start with. All of ‘em didn't need to eat that slop. Some of ‘em could handle regular food, and so we figured out which ones could handle regular food. We figured out which ones could get up in wheelchairs- (choking up) My proudest moment was taking the wheelchairs into the unit, and getting them outta those beds. Some of those guys hadn't seen sunlight since god knows when, and getting them out into courtyards- it changed- And of course the workers were really pissed off with us at first, but after a while we actually made their work easier. They had more time to spend with the residents, and it wasn't just a go-go-go system. We set up disciplines where we would take the resident out of the unit, so that left them with fewer residents that they would have to take care of. It was a win/win situation all the way around, the whole personality of the institution changed. We changed the whole campus. Things were changing so rapidly for the betterment of the residents, so it was fun to go to work after that. We even got to design a playground for wheelchair kids. 'Ya know, a merry go round that has ramps where you can wheel the chairs on to the thing, clamp ‘em down 'ya know, move the ramp and they could spin around just like any other kid… We also had swings where we could hook the wheelchair on to a swing, clamp it up and it would lift the wheelchair off the ground and it would swing the kid.
My wife and I just happened to go back there just a couple of years ago and it's still in operation. And unlike Louisiana, who closed down all their institutions, they kept that one open for residents who had nowhere else to go. When we went to the office they gave us instructions, and the instructions they gave us was almost exactly *choking up* the same things that we had been fighting for 25 years earlier. We had helped a couple of the young guys to get their GED. All they had was cerebral palsy. It was just a situation where their parents couldn't care for them, but they were very intelligent young men. Both of them got their highschool diplomas and I think one went on and took some college courses and ended up going back home. The other guy we actually saw was still there. He was one of the residents that didn't have anywhere else to go. But he was happy to be there, and he was glad to see us, and we were glad to see him.
I was in Denton for three years, from ‘74-’ 77. We had the opportunity to build and run this greenhouse business in Forney, Texas, which looked really good. A situation happened when at one point we had ordered a whole boxcar order of peat moss. Thebes’ brother-in-law knew where we could hire some Mexican guys to help us unload this boxcar of peat moss, so they hired four Mexicans. I didn't ask whether they were legal or illegal, and these guys worked harder than any of us. When it came time to pay them Thebe asked me what we gon’ pay them and I asked him what's the wage? What are we paying everybody else? I think it was 3.50 per hour at the time (I know that sounds like nothing). So we paid them minimum wage like we paid the highschool kids. The next day here comes the head of the- I think the Rotary club, the bank president- 4-5 of the town heads came down and wanted to know why were we messing with their economy. They said, “Yeah we don't pay the Mexicans the same as we pay everybody else.” I told Thebe if that's the way itwas gon’ be then I can't work there. The guy that actually owned the property came down and they had a conference with the people and he told ‘em—Lawason Ridgeway was his name—he said, “Whatever my guy thinks they're worth that's what we're gonna pay ‘em.” That was interesting that 'ya know, we actually stood up to them and they folded, I mean they just said, "Okay". Lawson was a pretty heavy hitter, so they wasn't gonna fuck with him— excuse my language *laughs*. They wasn't gonna mess with him, so if he said that's what we were payin’ ‘em then that’s what we were payin’ ‘em.
When we were getting ready to leave Forney- to go back to Baton Rouge, the bank president came- somebody musta told him they saw us loading up the truck or something, and he came down to make sure we weren't leaving because of what happened. He even said, “Anything we can do- is there any-” We said, “No... we're leaving because there is nothing else here.” *laughs*.
Talk Is Action
“The common perception was there wouldn't be racism if we wouldn't bring it up. If you could quit talking about it maybe it would go away- No. Not gonna happen".
We moved back here I think in ‘79- the end of ‘79. Ya momma went right to work at the Lake (hospital) even before she got her RN. And shoot man I worked from- I think my first job here I sold cars, I sold stereo equipment, I sold vacuum cleaners- then I got the job at the post office. And really that was the best job, but it was the one job I was trying my damndest to avoid ‘cause my daddy worked for the post office.
Your momma was lookin’ for a church home. Not that she was that religious- she wasn't Christian, but she liked the ritual of church and religion. I wasn't interested at all, and that's a whole notha discussion *laughs*My cousin, Uncle Dupuy’s son, Dupuy Jr. was getting married and he wanted to get married in a non-Christian setting. His daddy at one time was a Unitarian. He knew about the Unitarian church, so he contacted Steve Crump, and he did the wedding. I was so impressed with his non-Christian wedding, and at the same time your mom had been coming to an aerobics class at the church, and had picked up some of the literature. She had actually come to a service and told me she really enjoyed it and they read poetry and somebody played a flute and I'm like, Yeah, alright whatever… sounds like fun. Because I was impressed with the way Steve handled that wedding-without making the christians feel excluded.And because your mom was really interested I said, “Okay I’ll check it out.” So we started going. Right off the bat I was impressed with the chalice lighting words. “Out of love for the human community we light this flame"- Okay you got my attention. After meeting Steve Crump, who is still a remarkable human being, we ended up joining the church.
What I experienced at the Unitarian Church was something I had never experienced before— they turned me loose. First they asked me if I would serve on the ministerial committee, which is kinda like Steves' little support group, so I got to know him pretty intimately. We would come up with ideas, and the Joseph Campbell series (Power of Myth) was just out, with Bill Moyer. So I said, “Hey, why don't I do this Joseph Campbell series?” So they let me do the Joseph Campbell series. It was set up to where we would watch an hour and discuss an hour and it was six sessions and went on perfectly well. We did a church service on Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. I lead a discussion onRoger Waters’ Amused to Death, and that's what I mean how they just turned me loose. In the meantime I did start working on what was called social concerns back then which is kinda 'ya know, “community involvement lite”... light community involvement. Blanche Cano was over that, so we did some good work. We put together what was called the Jubilee weekend once, which used a curriculum from the Kettering Foundation, which was pretty good. I realized even doing that it did not seem to have an end. It seemed to have a discussion part but it didn't have a focus of, where do we take this.
Around that time, I met Robbie Madden through our church, and her participation with the YWCA- Maxine Crump was president at the time. Tom Ed McQue was our mayor. He was doing a series of Town Hall meetings on different topics and he finally got to one called, What color is community? Robbie asked me if I would be a part of that and facilitate a group. They were going to have a couple speakers, and then we were gonna break up into small groups and have like a discussion on race. They came up with a training on how to facilitate this meeting. So we did some facilitation training. Maxine was great as far as teaching how to facilitate a difficult topic, and the main thing I remember about that is to not put yourself in it. You are the facilitator and the discussion is for the table. It was a very successful Town Hall meeting. I think they did it twice. I think the first time we had more undercover Police and FBI then we had participants. They really were afraid that shit was gonna get outta hand. That's how far we've come. That woulda been- think that woulda been ‘92... Either ‘92 or ‘93, somewhere in there.
After we had the town hall meeting people wanted to keep it going. They wanted to take it further, continue the conversation.They came up with this thing they called the Second Mile, and out of the Second Mile came what would become Dialogue on Race. As well as church pairing- traditionally white churches would pair up with traditionally black churches. The Unitarian Church paired with Camphor (United Methodist).
Through trial and error we finally- I think Maxine came up with the final curriculum that we use to this day, which is still evolving, but the basic curriculum is about the same. The genius of the dialogue is that they start off with definitions, and they have a definite purpose- an end goal, and the end goal is to get involved institutionally. It starts off with definitions in the first section. The second section is lookin’ into white privilege When we got to white privilege, white people would get up and walk out. They would lose they minds 'ya know. "I ain't got no privilege." Now it's just a part of the common lexicon when we talk about race, but in those early days white privilege, institutional racism— those were all new terms that we were bringing into the conversation. And in many ways taboo terms. The common perception was there wouldn't be racism if we wouldn't bring it up. If you could quit talking about it maybe it would go away- No. Not gonna happen. Then we went through a section where wetalked about the Civil Rights movement, and 'ya know, what's happened since the Civil Rights movement as far as affirmative action. Then we’d finish it with “Talk Is Action”, and what are some of the steps that can be made from there. The point is that we all belong to institutions. We all belong to some form of institution or another. If it's just your church, if you have a soccer club, that's an institution; a dance club- anything where people gather for a purpose is an institution. And those institutions are supposedly created for the common good. So the next step should seem pretty logical. Just make sure these institutions that you are a part of are working toward the common good.
It’s All Coming Together
“Just the fact that it was two black ministers who had this whole vision was impressive to me. “
When Blanche Cano, like I say, was over the social concerns committee the church went from that to a social justice team. Blanche gave up that position, and I was asked to take that on. I had been the social justice director maybe a year or two before I met Brodrick and he explained this program and whether or not we were gonna get involved. I have to say, too, that I was a little hesitant, because we had actually paired up with another organization who (I can't even remember the name of it) was a social organization, and it had a nationwide parent organization. But the leadership was very weak. We started out good, and then people started fallin’ off until it came down to it was just us, and that was a little disappointing. By that time I figured we would do our own as far as social justice. We were also lookin’ at gun reform, always lookin’ at racism. I had gotten the church involved with Dialogue on Race. We had done a couple of dialogues at the church. So when Broderick presented the program I was a little skeptical, but I gotta give him credit. He gave a good pitch. He got my attention.
You know Unitarians, they tend to be upper-middle-class, educated, white, progressive-minded people that don't get much contact with other demographics - I'll just put it that way. So, I really wanted us to get involved with a true grassroots organization. Other than Dialogue On Race I thought we would take a look at Together Baton Rouge. Then when I met Reverend Wesley and Reverend Rushing and heard their story—that they had gone looking for a way to form an action organization that would actually do something in Baton Rouge that could pull people together from different demographics for the common good—it was like, Okay, let's go! Just the fact that it was two black ministers that had this whole vision was impressive to me. We came to a couple meetings, and Steve and I talked about it, and we were both pretty impressed. We talked about what it would mean to our church, and the fact that unless the church went in all the way it wouldn't be to our advantage. The church took a vote on whether or not to join Together Baton Rouge and it was unanimous. And I was very proud of our church at that moment... there was no hesitation. And as time has gone on you can see how involved our church has been. There's room to get us more involved, but our history with TBR has always been strong
[TBR] has given me a platform to operate from. I gotta say in all fairness- I'm kinda on the back end of that, and not for any philosophical reason. It’s only for physical reasons that I kinda backed off a little bit. Since that last (back) surgery it made me think that I need to lighten up a little bit. But what it has done, it has given me that grassroots platform from which to do social justice work. And social justice work to me is nothing more than helping your community to be the best it can be. And of course that takes in all segments of what a society's about. Racial issues have to be taken into account. How we divy up the money in our society? Who benefits? And who’s being left out? That to me is social justice work. And it has to come up from the bottom and that's what always impressed me about TBR. Is that we try, and nothing’s perfect, but the effort is to push up from the bottom and motivate people who normally wouldn't be involved or see themselves getting involved, or see how they would be involved.
That's extremely important, and it's been important for our church to provide an onramp for social justice work. I think TBR has definitely provided that for me, and I see it in our church. We just voted in a new senior minister, and in the process of coming to that conclusion we did all kinds of surveys and group meetings and workshops to figure out what exactly does our church want. TBR stood out prominently in responses to what our congregants like about our church. They love our involvement in TBR.
The effort to save the bus company I think was one of our shining hours. ITEP as well, but the bus company put our feet on the ground in the neighborhoods. Unitarians don't go in these neighborhoods, so to have these white middle-class people in these black neighborhoods and realizing that the economics is different, the culture may be different, but what people want outta life is the same— it was a transformative moment for the people of our church as well as the people we went out to make contact with. To make them realize what was on the line, and they had the power to fix it. And we did- just knocking on doors. I mean that to me is really where the rubber meets the road. Is when you decide on what needs to be done and you set a plan, and the organization did a wonderful job in identifying the areas we needed to go to to make this effort successful. And, no matter what political stripe you may have, the fact that Baton Rouge still has a bus company is totally dependent on what TBR did. And we made regular community members leaders in the process.
“But it all started from this one woman who had no idea- all she knew is something needed to be done, and all she needed to hear here was ‘why don't you do it, and we'll back you up’.”
When I think of a grassroots leader, I think of Ms. Dorothy and Loyace and their little group *chokes up*. And I can remember all the dignitaries 'ya know, after they got the [Blue Grass] Bridge finished. Here we got the mayor and whatever heads and all the ministers celebrating getting the work done, but it all started from this one woman who had no idea- all she knew is something needed to be done, and all she needed to hear here was, "Why don't you do it, and we'll back you up". A leader is someone who can identify a problem and gather enough support to put a plan in action.
A lot of the people I am in a relationship with at TBR I've also facilitated through the dialogue- Dianne Hanley. Several others... Jane Chandler... but several of the people who are in TBR I’ve either been in dialogue with or I've facilitated the dialogues they went through. So those relationships were formed through TBR. People I really admire in Baton Rouge are a part of TBR. Edgar Cage, Press Robinson.... I mean just so many strong leaders... and I love Ms. Dorothy's- her little group. They’re faithful and active.
I am optimistic about the future. I feel like once we can get past this pandemic (which has ravaged us) I think we really have some tough days yet ahead, but I think once we get past this people are going to be so fired up and ready to go and do things that I think we're gonna get a lot done!