Black Youth marched, were jailed during civil rights protests of 70's

The Black Youth Council was an organization of Black Youth that staged boycotts of white businesses, marches and other civil rights protests from 1970-72. The organization was founded by 21 year old Roosevelt Wright, Jr. as part of an ongoing community effort to achieve civil rights through non-violent civil disobedience.

The first meeting, called by Wright, was held at the Marbles Recreation Center and was attended by 300 youth who listened to Wright and A.G. Facen, president of the Black Citizen’s Council. In this first fiery address, Wright accused the city of depriving Blacks of their right and making “Uncle Toms” of Black leaders.

He urged fellow youth to organize themselves. Shortly after another meeting was held at Bethel Baptist Church and the group elected Jerry W. Davidson and Johnny Jenkins as its president and vice president. Wright urged the group to target white businesses that refused to hire Blacks and boycott them. He provided information to the community about the need for Co-ops, voter education and help for the poor.

The Council met its first opposition when a member of the Bethel Church, Mrs. Lorraine Slacks, denounced the group’s intentions and blasted the idea of boycotting white businesses. Controversy was sparked when Slacks wrote her opinions in an open letter to the public in the local Black paper and signed the pastor’s name to the letter, even though the pastor, The Reverend Lonnie Bruce Jackson, made it known that neither he nor the church had any knowledge of the letter. Despite opposition from Slacks the group continued and as the summer of 1970 approached several stores were targeted for boycotts and pickets by the group. As word of the approaching boycotts spread, pressure was applied to the groups leaders and their families.

Wright was fired from his job with the Ouachita Community Action Agency, and several of his family members mysteriously lost their jobs as well. Before mounting the boycotts the youth attempted to meet with Monroe Mayor W.L. Howard to get his help in resolving differences. Howard refused to meet with the youth objecting to their costumes that consisted of overalls and denim jackets. In mid June 1970 the boycotts began and a 12 hour a day picket was placed at a hamburger establishment called “Burger Chef” on Louisville Avenue. Although its hamburgers were only 15 cents the business refused to hire Blacks and had often required Blacks to make their orders at the back door.

Nearly 50 youth camped out daily at the establishment from 11 a.m. each morning to 12 midnight. The first days of the boycott had a festival type atmosphere and youth from across the city gathered at sundown on the parking lot next to Burger Chef as the police and curious passerbys observed cautiously. Following a night of boycotting, a rally was held at the Antioch Baptist Church as citizens from throughout the community heard Wright and Facen urge Monroe Blacks to keep up the boycott until Burger Chef broke.

The youth began to draw the support of adult leaders such as Dr. John Reddix, Facen and Rev. John L. Russell. Rev. Russell opened the doors of his two churches Macedonia and Antioch to the picketers for meeting, planning sessions and rest stops, despite severe criticism from skeptics in the community. As the boycott continued the Monroe Police Department called out a special unit of 45 riot armed policemen who attempted to disperse the youth and stop the picket. There were 27 arrests made in the incident as scores of youth ran to police cars singing “I ain’t scared of no jail, I want my freedom now.” Wright, Davidson and Jenkins were among the first to be arrested. Facen provided bail for the youth.

Wright himself was jailed or interrogated by local law officials and the FBI 17 times during the course of the boycotts. No sooner than they were released the youth continued the boycotts and more were arrested. Each night the arrests continued and the youth returned repeatedly. Finally Burger Chef agreed to hire Black workers and the boycotts shifted to Eastgate Shopping Center and several other areas targeted by the group. Each time, the boycotts resulted in jobs and several arrests. The city stepped up its efforts to break the spirit of the group.

On July 3, 1970 several of the group’s leaders were arrested as they tried to attend a Fourth of July Program at the Monroe Civic Center. Plain clothes police officers, led by Chief James Kelly arrested youth and adults as they attempted to enter the Civic Center. They were charged with trespassing on city property.

Arrested were: Wright, Rev. Russell, Sylvester "Sexy Syl" Harris, Jenkins, Stanley Davis and Larry Neal. The arrests sparked unrest in the community. Tensions increased as the news of the arrests spread. Youth Council members camped out on the steps of the city jail and fearing racial unrest the city released several of the detainess but Russell refused to leave the jail. Since he refused to leave or post bond he was forcibly thrown out of jail such that his presence could not be a focal point of attention.

A march was planned on city hall to demonstrate Black community concerns. Planners included: Rev. Elijah Brass, Rev. Lawrence R. Martin, Rev. C. V. Rodgers, Rev. John L. Russell, Sr., Rev. Franklin. Delano. Nash, Jenkins, Davidson, Wright, and Alfred Blakes. The pastors took considerable criticism from those in the community who feared retaliation from whites. One pastor, Rev. Christopher Van Rodgers told his Zion Traveler Congregation “I’m going, with or without you.” Dressed in jump suits and clerical collars the ministers led over 500 marchers to a rally on the city hall steps. Speakers included A.G. Facen, Rev. Elijah Brass, Rev. John L. Russell, Sr. and Wright.

The youth group embarked on a variety of community self help projects after the summer of 1970, including a housing rehabilitation program called “Operation Helping Hand.” The program focused on repairing the homes of the poor with new materials purchased from donations received in the community. Scores of homes were rehabilitated by the Black Youth Council as Wright marshaled the energies of youth to solicit funds and then spend them to buy materials for rehabilitation. On a typical project the youth would appear at a home at dawn and with an entourage of about 50 youth armed with saws, hammers and materials would completely rehabilitate a structure by sundown on the same day.

The council’s meetings consisted of reading newspapers, watching films and debating issues related to the movement. The police and FBI never let up on the group however and round the clock stake outs were placed at many of their homes, threats were made on their lives, and many suffered economically because of their actions. Some adults who became involved in their movement were catapulted into positions of leadership later. But many of the youth who gave of themselves for the effort reaped no personal rewards, with the exception of having participated in a part of Monroe history that improved conditions for many people after them.