The night a veiled threat encouraged a white mob to leave a Black church alone
In new book, a pioneering civil rights organizer recalls his days in the movement
In this excerpt from his new book, The Movement Made Us, Andscape senior writer David Dennis Jr. relates his father’s recollections of working as an organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Shreveport, Louisiana, soon after he participated in one of the early Freedom Rides.
The Freedom Rides were still all over the national news as CORE battled with the state of Mississippi over the cases following our arrests. White folks around the country were outraged that we had disrupted and integrated the buses and received National Guard aid to do so. We were the most hated group of kids in America.
I didn’t care.
I never acted like someone who was in between a shotgun and a ditch. I still went everywhere by myself: bars, restaurants, grocery stores. I went on dates. I drove around at night alone. I’d stare white men in the face while they looked back at me, shocked I had the audacity to be seen. Only a maniac or someone who was protected would take these kinds of risks as often as I did.
I’d convinced myself that I needed to show the rest of the Black folks in Shreveport that I wasn’t afraid, so I had to show my face. Honestly, I was still shell-shocked from my Freedom Ride and too numb to be scared. Grandma Bessie would say that God watches over children and fools. I was both.
Meanwhile, I was using the momentum from the arrests and the attention it brought to regain the pastors’ trust. But they were just one cog. It takes a whole community to make a Movement. I reached out to local Black businesses asking them to lend their resources whenever we needed them. That’s where the Freeman & Harris Cafe came in. The restaurant served the best fried food in the city and was the place where Black businesspeople hung out and where families gathered after church for Sunday dinners. Pete Harris, who owned the restaurant, wanted to help out as much as he could and would provide free chicken for most of our big meetings. Thinking back to my early days in New Orleans, I was banking on the hope that people would attend meetings for the free food and then be lured into Movement work.
We had a passionate group of young people, like Levert Taylor and the McGinnie sisters, working with us and a new group of young ministers like Reverend Blake, Reverend Blade, and Reverend Jones, who were making names for themselves and providing new leadership. They had joined forces with some of the elderly ministers like Reverend McLain.
Then I reached out to the people I grew up with, kids I went to school with and their siblings. Some were in high school. Some were on summer vacation from college. Others had been swallowed up by the streets. Shreveport had gangs all over the city, mostly grouped together by neighborhood. There were the Hollywood, Cedar Grove, Allendale, and Lakeside gangs.
I tried to sell these young Black men on the idea that if we got rid of segregation, then maybe they wouldn’t have to take to the streets. The nonviolent part was the hardest sell. “Dave, man, you lettin’ them crackers kick your ass all day? We not letting n—as beat us up without getting shot, so we not letting white folks do it,” one of the Allendale kids would say, his hands on his belt buckle on Levi’s that were down low on his hips and cuffed at the bottom above his patent leather shoes with the heels cut down so the toe of his shoe would stick up, as was the style for the corner boys back then.
“This is bigger than you,” I’d try to argue, still not totally sold on nonviolence myself. “If you just help us and we win this thing, you won’t have to do any of that stuff you’re doing out here.”
“I got more of a chance out here in these streets than you do in those bus stations.”
When all philosophical debates failed, I would rely on my wild card: “Look, please. Just come to one meeting We’re gonna have Freeman and Harris chicken.”
Our churches would be filled with these cross sections of the Shreveport community. Gang members sitting with elders. Business owners with beauticians. College kids with clergy. These churches were our organizational headquarters. They were community centers. They were second homes. They were bunkers.
At the end of August, I invited Hank Thomas to come speak at Evergreen Baptist Church on Allen Avenue. I’d admired Hank as one of the bravest among us. It was one thing for us to have hopped on a Freedom Ride not knowing what the experience was going to be, jumping into a fear of the unknown. But Hank had survived the bombing in Anniston and, like John Lewis, volunteered to go back on the rides to Jackson. That’s a different kind of fearlessness. I knew he could inject that fearlessness into our community.
Evergreen was one of the larger Black churches in the area, and the white folks in Shreveport were already fuming over my being allowed to walk around the city alive. But now I was holding meetings and inviting more Freedom Riders into town. There were seven hundred of us in that church. We were energizing the Black community. White folks outside of those walls were matching our energy. An overload was coming.
I introduced Hank, then sat in the back of the church, just trying to observe and make sure everyone was as safe as possible. A mother and her daughter, no older than seven or so, tried to quietly slink out of the church. The mother looked at me and mouthed a “thank-you” while putting two clasped hands against the side of her face to signal to me she was too tired and needed to go home. The girl smiled, her dimples taking up the entirety of her cheeks. I returned a nod and a thank-you for coming as they walked out of the sanctuary into the lobby and out of the church. Seconds later I heard a pair of high-pitched screams coming from the lobby. I rushed toward the sound, quickly closing the sanctuary doors behind me.
“Eyes! My Eyes!” The little girl was sobbing, tears streaming from her face as her eyes went from slammed shut to wide open. Her mother was holding the girl’s head close to her chest.
“My baby! They attacked my baby! Something’s in her eyes!” I grabbed them and tried to get them to the bathroom near the exit to get a better look at what was hurting the girl and to quiet their screams so as not to alarm the rest of the congregants. As I walked them back, my own eyes and nostrils started burning. “Dave, they — they’re out there. The Klan. They’re here. We can’t leave!” The mother was in hysterics.
I found a towel in the cabinet under the sink, wet it, and handed it to the mother to pat her daughter’s eyes while I went upstairs to get a better view of outside. There were dozens of white men, women, and children with bats, guns, canisters of what was either gas, acid, or who knows what. Even more police officers were scattered among them, Police Chief Harvey Teasley included. They were just standing there. Silent. I’ll never forget the freckly-faced white man in overalls, a baseball bat in his right hand, his left hand resting on his son’s shoulders. While inside a little girl the same age as that boy, with purple hair bobbles and church socks up to her shins, was crying in agony because something had burned her entire face.
I didn’t know what to do next. Hank was finishing his speech and if any of us left Evergreen, it would be the last thing we ever did. I had to keep us inside without raising anyone’s concern. I needed divine intervention. That’s when my guardian angel started singing. My grandmother, who had been sitting in the back of the church as she did for all our meetings, was standing up now. And she was singing the songs that raised me.
Oh, when the saints, go marching in
When the saints go marching innnnn . . .
Her voice hung from the chandelier, bounced off the pulpit, and high-stepped down the aisle, lifting everyone on its way. By the time she started the second verse the entire church was singing, dancing, and clapping. As my grandmother stood, she looked at me and nodded, letting me know she was going to provide cover all night if she had to. I don’t know how she knew this was what I needed.
The wheels in my head were turning as I tried to figure out how to get us out of there alive, but at least we had time. And the spirit. Then I got a tap on the shoulder.
It was the kid who was part of the Allendale gang. His pants were pulled up this time and his white dress shirt, faded and splotchy, was tucked in.
“Dave, I know they’re out there.”
“Yeah, but please don’t tell anyone until I figure this out.”
“Look, don’t worry. We knew they would come. This what them crackers do. My crew waiting in the bushes and some of them alleys over yonder and we already got these motherf—-rs surrounded. Just give us the word.”
He turned away to walk to the rest of his guys in the church. I knew what he was thinking, so I grabbed his shoulder.
“No, man, you can’t do what you want to do. We’re not doing that.”
“Them words ain’t gonna save nobody. Them songs ain’t gonna get us out of here. You gonna need us to get rid of these crackers and we’ll do it. I swear we will.”
Now I had more lives to save. This was going to be a bloodbath. I don’t know why I did it, but I turned around and walked out of the church and stared at the sea of loathing in front of me. “I need to talk to you,” I yelled across to Teasley, who was leaning against his cop car off to the side, out of the way of the mob.
Slowly, he walked toward me, his hands on his belt, a smirk on his face. He reveled in my desperation. He’d take two steps, spit out his tobacco and take two more, looking around admiring the trees around us as he walked. He wanted me to be scared. He was waiting for me to beg.
Sounds like you might need some help out here, boy. You doing all that protestin’ and who do you call when you need help? You need us to save you? I’m not so sure if I can.
He was baiting me. His collar was wilted and damp from sweat. I wanted to grab him by it.
“With all due respect, sir, I’m not calling for help.”
Oh, really? Well, I’ll just leave y’all to it then.
“Look, sir. I am in a church. A church where we accept saints and sinners. And we have some saints in here. And we have some sinners. I am trying to make tonight peaceful. I’m not calling for you to help us. I’m calling for you to stop some bad things from happening to a whole lot of people. And it won’t just be the Negroes in this church. What happens next is on you. Sir.”
He towered over me, the sun at his back, blacking out his face. I knew I had to stand my ground.
He spit a line of tobacco right at the front of my shoes. Then he looked right at me. The white people behind him were squeezing their bats and cans of whatever burned the girl’s eyes. The fire edging toward the dynamite.
Teasley turned around and walked away. I walked back into the church.
I didn’t know what was coming next. I was essentially telling the chief of police that there were armed Black people nearby. He could come and arrest us all. Or worse. My grandmother was still shaking the church’s columns with her voice. I was pacing around the back, my knees rattling. I didn’t know if I just killed or saved us.
Then came the knock.
I opened the door and saw only one officer walking away. There was nobody with him. No other cops. No rioters. No bats or guns or violence. Most of the people at our meeting never knew what really had happened.
Adapted from the book: THE MOVEMENT MADE US by David J. Dennis Jr. Copyright © 2022 by David J. Dennis Jr. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.