A reunion held this weekend at Xavier University and the Ashé Cultural Arts Center seemed a bit like any big gathering of old friends, with lots of laughing and inside jokes. But the daring adventures recalled by more than 50 members of the Congress of Racial Equality Louisiana Project included narrow escapes that drove one of them to hide in a graveyard, another to hide in the branches of a fig tree and a few more to take refuge inside a funeral home.
Fearing for his life, James Farmer Jr. exited the town of Plaquemine concealed in a hearse, said Lolis Elie, a well-known civil rights attorney. Farmer was a co-founder of CORE, an interracial, civil rights organization founded in Chicago in 1942 with a mission of nonviolence.
Many of the CORE members, who volunteered to register African-American voters in Mississippi and Louisiana during the Freedom Summer of 1964, had not seen each other since the 1960s.
They came together over the weekend from Louisiana, California, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Ohio and Georgia to recount history but also to celebrate how far African-Americans have come in their fight for equality.
Ronnie Moore, then field director of the CORE Louisiana project, recalled a phone call from fellow member Robert Wechsler after the 2008 presidential election.
“If you hadn’t done that militant stuff back then, we wouldn’t have (Barack) Obama in office today,” Wechsler told Moore.
As a student at Southern University, Moore helped found Louisiana CORE. He and 20 other students were expelled from school by the state for attempting to integrate lunch counters. Moore was arrested 15 times, served six months in jail and spent 57 days in solitary confinement.
“There was a time when we responded to a force that was greater than ourselves,” Moore said. “I was at my best.”
During the reunion, the activists were riveted by a 1964 public television documentary, “Louisiana Diary,” which depicted their courageous work, including mock interrogations at voter education clinics, door-to-door canvassing, church meetings, a march and mass arrests.
“Anywhere you went in the South, there was somebody from CORE,” said Doratha “Dodie” Smith-Simmons, the conference coordinator.
In 1964, 60 volunteers — all college students — convened in Plaquemine, CORE’s state headquarters for voter registration. They attended a 10-day training session before conducting voter education in eight parishes in the 6th Congressional District.
Application questions had been designed to confuse people hoping to vote, and anyone could be failed for minor errors like not dotting an i or circling a choice instead of underlining it.
“If people aren’t taught how to fill out the applications, they can’t possibly pass,” the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported on Aug. 17, 1964.
Clinics taught applicants how to complete the forms so as to avoid rejection. After two months, more than a thousand African-Americans had successfully registered, even though most applicants “failed.”
“When you are young, you don’t really understand you’re in the middle of history,” said Edwin Lombard, now a state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal judge, then a CORE member who volunteered to register voters in Canton, Mississippi.
Michael Lesser was a graduate student at Syracuse University when he decided to join his friend Rudy Lombard, a New Orleans Freedom Rider, in Plaquemine.
“I wanted to do something that was important to this country,” Lesser recalled.
Instead of returning to graduate school, he remained a member of the CORE field staff, working in Monroe, Jonesboro, Baton Rouge and Clinton, where he was arrested for “criminal anarchy.”
Elie got Lesser out of jail.
Lesser traveled from San Francisco to connect with his co-workers again.
“This is the most wonderful, unusual group of people I have ever met,” he said.
Elie added: “I never imagined that these people, my friends, would change America.”