FERRIDAY — On the night of Jan. 30, 1966, in the racially divided city of Ferriday, David Whatley, the first black student to attend the town’s all-white high school, awoke at his grandmother's house to an attempted firebombing by a particularly violent division of the Ku Klux Klan, known as the Silver Dollar Group.
Whatley and his family knew that trouble was just around the corner and they would take turns guarding their home from KKK intimidation.
After his watchman's shift that night, Whatley said he went to bed so he could wake ready for school the following day, but his first cousin Joe Davis fell asleep during his watch around midnight — the very moment when the Silver Dollar Group came calling. Klan members tossed a highly explosive bomb into the front yard, near Whatley’s bedroom window.
Luckily for the family, the explosives failed to detonate properly, causing damage only to the yard.
Nearly 51 years after the attempted violence, Whatley would find himself embracing the daughter of James "Sonny" Taylor, one of the klansmen who tried to hurt him and his extended family that night.
Whatley, now 70, and Taylor’s daughter Debra, 63, met for the first time in Ferriday in February. It was Debra Taylor’s idea. She had been asked to be on a Louisiana cable TV show, “Dianne Andrews In Black and White,” along with Whatley, to discuss the incident.
Whatley and Taylor’s first moments together were emotional. With tears in her eyes, Taylor asked Whatley for forgiveness.
“You had no control over what these guys did,” Whatley consoled Taylor, holding her hand. “You are not guilty for your father’s mistakes.”
Back in 1965 and several months before the firebombing, the 20-year-old Whatley had petitioned the federal court in Shreveport to integrate Ferriday High School after the school board dismissed his request by claiming he was too old. The request was particularly annoying for klansmen because Whatley also was an active member of the Deacons of Defense, an armed group of black residents, founded in Louisiana, who protected black neighborhoods and civil rights workers, such as members of the Congress of Racial Equality, who came to communities in the South to help black residents register to vote.
In addition to raising Whatley, his grandmother Alberta Whatley also housed civil rights workers, many of whom were from northern states, and she was constantly under threat from the KKK and the Silver Dollar Group.
Stanley Nelson, Concordia Sentinel editor and author of "Devils Walking: Klan Murders along the Mississippi in the 1960s," says the Silver Dollar Group formed as a branch of the KKK in the early 1960s. They inflicted more violence and pain than regular Klan units in the hope of intimidating black people trying to integrate into society.
FBI investigative documents, obtained by the LSU Cold Case Civil Rights-era Project, link Sonny Taylor and James Frederick “Red” Lee to the bombing of the Whatley home. Both men also allegedly played roles in the 1967 car bombing and attempted murder of Natchez, Mississippi, NAACP President George Metcalfe. They also may have been involved in the killing of Wharlest Jackson, the first black man to get a supervisory job at a Natchez tire plant, a short time after the Metcalfe incident. Neither man was arrested, let alone prosecuted, for any of the crimes.
Decades later at their meeting, Whatley and Taylor offered prayers for one another and promised to continue to pray for each other.
Whatley and Taylor were accompanied by Natchez Mayor Butch Brown and Ferriday Mayor Gene Allen.
Taylor said she never truly understood the word “closure” until recently when she decided to come forward with her knowledge of her father’s actions, which she said included murder. She contacted the LSU Cold Case Project in 2015. Her story of growing up in a Klan household with an abusive, violent father was detailed in The Advocate and News-Star of Monroe in June.
Late last year, Taylor, who now lives out of state to avoid her two younger brothers who didn’t like their father’s name being besmirched, realized she might be causing the Whatley family pain by not apologizing for her father’s actions. To her, providing the family some closure was more important than taking what she knew to the grave.
“Today made my heart fill, meeting Mr. Whatley and knowing who he is,” Taylor said after meeting with Whatley.
The two got together at Ferriday High School where Whatley recalled the harsh treatment he received from white students who would yell down from the front windows of the school’s building. They would shout insults and racist slurs, Whatley said.
Students would form a tunnel to make entering the hallway nearly impossible without touching someone. If he did, they would retaliate and shove him around.
“Not all students were cruel, but they held back from compassion in fear of (receiving) the same opposition I faced,” he said.
He never got a diploma. He received a letter from the draft board demanding he report for military service during the Vietnam War. He ignored the letter and received another weeks later warning that if he did not report for duty, he would be arrested.
Whatley recalls that the president of the Ferriday School Board, which had originally rejected his request to integrate the schools, also was on the local draft board.
He later received his GED diploma.
In previous interviews, Taylor told Manship School News Services that her eldest brother, Jerome, who died in 2006, was always troubled by what his father had done. Her remaining two brothers consider her selfish for speaking out about their father.
Taylor said she was lucky to escape her father at age 15 and wishes her two brothers would not have been so heavily influenced by him.
“(They) suffered the most from things my dad taught them. He sent them to steal and break the law and even doing those things with (the KKK), by his message of bigotry and hatred,” Taylor said.
Taylor believes hatred was too ingrained in her younger brothers, and she is bitter they could not have lived differently.
“My father chose the legacy that he left for his children,” Taylor said. “The message I most want to leave (is) your children have to shape their lives around the legacy you leave them. Make it a good one.”
Whatley now resides in Baton Rouge with his family.