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Twilight days of Jim Crow

My first time in Louisiana was in the autumn of 1968. It was an unforgettable experience in my life.
Photo by: Heidi Gutman/msnbc
Photo by: Heidi Gutman/msnbc

My first time in Louisiana was in the autumn of 1968. It was an unforgettable experience in my life.

This being the 1960s, and we being Peace Corps volunteers, we made a real effort to join the local African-American community.

We were training on the campus of a former black college in the rural town of Baker, a short ride from Baton Rouge. Though all of us were white, we spent our evenings at a local tavern called “The Mustang.” The owner, celebrating our nightly arrival there, even renamed the place in the language of Swaziland, which we were all studying intensively starting each day from sun-up.

Another bar frequented by local African-Americans was not so friendly. Three of our group entered it only to be told by its white owner that they were not welcome, not one bit, that this establishment was for black patrons only.

It happened in Tangipahoa Parish, near the Mississippi line where some of the Peace Corps trainees were building houses for poor families. When the three of them refused to leave, the bartender called the sheriff. When one of our guys, a tough fellow from Bayonne, New Jersey, questioned why, he was arrested and pistol-whipped. Cracked across the head with the stock of a shotgun, our guy from Jersey was kicked repeatedly after hitting the ground, called a “nigger lover” again and again. He ended up in a hospital where the doctor who sewed him up – he had a broken nose, 17 stitches and some cracked ribs – called the Peace Corps.

What came of it? Nothing. The FBI decided it couldn’t get a conviction against the local sheriff. My friend decided it was better to spend two years working in Swaziland.

It was a different time.

A part of our training and preparation for living and working in Africa was to assign each of us to a “live-in” situation with a local African-American family.

Today, that might seem absurd, What – really? – does a family living in Louisiana in the late 20th century have to do with one living in rural Africa far from modern society, much less from the United States of America.

That said, I treasure that time in Louisiana – the hitch hike to New Orleans, the rough, sometimes scary relations with certain local whites, the whole shebang. That includes getting a wide-eyed look at the last twilight days of Jim Crow and its stunning brutality.