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  • Writer's pictureFred Litwin

A Backgrounder to East Feliciana Parish and the Politics of the Early 1960s

Louisiana is divided into sixty-four parishes. On March 31, 1807, the territorial legislature divided the state into 19 parishes, without getting rid of the old counties (which continued to exist until 1845). In 1811, a constitutional convention organized the state into seven judicial districts, each consisting of groups of parishes. In 1816, the first official map of the state used the term, as did the 1845 constitution. Since then, the official term has been parishes.

Here is a closeup of East Feliciana Parish and you can see the location of Clinton and Jackson.

Clinton is in East Feliciana Parish. East and West Feliciana made up the 20th Judicial District which was served by one judge, John Rarick, and one district attorney, Richard Kilbourne. In 1960, Clinton's population was just 1,568, and by 2020, the population had actually declined to 1,340.

To fully understand the Clinton/Jackson witnesses, you must look at the situation of West and East Feliciana Parish in the early 1960s. This was KKK territory and black people were actively kept off the voting rolls. But the the black community was getting organized and the status quo was being challenged by voter registration drives throughout the area.

At the end of this post, I'll include some of the many relevant questions raised by this history.

They note: (pages 176 - 177)

In Louisiana, four parishes had completely excluded blacks from voting since the turn of the century, while many rural parishes which had, beginning in the 1940s allowed them to vote, purged thousands in 1956-57 after the Brown decision. When CORE started its Sixth Congressional District project in 1962, registrars were putting up all the roadblocks they could. Like the Delta counties in Mississippi, the rural Felicianas [East and West] represented extreme cases of the oppression of a black majority by a white minority. Although between one-third and one-half of the eligible Negroes had been able to register in most of the district, total disenfranchisement existed in West Feliciana, while in East Feliciana only 1 per cent of the Negroes were on the roles.

The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was founded in 1942, "to bring about equality for all people regardless of race, creed, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, religion or ethnic background." In the summer of 1963, CORE made the Sixth Congressional District its "chief project." Ron Moore, the head of CORE in Louisiana, protested to the Justice Department about intimidation: (page 262)

At Clinton, the tiny East Feliciana Parish seat, the registrar's [Henry Earl Palmer] unconcealed hostility was unnerving; he admitted only one person at a time, set rigid identification requirements that few Negroes could meet, and usually flunked the few whom he permitted to take the tests. Out on the streets blacks heard veiled threats, '... boy, you got to leave here. Don't get pushed up to doing things against white folks.' Within a week after CORE's arrival, three blacks lost jobs for attempting to register. Police constantly patrolled the homes of citizens who provided CORE people with living quarters. A white task force worker from Newark, Mike Lesser, was jailed simply because he accompanied Negroes into the registrar's office. So great was the intimidation in this parish that the black Masons asked CORE to stop using their hall as a voter instruction center.

Let's have a deeper dive into what was happening in East Feliciana.

In May 1960, the Justice Department called for the voting records of four Southern counties, including East Feliciana Parish:

New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 24, 1960

The Justice Department's announcement "said that since 1956 1,550 Negroes and 895 whites have been removed from East Feliciana voter rolls by various challenges, many instituted by the segregationist White Citizens Council. Since these purges, the department said, 756 whites and only 20 Negroes have been registered."

In May 1960 U.S. Attorney General William Rogers went to court to ask for the voting records of East Feliciana and two other parishes:

New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 14, 1960

Henry Earl Palmer, the registrar of East Feliciana Parish, was ordered to appear in court:

The Clinton Watchman, June 17, 1960

U.S. Attorney M. Hepburn Many told the court that there were "indications of discrimination":

New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 30, 1960

On July 18, 1960, Palmer was ordered to make the voting records available:

New Orleans Times-Picayune, July 19. 1960

The FBI started checking the records in August 1960:

New Orleans Times-Picayune, August 9, 1960

The FBI inspected records, but the U.S. Attorney went to court to get additional records:

New Orleans Times-Picayune, January 18, 1961

The FBI had found that that of 2,000 Parish voters, only eighty were black in a Parish that was more than 60 percent black.

The Baton Rouge newspaper State Times Advocate reported on August 1, 1963, that a new committee had been formed to fight JFK's civil rights program:

Baton Rouge State Times Advocate, August 1, 1963

Political boss Leander Perez pledged $1,000 at this meeting. The New Orleans Times-Picayune of August 1, 1963, reported that Judge John Rarick was at this meeting, and he pledged $1,000 as well.

On August 2, 1963, CORE worker Michael Lesser was arrested in Clinton while trying to register black people:

Baton Rouge State Times Advocate, August 3, 1963

Two CORE workers appeared before Judge John Rarick a few days later:

Baton Rouge State Times Advocate, August 9, 1963

A black attorney tried to quash the charges and CORE workers tried to integrate the courtroom. Judge Rarick then cleared the courtroom.

Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, August 10, 1963

You can see the opposition to civil rights in a meeting held in Clinton in early August:

Baton Rouge State Times Advocate, August 6, 1963

Richard Kilbourne was the District Attorney of Clinton and R. G. Van Buskirk was a Clinton town counsel and a member of the KKK.

The trials of Lesser and Brown were postponed in mid-August, while Herbert Collins, a CORE defense attorney, tried to desegregate the courtroom. Judge Rarick said it was the "most unusual motion I have ever heard of in my life."

Baton Rouge State Times Advocate, August 16, 1963

CORE National Director James Farmer then arrived in Louisiana:

Baton Rouge State Times Advocate, August 19, 1963

On August 20, 1963, the town of Clinton asked for a restraining order on CORE:

New Orleans States-Item, August 21, 1963

Here is how some of this was reported in Clinton:

Clinton Watchman, August 23, 1963

"Yesterday afternoon, Henry Earl Palmer, registrar of voters, said a good many Negroes were appearing at his office to register and "one or two" had successfully met requirements."

"One or two"!

On September 2, 1963, there was a riot in Plaquemine, Louisiana:

New Orleans Times-Picayune, September 8, 1963

Leander Perez pledged that if CORE workers arrive in Plaquemines Parish, "they would receive a different reception."

Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, September 6, 1963

On September 30, 1963, there was a hearing regarding the injunction against CORE. Van Buskirk said that the citizens of East Feliciana Parish are "met for the time with one of the arms of the Communist conspiracy" in CORE.

Baton Rouge, State Times Advocate, October 1, 1963

Van Buskirk said that Communists have infiltrated CORE since it began, and that CORE's actions were a "criminal conspiracy."

"Van Buskirk, in his opening statement, said he would prove that 14 members of the board of directors of CORE have been cited more than 400 times with Communist-front activities."

There was a long history of believing that CORE was communist:

New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 3, 1961

The name L. P. Davis will feature in a future post.

There were demonstrations in Clinton in mid-October. Four black people were arrested and CORE's headquarters in Clinton was raided. Edgar Vickery, a white CORE worker, was charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors. The District Attorney, Richard Kilbourne, said that they found works by Karl Marx at CORE headquarters and that the material had been published in Moscow.

New Orleans Times-Picayune, October 14, 1963

FBI agents photographed the arrests.

New Orleans Times=Picayune, October 13, 1963

In the meantime, CORE had received a stay order from the U.S. Fifth Court of Appeals regarding its injunction. Judge Rarick issued a new restraining order against CORE until October 24, 1963. He also issued a warrant for the arrest of James Farmer, National Director of CORE.

Ultimately, the city of Clinton lost its fight with CORE and the injunction against CORE was lifted in early 1964.

Here are some registration numbers for East Feliciana Parish as reported in the Clinton Watchman from November 15, 1963:

Only 126 black people were registered, despite the fact they were over half the population.

Just before the assassination of President Kennedy, Judge Rarick began an investigation into CORE's ties with communism:

Baton Rouge Advocate, November 22, 1963

After the assassination, you can see the depth of feeling towards the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and communism:

Shreveport Times, November 29, 1963

Here is the accompanying cartoon:

Judge Rarick told a rally that the civil rights bill was a "dastardly act."

New Orleans Times-Picayune, February 18, 1964

Richard Kilbourne, DA for Clinton, wrote a letter to the editor of the Baton Rouge State Times Advocate in January 1964 about proposed civil rights legislation:

Baton Rouge State Times Advocate, February 17, 1964

The U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against Henry Earl Palmer, Registrar of Clinton, to halt voter discrimination:

New Orleans Times-Picayune, March 27, 1964

The KKK was very active in those days and here is an incident from April 1964:

New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 20, 1964

Why is this all of this history relevant to the Clinton/Jackson witnesses?

Several reasons:

  • People like Judge John Rarick, District Attorney Richard Kilbourne, and others did everything they could to link CORE with communism. A CORE connection to Lee Harvey Oswald, right after the assassination of JFK, would have cemented the link and would have come at an opportune time when they were still fighting CORE in the streets and in the courts. And yet there was no mention of Oswald being in Clinton/Jackson until mid-1967.

  • It is clear from the stories above just how the racists of Clinton and Jackson treated strangers. Michael Lesser was thrown in jail and others were not so lucky. And yet, we are supposed to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald, a total stranger, was welcomed, told to go to the registrar's house at night, and given tips on getting a job at the hospital in Jackson.

  • Lots of strangers were in Clinton and that included FBI agents, journalists from the print and television media, and observers from the Department of Justice. There was probably no shortage of strange cars and the likelihood of people remembering strangers' faces several years later seems remote.

Our next article will look at the Clinton witnesses and their relationship to the Ku Klux Klan.

The Series on the Clinton/Jackson Witnesses

Part One: The witnesses testify at the trial of Clay Shaw.

Part Two: A response to the allegations made by the Clinton/Jackson witnesses.

Previous Relevant Blog Posts on the Clinton/Jackson Witnesses

Three case studies on how Garrison was less than inquisitive, including the possible check of the Cadillac in Clinton.

Why didn't Garrison check out whether the Trade Mart in New Orleans had leased a Cadillac?

An interview with Weisberg in which he discusses the Clinton witnesses.

Two of the Clinton witnesses claimed they were intimidated. But were they really?

Some background material on Clinton.

William Dunn initially said that Thomas Beckham was with Shaw and Oswald.

Andrew Dunn said Jack Ruby was in Clinton.

None of Garrison's witnesses, including the witnesses from Clinton/Jackson, came forward in 1963 -1964.


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