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Peter Jan Honigsberg

Peter Jan Honigsberg

Posted: November 5, 2010 01:40 PM

A Legacy

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On a steamy and stormy Saturday in late August 2010, I joined 200 friends and family members of Robert (Bob) Hicks as we celebrated the naming of "Robert (Bob) Hicks" street in Bogalusa, Louisiana. The ceremony was inspirational. But, my meeting with his grandchild after the ceremony is a memory I will forever cherish.

In the 1960s, the dusty paper-mill town of Bogalusa, Louisiana, sixty miles north of New Orleans, across Lake Pontchartrain, was in turmoil. Bob Hicks, Gayle Jenkins and A.Z. Young led an inspirational movement to eradicate the town's racial barriers. Their grassroots organization was known as the Deacons for Defense and Justice, and the deacons represented the only black group in the '60s that armed themselves and fought back in response to white violence. Martin Luther King never visited Bogalusa -- the philosophy of the deacons did not resonate with King's belief in non-violence.

During those days, blacks who stood up to the white leadership assumed grave risks. The first black deputy sheriff in Washington Parish was shot in the head and died, seven miles outside of Bogalusa. His black partner lost his right eye in the same ambush. The white city police department, which stood idly by as whites assaulted and terrorized the black community, was placed under court order with specific directives to uphold its duty to protect all people. Bogalusa had the most concentrated members of the Ku Klux Klan in the nation. The city attorney was a member of the Klan.

When civil rights workers drove from New Orleans to Bogalusa, two carloads of deacons, bearing rifles, would meet the activists at the edge of town. One car of deacons positioned itself in front of the visiting car, another behind. Then, the three cars gunned their engines and made a wild dash through the white part of town, across North Border Drive, into the black section. Whew! Civil rights workers never traveled into town without the deacons as escorts. The word was that if a civil rights worker was unescorted, white Klan members would give chase, forcing the worker to lose control on that narrow two-lane blacktop, veer off the road and crash. No one would be the wiser.

There were separate lines of progression for blacks and whites at the local paper-mill. Blacks were assigned to the undesirable, low-paying jobs. One black worker employed for 27 years held the position of "temporary" helper. "Trainee" groups were provided to the white employees to enable them to leapfrog past black employees with greater seniority. Bob Hicks became the lead plaintiff in litigation designed to integrate the mill and equalize employment opportunities and pay.

In 1966, the first year that Bogalusa schools were integrated through a "freedom of choice plan," few black children attended. The realistic threats of white beatings were not worth confronting for most black children. The Hicks' children resisted going to the white school. But Bob and his dedicated wife, Jack, who always stood by his side and who always graciously welcomed civil rights workers into their home, enrolled their children anyway. For years after, the Hicks children resented their father for making them attend the white school. But Bob Hicks was relentless. Nothing would impede his goal to integrate the community. And his family would lead the way.

Now, those courageous leaders, Gayle Jenkins, A.Z. Young and Bob Hicks, have passed. When Bob Hicks died in spring 2010, his family petitioned the city council to name 9th street, the street on which he had lived, "Robert 'Bob' Hicks Street." he city agreed.

The street-naming ceremony honoring Bob was held on August 28, 2010. The parade had to be canceled because of the rains. Bob's wife, his children, grandchildren and other guests crowed into the church. Marion Barry gave the keynote address. Many people wore T-shirts and hats honoring Bob.

After the ceremony, I happened to be sitting next to a young man. He told me how he had written plays that were produced off-Broadway. He had lived in Brooklyn, but recently returned to New Orleans. I soon realized that his mother was Barbara Hicks, Bob and Jack's daughter.Barbara had moved to New Orleans, settled there and married a lawyer. The son then pointed to his sister standing nearby. She is a doctor, he informed me. And then he spoke of his two other sisters. One is a lawyer, the other a Ph.D. candidate.

When I flew from California to Louisiana to attend the ceremony, I did not know what to expect. I was not even certain that I should take the time to attend. As most people these days, I had so many other "important" things to do! But, sitting there in the church as the people gathered, visited with each other and shared bread, I realized that there was no moment more important than this. There, before me, I observed the fruition of Bob's lifetime work. Bob had succeeded.

Bob had devoted his life to make the city of Bogalusa, the state of Louisiana and our nation a more just place. And, Bob and Jack's grandchildren represented all that he had fought for. Here on that very hot, humid and stormy August day in 2010, we were witnesses to more than the dedication of "Robert 'Bob' Hicks Street." We witnessed the legacy of Bob Hicks flower for all generations to come.