Four days before the body was discovered, the local NAACP elected a new young president whom it expected to lead the community's fight against perceived injustices and institutionalized racism. It was unusual for the NAACP to choose young men as leaders since young ambitious men tended to snub the established system and disrupt established lines of communication. It elected a twenty-eight-year-old firebrand who had a knack for plunging into issues with passion. This new president was also the publisher of a little weekly newspaper called the Black Free Press and pastor of the New Tabernacle Baptist Church. With three pulpits to speak from, the president was in a position to make plenty of noise about any issue he chose and alarm the community.
The president wasn't a favorite of the police department or the W.L. Howard administration. In their minds, he was a loose cannon that could damage the city's highly promoted image of being the "Pacemaker City of the South."As a youth, the president organized civil rights marches protesting against racial discrimination and police brutality. At Northeast Louisiana State College, he organized Negro students to form a student organization, “Students of a Soul Society,” to protest against racial bias. He led protests that resulted in his suspension from the college and jailings in the community. In 1970, at the tender age of twenty-one, he led a march on City Hall in which nearly a thousand Blacks met in front of the building to protest police brutality. He then organized boycotts of local white merchants that refused to hire Blacks. He was frequently arrested by the police, seventeen times in all, and was kept under surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
When news of the president’s election reached city hall, the city’s white leaders decided not to allow the president to achieve any credibility. The city government would not embrace him as a serious leader of the Negro community. Whites had always been able to choose the Negro leaders by selecting with whom they would confer and negotiate. The president wouldn't be one of those recognized as a legitimate community leader, and his newspaper would be ignored as well. By these actions, white leaders felt it would become evident to the Negro community that it had made a mistake by naming him to lead its efforts. They would see to it that he would be politically impotent.
Three days after his election, the president, like everyone else in the Black community, was alarmed at the news of the rape of a twenty-seven-year-old unnamed Black woman at her residence. It seemed that almost daily, they heard about rapes or rape attempts. They all occurred in South Monroe. Those were the ones that were reported to the police, but there were also several others, such as the Grease Man rapes, that were not reported, but the community knew about them. There was a growing fear that the police department took little interest in the rapes and assaults because they only involved Black women. So just three days after electing the young president, leaders of the NAACP met at the New Tabernacle Church to analyze the problem and plan a response.
"What can we do about this? The NAACP doesn't get involved in criminal cases," warned one of the leaders. "The rapes and assaults are a problem, but this is a civil rights organization."
The president listened as NAACP veterans advised him to avoid getting involved in criminal cases unless there was a civil rights angle.
"It looks like we are having a rape or two a week, and the police department seems to be ignoring the problem. I think it's because the victims are Black," said the president.
"That may well be, but the National is not going to back us on any issue that it can't take to court and get a judgment that will change laws affecting everybody," came another voice from across the table.
The men around the table were veterans of the civil rights fight in the area. Some had run for political office, organized voter registration efforts, lobbied for political favor, and participated in resistance efforts over the years. They viewed their new president as a charismatic figure whose energy, passion, and ambition would revive the organization. They were discovering that he was difficult to contain and impossible to control. Once he became convinced that evil existed, he seemed determined to confront it, even if it meant facing it alone. The president would not be easily dissuaded from a course he saw as necessary if either he or the NAACP was to be meaningful in the community.
"If these rapes involved white women, there would be some action," said the president in a stinging announcement that pricked the conscience of those who resisted.
"Especially if the suspect was Black. Then they would have every police officer in the parish on the case," came another response.
"What are we going to do about it? Are we just going to sit and watch our women get raped without a police response because the victims are Black?" asked the president. Heads began to shake as those in the room acknowledged what they all believed to be the case. The president spoke about what they all thought.
"Say what you want, but the National NAACP is not going to endorse us if we come out making a lot of accusations about these rapes," said an older voice who had worked in the NAACP for many years.
"I want this branch to speak with one voice about these rapes," insisted the president.
"Right now we're trying to get the city government changed so that Negroes can be represented on the city council. Benny Ausberry and the others are taking this thing to court. That's a civil rights issue. When it's solved, everyone in the Negro community will be helped. The rapes are criminal issues. We just can't get involved," responded the same raspy voice. The older members of the group nodded their assent.
"This young sapsucker will get us involved in a totally different fight that will get us all off track," said Clem Toston. He was an educator, the first Black member of the parish school board. He believed the community should respond to the rapes, but tackling them while the organization was also trying to change Monroe's form of government to help the Black community would confuse the issue and "put too much on the same plate."
Monroe had a commission council form of government in which three men, elected at large, basically ran the entire city. The commission council form of government did not lend itself to the election of Negroes because Blacks were only 38 percent of the population. In any general election, a black candidate had little or no chance of election to public office because the Black vote had been diluted.
The older Black leaders were waging a strategic fight in the courts to lay a foundation for an ultimate court victory. In 1972, Richard O. Miles and Rev. John Russell ran for commissioner positions on the city council but were soundly defeated as 99 percent of white precincts voted against them. In 1974, the group filed suit in federal court to declare Monroe’s government unconstitutional. In 1976, Morris Henry Carroll, a Black school principal, ran for a commissioner’s slot and lost. The older members of the NAACP, though concerned about the rapes, did not want to dilute the organization's legal focus by putting too many irons in the fire. The rapes were not the top priority of the organization's leaders; they focused on changing the form of government that would impact more people.
The president found his hands tied on one of the most salient issues facing the Black community at the moment, which were the assaults against Black women. It was criminal in nature, not civil rights, even if only Black women were the victims. Whether it was the Grease Man rapist that assaulted women in South Monroe or an unknown entity stalking women everywhere else, it was evident that something had to be done.
"There is an assailant. out there somewhere, and until we can get the police department to take us seriously, no Black woman in our community is safe," said the president. He stared around the room, but only a few agreed that the rapes should be the top priority of the organization at that time.
The police department had investigated the rapes, but not to the satisfaction of the community. Its general response was to interview a few witnesses, make some notes and let the case linger. Sometimes suspects were charged with rape, but the evidence was weak. In many instances, there was no case at all and innocent individuals were wrongfully accused. It was evident to the community that the police had not arrested the right person because the rapes continued.
The identity of the victim did not concern the assailant. He enjoyed the power of the moment. Despite the ramblings of the new NAACP president or the slipshod investigations of the Monroe police, the assailant was secure in the knowledge that he could rape or murder at will and never be discovered.
In speeches, sermons, and newspaper articles, the president, claimed repeatedly that an assailant walked the streets of the Black community who raped and assaulted Black women at will, and no one in city hall seemed worried. Three days into his new office, the president found himself frustrated by the bureaucracy of the NAACP that stipulated which matters local branches could embrace. In Monroe, the rapes were the subject of every barbershop discussion, every beauty shop debate, and sermons from dozens of pulpits. If the NAACP and his presidency were to mean anything, the president could not remain silent about the rapes.
Of course, what the NAACP could not do officially, the president could do through his newspaper. He could raise the issue and keep it before the minds of influential Blacks who read his paper every week. He could keep writing about it until the powers of the city responded.
The fact that he could act alone wearing a different hat as a preacher or as a newspaper publisher, worried some in the room knew that once the president locked onto an issue that he wouldn't let it go.
The rape of the twenty-seven-year-old woman happened on February 19, 1977. The community was troubled that yet another rape had occurred.
Two days later, a crowd gathered in Booker T. and stared in disbelief as it looked at the body of Vonda Lanell Harris lying in the mud.