La. blacks rally in anger, fear to fight against Duke

November 15, 1991|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Sun Staff Correspondent

SHREVEPORT, La. -- Ron Hamilton wasn't thinking so much of David Duke as of the racial climate and his own feelings when he brought a Confederate flag to the courthouse here July 3 and burned it in protest against the one that flies there every day.

A black man and a native of Shreveport, he was tired of seeing a symbol that he said reminds him of the Ku Klux Klan. The city police didn't charge him but gave him a citation, and some black friends were quietly critical of his impulsiveness. He was unrepentant. "It was time for a wake-up call," he says.

Now, on the eve of a runoff election for governor of Louisiana that former Klansman and American Nazi David Duke could win, Mr. Hamilton works each day as a volunteer at a phone bank, urging black voters to support a black candidate for state representative here, and to get out and vote against Mr. Duke.

"You have to remember that Adolf Hitler was elected to office," Mr. Hamilton said. "All the things that David Duke is doing now is based on the studies of Hitler."

From Baton Rouge to Bossier City, and from New Orleans to New Iberia, blacks and Jews in Louisiana are stirred by their fear of what a Duke victory could mean. The emotions range from concern about economic repercussions, fear of possible change in the racial climate, to simple amazement that in 1991 more than 500,000 people voted in the primary Oct. 19 for a man who has been a racist almost all his adult life.

So stunned by Mr. Duke's popularity was New Orleans Times-Picayune city editor Keith Woods, a black man and a native of New Orleans, that he wrote in an opinion piece this past Sunday that he would leave his lifelong home state of Louisiana if Mr. Duke is elected.

"His election would leave those of us who care with two choices: work to heal the racial alienation and hatred that [Mr. Duke] has so totally laid bare and so deftly exploited, or leave," Mr. Woods wrote. "There is something perversely tempting about staying and fighting . . . ground to be broken on race relations that would be new and invigorating and challenging.

"Someone else will have to fight that battle, though, because I cannot live in a state governed by a bigot."

Mr. Woods received a wide range of reaction to his piece.

"One woman called and said 'I hope the door doesn't hit you in the ass on the way out,' and I got a few more like that," Mr. Woods said. "Others have called and said don't leave. I don't know where I would go. But my family supports me in the decision."

Jews, as well as blacks, are considering moving. "We've had a number of people talking about leaving," said Rabbi Murray Blackman of Temple Sinai in New Orleans.

"[Mr. Duke's] campaign is based on code-word allusion," Rabbi Blackman said. "The man has no positive programs, and he is just preying on the obvious discontent that exists because of the economy and joblessness."

In New Orleans, a convention town whose battered economy is kept alive by tourists, officials are bracing for the worst. Organized events ranging from the 1992 Olympic track and field trials to the black Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority convention, which sometimes draws 6,000 people, may cancel their programs in New Orleans next year if Mr. Duke is elected.

The election could affect the athletic quality of Louisiana's beloved sports teams as well. "We're scared to death," said one Louisianan State University official, who asked not to be identified.

While the state's urban areas are bracing for change, there's also fear among blacks living in the state's rural areas. In the unincorporated town of Morrow, where the few aging homes along Route 71 interrupt the acres of cotton fields in St. Landry Parish, Mr. Duke could endanger the racial harmony of recent years.

"Things would probably go back to what it was before the civil rights movement," said Gladys Castle, a 38-year-old Morrow resident. "And that's scary."

"I'll be out to vote, and I think most people here will," Mrs. Castle said. "We can't afford to have him as governor."

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