In 2010, the LCADP and NAACP Shreveport Chapter partnered with local clergy and civil rights leaders in Caddo Parish to push for the removal of a confederate flag from the local courthouse. Following a hearing in the Louisiana Supreme Court, a visit from Professor Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute on Race and Justice, national and international attention in the media, and a hearing before the Caddo Parish Commission, the flag was finally removed.
Read below for the full story.
Historical Background of the Flag in Caddo
Caddo Parish is located in the northwest tip of Louisiana, bordering Texas and Arkansas. The capital city is Shreveport with a population of 260,000. It is the third largest parish in Louisiana.
During the Civil War, Shreveport was the capital of Louisiana from 1863–1865 and the last capital of the Confederacy.
The end of the Civil War brought the beginnings of civil and political freedom to African-Americans. They were given the right to vote and serve on juries through the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau assisted former slaves in Caddo Parish to secure fair-paying jobs, medical care, and education; they established elementary schools for black children; and they negotiated labor contracts with former slave-owners.
These reforms were met with harsh and often violent resistance from some white opponents who feared the growing political power of Africa-Americans.
Violence, intimidation and corruption soon ensured that African-Americans lost their power at the polls. Between 1887 and 1890, African-American voter registration dropped by 96% while white voter registration only dropped by 24%. Then, the 1898 Constitutional Convention was used to completely disenfranchise Louisiana African-Americans through the adoption of education and property qualifications.
Lynching during this period was rife. There were 566 homicides in Caddo in the decade following the Civil War, giving the parish its nickname, “Bloody Caddo.” Lynching was even encouraged by the local newspaper, The Shreveport Times, which urged white citizens to participate in violence against Republicans and African-Americans.
On June 18, 1903, the Times ran an editorial endorsing the summary lynching of black men who had been accused of committing a crime against white women:
"In the south the belief in swift and sure punishment for negro fiends who outrage female virtue is fairly fundamental. No one sympathizes with the wretch who is burned at the stake or riddled with bullets for an offense of this character and the southern mind condones the act of the mob without hesitation or qualification... "
It was on this same day, June 18, 1903, that the Caddo Parish Police Jury voted to allow the United Daughters of the Confederacy to erect a Confederate monument in a plot of land outside the Caddo Parish Courthouse.
A Confederate Flag, which sat atop the monument outside the Courthouse, was erected in 1951. President Truman had recently ordered the integration of the armed forces. The Shreveport Journal reported: “Caddo Parish police jurors voted unanimously in their meeting Wednesday to erect a Confederate flag on the statute of the courthouse building. The approved motion… brought the remark: ‘Harry Truman isn’t going to like this.’”
Social historian Eric Brock explained, “During this time, many southern cities and towns hoisted Confederate banners in reaction to federal legislation dealing… with civil rights, integration, and African-American voting rights.” Brock noted that the Flag was the symbol of “Shreveport’s own role in resistance” to civil rights and equality under the law.
The Death Penalty in Caddo Parish
Caddo Parish, encompassing 6% of the state’s population, is responsible for nearly one-third (32%) of Louisiana’s death sentences since 2004. In the last five years, Caddo has taken more death penalty cases to trial than any other jurisdiction in the state, including New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Research demonstrates that race has played a significant role in capital prosecutions in Caddo. Seventy-six percent of the defendants sentenced to death in Caddo are African-American. A recent study of peremptory strikes reveals that prosecutors struck almost half of the African-Americans appearing for jury service, but less than 15% of the white jurors. In 2007, the Louisiana Supreme Court found that a Caddo prosecutor had excluded an African American man from a capital jury on the basis of race and reversed the conviction.
The presence of the Confederate Flag at the courthouse served as a reminder that justice in Caddo Parish has been inexorably tied to race.
Partnership between LCADP and the NAACP Shreveport Chapter
The LCADP and the Shreveport NAACP began a partnership in 2010 to draw attention to the presence of the Confederate Flag out the front of the courthouse and unfair jury selection practices that led to the disproportionate exclusion of African-Americans from jury service. Together, we organized local ministers and civil rights leaders to push for its removal.
Many of these local leaders signed on to an amicus brief in the case of Felton Dorsey, which pointed out that the flag both represents and perpetuates the discriminatory nature of the death penalty in Shreveport. The brief included reference to Carl Staples, a local citizen who objected to the presence of the Confederate Flag during jury selection in Mr. Dorsey's case. Staples told the Court,
“[the flag] is a symbol of one of the most . . . heinous crimes ever committed to another member of the human race, and I just don’t see how you could say that, I mean, you’re here for justice, and then again you overlook this great injustice by continuing to fly this flag which . . put[s] salt in the wounds of . . . people of color. I don’t buy it.”
As a way to draw further attention to the Flag and the administration of the death penalty in Caddo Parish, the LCADP and NAACP co-hosted a Town Hall Meeting in early May, 2011 with guest speaker Prof. Charles Ogletree from the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute of Race and Justice. Prof. Ogletree discussed the significance of Caddo Parish—it’s history, its use of the death penalty and the presence of the Flag—in ongoing national stories about race, poverty and injustice in America.
Off the back of this event, a group of Caddo citizens organized a coalition called “Caddo Forward,” a multi-racial group of community leaders who would create and implement a strategic plan to remove the Flag. LCADP and NAACP members were part of the group.
Caddo Forward organized a public campaign (which involved editorials in newspapers, the creation of an informational website and meetings with commissioners) to appeal to the Caddo Parish Commission to take the issue to a vote.
Meanwhile, the ACLU Capital Punishment Project who had filed the amicus brief in Felton Dorsey's case on behalf of 26 Caddo Parish and other Louisiana Clergy Leaders, 28 Law and history scholars, the ACLU, the NAACP, the Louis A. Martinet Legal Society, the Equal Justice Initiative, the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute For Race And Justice, the Southern Center For Human Rights and Juror Carl Staples, argued the case at the Louisiana Supreme Court in April, 2011. A number of the amici, including Carl Staples and members of the NAACP, drove the 600 mile round-trip to be at the hearing.
In its opinion, which was released in early September, 2011, the Louisiana Supreme Court noted:
“the display of a confederate flag would be offensive to some” citing cases from the 4th and 11th Circuit Courts that recognized that “the confederate flag has multiple ‘emotionally charged’ meanings and is viewed by some as a symbol of white supremacy” and that “It is the sincerely held view of many Americans, of all races, that the confederate flag is a symbol of racial separation and oppression… it is not an irrational inference that one who displays the confederate flag may harbor racial bias against African-Americans.”
Two months later, Caddo Parish Commissioner Joyce Bowman brought the issue squarely before the Caddo Parish Commission. Following a stirring commission meeting where members of Caddo Forward – including African-American leaders who spoke of the torment of watching the Flag fly throughout their lifetimes – asked Parish Commissioners to finally take the flag down, the Commissioners voted in favor of the motion 11-1. On November 7, 2011, after 61 years, the Confederate Flag was removed from courthouse property. News of the outcome aired on national media.
This work was not just significant for local leaders trying to move Caddo Parish forward and promote reconciliation in the community, but also for encouraging public scrutiny of the processes that lead to new death sentences in this region.
Media coverage of the issue includes:
The Rachel Maddow Show
The Times, London, UK
View a video of the Commission Meeting where the flag is voted down below.