1963 was a turbulent time in Iberville Parish and the events of that summer brought forth one of the greatest political upsets in that parish’s history.
By: John Michael Lockhart
Last Thursday, 50 years to the day after Jessel Ourso was sworn in as sheriff of Iberville Parish for his first term, the Riverside Reader sat with two of Ourso’s earliest and staunchest supporters and asked them to recall that first campaign when Ourso defeated Sheriff Charles A. “Bobby” Griffon Jr., a four-term incumbent and the immediate past-president of the National Sheriff’s Association.
Carlysle Marix, who is now 90, served on the Iberville Parish School Board for 18 years and coached American Legion baseball.
“I used to hang around Plaquemine High School a lot during those days and sometimes I would ride with Jessel when he was a state trooper.
“Integration was the big issue at that time and Jessel thought we needed change in the sheriff’s office. I told him ‘I’m going to be with you 100 percent.’”
For Stanley H. “Jackie” Jackson, the decision to support Ourso, who loved horses and was nicknamed the “Black Stallion”, was even easier. Though they were only separated in age by three years, Ourso was Jackson’s uncle.
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Born in Plaquemine during the Great Depression in 1932, Ourso was the youngest of Rudolph and Ida Ourso’s eleven children. He attended St. John Elementary School and graduated Plaquemine High School.
Times were tough for Ourso and his family when he was growing up. Money was scarce and his father died when he was young.
While in high school, he was a member of the boxing team, as were his friends and later political allies, state representative and then Lt. Gov. Robert “Bobby” Freeman, school superintendent Sam Distefano, and District Attorney Sam Cashio.
After high school graduation, Ourso served in the United States Army from 1952 to 1954, including 15 months in combat in the Korean War. All seven of his brothers engaged in military service, a point that he emphasized in the closing days of his first campaign for sheriff.
Ourso often noted that he had grown up as a poor boy on Patureau Lane in Plaquemine and said that his own life experiences gave him a firsthand look at what life was like struggling to make ends meet.
His modest upbringing made him popular with the “common man” and his brand of populism, which focused on helping people and securing jobs for residents in his parish, served him well throughout his political life.
After his stint in Korea, Ourso returned home and enrolled in the Baton Rouge Police Academy. After two and a half years as a Baton Rouge police officer, he accepted a job with the Louisiana State Police and became the head state trooper for Iberville Parish. He was also was a graduate of the LSU Law Enforcement Institute, where he was elected president of his class.
According to his son and namesake, J. Mitchell Ourso Jr., Jessel Ourso came home one day in 1963 and informed his wife, Eula May LeBlanc Ourso, that he had resigned from the Louisiana State Police and was going to run for Iberville Parish Sheriff.
Upon hearing the news, Mitch Ourso says his mother’s response was, “Well, I have some news for you too. Today I learned I’m pregnant with our sixth child.”
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James Farmer is widely recognized as one of the “Big Four” who shaped the Civil Rights movement from the mid-1950’s through the end of the 1960’s. Farmer’s main colleagues in the Civil Rights movement were Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Whitney Young of the Urban League and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP.
Although the passages of time have led to today’s generation remembering Dr. King for his life’s work, Farmer’s contributions as a principal founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) cannot be understated.
Claude Sitton, who covered the South for The New York Times during the Civil Rights movement noted that “CORE under Mr. Farmer often served as the razor’s edge of the movement. It was to CORE that the four Greensboro, N.C., students turned after staging the first in the series of sit-ins that swept the South in 1960. It was CORE that forced the issue of desegregation in interstate transportation with the Freedom Rides of 1961. It was CORE’s James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner– a black and two whites — who became the first fatalities of the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.”
And it was James Farmer who arrived in Plaquemine in the summer of 1963 to register African Americans to vote.
In July 1963, CORE volunteers gathered at the Jackson Hotel in Plaquemine to train volunteers on how to teach African American citizens how to pass the voter registration tests that were used to keep them off the voter rolls. That same month, CORE volunteers began a voter registration drive in eight South Louisiana parishes including Iberville and Pointe Coupee.
On Aug. 11, 1963, 25 people were arrested for “disturbing the peace” because they refused to adhere to the segregation rules on the ferry that transported people from Plaquemine to St. Gabriel and back.
Eight days later, approximately 500 people, including James Farmer, marched on City Hall in Plaquemine. As Louisiana state troopers, “Jackie” Jackson says he and Jessel Ourso were there to observe the demonstration and watched as tear gas was thrown into the crowd of demonstrators. Seventeen more people, including Farmer, were arrested and jailed that day.
Two days later, U.S. District Judge E. Gordon West issued a temporary restraining order forbidding demonstrations in Plaquemine but his court order was ignored and another 69 people were arrested at a sit-in at Plaquemine City Hall and 171 more were arrested for holding demonstrations outside segregated restaurants and the Iberville Parish Courthouse.
Three days after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered in Washington D.C. on Aug. 28, the Civil Rights movement in Plaquemine reached its apex when more than 700 people gathered at Plymouth Rock Baptist Church in Plaquemine to protest the injuries sustained by nearly 20 African American children and teens the night before by white law enforcement officers in the parish.
An all-out search to find Farmer began, which he later recalled with these words:
“As more tear gas and more came into the house most of the people who were in the house would burst out the back door into the backyard to fill their lungs with air, a little respite.
“And as night was falling now, dusk had fallen, floodlights would sweep across the crowd in the back yard looking for someone, probably for me, obviously. Not finding me, tear gas was thrown in to the crowd behind them to force them back into the house, more gas into the house to force them back in to the yard, more floodlights, back into the house, the yard, the house, the yard, the house, the yard.
“I didn’t go out with the crowd because I thought that to go out meant to die since they were looking for me.”
And, as a result of CORE’s voter registration efforts in the summer of 1963, African American voters in Iberville Parish were about to have the largest influence they had had on a parish-wide election in Iberville Parish since Reconstruction.
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Just 31 years of age, with little money and with nearly every elected official in Iberville Parish against him, the odds seemed stacked against Jessel Ourso.
But former Lt. Governor Bobby Freeman notes that Ourso still had a lot going for him.
“He was very convincing; he would help anybody. And we were having the race riots down here and Jessel treated black people fairly.
“He was also well-qualified. He had been with the Baton Rouge City Police and was the state trooper for Iberville Parish. He was a graduate of the LSU Law Enforcement Institute, so he really was an easy sell.”
Carlysle Marix agrees.
“Jessel was very charitable; he was not a mean person. I’ve never met anybody in my life with that much charisma.”
“You know that movie, Walking Tall? Well, that sheriff wasn’t anything compared to Jessel Ourso.”
“He did a lot for everybody; he was one fine man.”
“I would have liked to have written a book on him, if I knew how to write. Of course, I would have to change the names of the people in it,” Marix says.
When asked if he initially though Ourso could beat Griffon, who had served in office for 16 years, had a background with the FBI and had been president of the National Sheriffs’ Association, Marix replies, “To be honest, I didn’t know.
“But he walked house to house; he wasn’t a lazy man.”
Marix adds that Ourso also had plenty of support.
“People like me and others collected money for him. The blacks loved him; the poor loved him.”
“If he told you he was going to do something, he did it. He didn’t forget a friend.”
“He was the most honest man I’ve ever seen.”
“Jackie” Jackson says he and Ourso were “raised together and worked together” and, that as his nephew and a fellow Louisiana state trooper, he was with him from Day One.
Jackie Jackson with picture of Jessell Ourso’s parents,
Randolph & Ida Ourso, Jackie’s grandparents
Randolph & Ida Ourso, Jackie’s grandparents
“Jessel was running for sheriff during the race riots and that separated a lot of people in Plaquemine.
“As Plaquemine natives and as state troopers, we knew everybody—black and white. But I’m going to tell you who should get more credit than anybody else for getting Jessel elected. That’s Dr. Bernard Tyson, who was a very good black doctor and a good friend of mine and Jessel.
“Every black in Plaquemine went to him and he worked behind the scenes to get Jessel elected.
“He worked with the ministers in the black churches to get Jessel elected,” Jackson recalls.
Jackson says that the campaign work they conducted in the black community had to be done as quietly as possible because in that era openly campaigning for black votes meant losing white votes.
When the votes were counted on the night of the Democratic primary, Ourso claimed victory because he had outpolled Griffon and a third candidate in the race had withdrawn before Election Day.
La. Attorney General Jack P. F. Gremillion, who was an avowed segregationist, ruled that the votes for the withdrawn candidate still counted for purposes of determining if a candidate had a primary majority and La. State District Judge G. R. Kearney ruled that the third candidate’s votes would still be counted and that the runoff election between Ouro and Griffon must proceed on Jan. 11, 1964.
According to Jackson, the incumbent officeholders stuck together in the election and put together a ticket that they called the “Americanism” ticket. Jackson says that their “Americanism” ticket was meant as a code word for white segregationists to rally around the incumbents. But in the closing week of the campaign, Jessel Ourso put out his own “Americanism” ticket that showed him, his father and all his male siblings in uniform. Running for sheriff during the height of the Cold War, Ourso was running as a reformer and played up his family’s commitment to preserving democracy through military service. That was a clear contrast with Griffon’s lack of military service.
“That presented a powerful message and there was no time for a response,” Jackson says.
On Election Day, Ourso defeated Griffon by a nine-point margin, 5076 to 4234. Elected at the age of 31, Ourso became the youngest person to be elected sheriff in Louisiana history and still ranks as this state’s second youngest elected sheriff, Tony Falterman.
Ourso took office on May 1, 1964; his son Shannon, the last of his six children, was born the following day.