Civil rights activist, educator Clifton Lemelle Sr. dies

Students in classes taught and coached decades ago by Clifton Lemelle Sr. with Paul Lawrence Dunbar in Washington, Louisiana were not just names written on a grade book.

Lemelle, who taught for more than three decades and also established himself as a father figure, often took players home after training in his personal vehicle – the little blue car – and taught them what skills one of his former players called the Encyclopedia of Life that could be applied on a larger scale.

Last week the 85-year-old civil rights activist, retired educator and church deacon, who lived in the Eunice region for most of his life, died of an illness. Lemelle was buried on Monday in Jennings in the veterans cemetery.

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During his retirement, Lemelle had frequent verbal meetings with members of the St. Landry Parish School Board, particularly on minority recruitment practices and desegregation issues.

“He was big on the black community,” said Rev. Frank Ford, president of the St. Landry Parish Chapter of the NAACP.

Ford recalled Lemelle not being intimidated when he spoke about civil rights issues, often in his booming voice.

“I think (Lemelle) had a huge impact,” added Ford. “He gave his opinion and did not avoid the subject. He wanted what was right for everyone in training, and he spoke out for them. (Lemelle) stood up, not afraid of the challenges he knew he could face what he had to say. “

Ford’s memories of Lemelle date back to the early 1960s when Ford was a student and athlete under his tutelage with Paul Dunbar.

“It was one of his goals to play an important role in the lives of young black men before integration,” recalls Ford. “When the training was over, he would take me and others home – to Waxia, Little Teche, and wherever . It didn’t matter.

“He thought it was part of his role in having an impact on our lives. He felt it was necessary to get involved, ”added Ford.

Ford said he would never forget the week in 1962. Lemelle chose him to teach for a week with Paul Dunbar, then an all-black school that has since become a primary school in Washington.

“I have to be Mr. Lemelle for this week. I was so honored to be selected and inspired that someone like him showed confidence in me, ”said Ford.

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Johnny Bourque, a former school principal in Acadia Ward, sat down for talks with Lemelle frequently when Bourque was the principal at Eunice High.

During those conversations, Bourque said, both men would articulate what was on their mind and then part on a friendly basis.

“We often sat down and had great dialogues,” he recalls. “We didn’t always agree, but when you sat down and talked to him, you knew he would listen to what you had to say.

“What I admired (Lemelle) was that he was passionate about representing minorities. The most important thing about him is that he was always fair to everyone. “

Avirda Mingo Thomas, another Dunbar High student, wrote in the Willams Funeral Home’s digital memory book this week that Lemelle was the “life coach” for the students there.

“(Lemelle) loved us and let us know that he was there for us and did everything for us as long as we were right,” wrote Thomas.

During his 37 years in the parish school system, Lemelle was a teacher, headmaster and coach. He was also a member of the JK Haynes Foundation, the Legal Defense Fund, and a member of the community’s Bi-Racial Committee.

In addition to his membership of the St. Landry Parish Education Association, Lemelle served as vice president of the Louisiana Commission on Human Rights and past president of the Grambling Alumni Association.

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