Local civil rights pioneer remembered

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 14, 2013

By Kimberly Hopson

CONVENT – Oliver Cooper Sr., 83, was known in St. James Parish as a man with a “servant’s heart,” who was always true to his word.  
Cooper was laid to rest last Saturday at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Donaldsonville after battling a long-term illness. His family, however, said that Cooper’s giving spirit lives on in his impressive history of public service in the community.
Cooper made history when he became the first black police juror in 1976. He also had a number of other accomplishments: Cooper implemented Boy and Girl Scout organizations in the Fifth District and had a hand in the creation of the St. James Senior Citizen Center, King View subdivision and Welcome Recreational Park. He also played an instrumental part in monitoring cable and ambulance services to the parish and even helped spearhead desegregation at St. James High School. After being a police juror for 12 years, he went on to serve on the St. James Parish Council for 12 years.
In addition to his public service, Cooper was known for his civil rights activism.
The Rev. Felton Ceasar, the former pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, remembers Cooper best as a former running mate in the parish’s 1973 democratic primary. Ceaser recalls becoming friends with Cooper during a moment of inspiration after Martin Luther King’s famous March on Washington. The former pastor also said Cooper was not afraid to run for office during such a volatile time in American history.
“I met Cooper when I moved from Ascension Parish to St. James Parish — he was a man with a vision. After that march, his decision was that we would run for election in the Fifth Ward. We ran to get involved in the political system and do something for the advancement of the people,” he said. “He laid the foundation for others to build on, and I am grateful to him for bringing me along with him.”
Cooper also left behind an extensive lineage. The oldest sibling in a family of 12, he went on to sire 12 of his own children. At the time of his death, he was a grandfather of 14. Oliver’s younger sister, Rita Cooper, said the family affectionately called him “Booster,” a nickname he hated. Rita said her brother had always been a “hat man,” and was known for his derby-style headpieces. Rita remembers Oliver as the caretaker while their parents were away.
“Oliver was in charge of the family. He couldn’t comb our hair, but he made sure that we had food and that we had our meals while our parents were out working. He made sure everything was in order,” she said.
Rita said her brother gave up school around the sixth grade to help his family but speculated that God’s favor may have helped him accomplish so much with so little formal education.
Cooper’s daughter, Melissa, said her father was a bit of a workaholic but did his best to create a balance between work and home life.
She added that her father’s hobbies were fishing and cooking for the family. Cooper was also a carpenter by trade.
“We’d always say ‘Dad, when is this going to stop,’ and he would say that it was just in his heart. He always told us, ‘I just love doing this,’” she said.
Most importantly, Cooper’s family and friends fondly recall his passion for God, which is present in his personal motto in all public service activity,”The Lord is first in my campaign.”
Oliver Cooper ensured his transcendence into St. James Parish history through his selfless actions in the community.
His beliefs, faith and love for public service will live on through surviving family members.