Louisiana city apologizes 60 years after beating church
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Reverend Asriel McLain was 10 when mounted police in Shreveport, Louisiana burst through the doors of his father’s church, where a memorial service had been held for four girls killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in September 1963.
Harry Blake, a young civil rights leader, was among those at the time. He needed at least seven stitches after the police finished beating him, McLain recalled. When it was over, the stench of horse manure filled the newly renovated sanctuary of Little Union Baptist Church.
“It was a night I will never forget,” McLain said in a phone interview with The Associated Press after the town of Shreveport, in northwest Louisiana, officially apologized for the actions. taken that night and the next morning when high school students protested.
This happened at a time when the late Shreveport Police Commissioner George D’Artois was known for stifling civil rights protests.
“The police brought horses up the steps of the church, grabbed (Blake) and left manure everywhere,” McLain recalled. “After they beat Reverend Blake he came up the stairs and I heard my mum screaming like I had never done before. We walked out for a while and saw the cops going crazy, beating up people in front of the church; my dad said “It’s not good, it’s not Russia or Nazi Germany, it’s America”.
McLain said Blake was taken to Dallas for treatment for fear of not receiving proper care in Shreveport.
“It’s an ordeal I will never forget,” he said.
Blake was the president of the Shreveport chapter of the NAACP at the time he was defeated on September 22, 1963. He would later become pastor at Mt. Canaan Baptist Church, serving for more than 52 years before retiring in 2018. He died in April 2020.
Apologies for Blake’s beatings, the violence and desecration of Little Union and the arrest the next day of 18 high school students who protested in response were made in two resolutions unanimously approved by the city council last week. Resolution 17 offered a formal apology for the terror in the church. Resolution 18 apologized to Booker T. Washington High School sophomores, juniors, and seniors who marched peacefully to protest the incident the night before but were attacked by a group of armed officers.
“The students were greeted by Chief of Police George D’Artois and a crowd of armed officers on foot and in patrol cars. Pupils were ordered back to school but held firm in protest at the beating of Reverend Harry Blake on Sunday, September 22, 1963,” reads Resolution 18.
“When the children refused to turn back, the police brutally attacked them with truncheons and tear gas,” the resolution continues. “Students frantically fled from officers and returned to the Booker T. Washington campus, police attempted to enter the school and attacked Principal RH Brown and several teachers as they attempted to protect the students .”
Several students and teachers were arrested, including then-student Reverend H. Calvin Austin, who was charged with inciting a riot, unlawful assembly, and disturbing the peace. After spending 45 days in jail, Austin was expelled and banned from attending public school in Caddo Parish and surrounding areas.
Austin was forced to complete his senior year in New Orleans. In 2005, Ollie Tyler, then Superintendent of Caddo Parish Schools, presented Austin with a degree from Booker T. Washington.
Now pastor of Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in Shreveport, Austin, 75, said the apology was “long overdue”.
“A burden has been lifted, however,” he said. “The apologies are well received. This tells me that whenever we try to do good, the bad is always there. What I did was right but wrong in the eyes of the law. Now the city is saying “We’re sorry”. That says a lot.
Councilor Tabatha Taylor sponsored the resolutions.
“I wanted to make sure our history wasn’t erased,” Taylor said. “I want people to understand what that day and the next day meant. If we are to move forward, the onus was on the city to apologize for these inhumane events.
McLain welcomed the gestures.
“It’s a good ending, a good reconciliation,” McLain said. “When you see a place of worship desecrated, the impact is very strong. Apologies help close that chapter and provide a sense of healing.
Sharon Johnson, president of the Booker T. Washington High School Alumnae Foundation, said that while the students involved in the 1963 protests had moved on, official acknowledgment of what they went through was beneficial.
“It’s never too late to say you’re sorry,” Johnson said. “It serves to heal old wounds. It has been said that you cannot move forward until you close the door to your past. This recognition that the city did not act in the best interest of humanity at that time gives me a new respect for the city and the city officials. And even if you can’t really right a wrong, you can apologize for your actions and heal your wounds.
Johnson said several people were moved to tears as they read the resolutions at the council meeting.
“Some still carry injuries from this incident,” she said.