Louisiana city apologizes 60 years after church beating
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Rev. Asriel McLain was 10 years old when mounted police in Shreveport, Louisiana, burst through the doors at 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 there at the time. He needed at least seven stitches after police finished beating him, McLain recalled. When it was over, the stench of horse manure filled the newly renovated sanctuary at Little Union Baptist Church.
“It was a night I will never forget,” McLain said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press after the city of Shreveport, in northwest Louisiana, officially apologized for actions taken that night and the following morning when high school students protested.
It happened at a time when Shreveport’s then-police commissioner, the late George D’Artois, was known for squelching civil rights demonstrations.
“The police brought horses up the steps of the church, grabbed (Blake) and left manure everywhere,” McLain recalled. “After they beat up Rev. Blake, he came up the stairs and I heard my mother scream like I never had before. We went outside for a moment and saw the cops going crazy, beating up people in front of the church; my dad said ‘This is not right, this is not Russia or Nazi Germany, this is America.’”
McLain said Blake was taken to Dallas for treatment for fear he would not get the proper care in Shreveport.
“It’s an ordeal that I will never forget,” he said.
Blake was the president of the Shreveport chapter of the NAACP at the time he was beaten on Sept. 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 beating, 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 approved unanimously by the City Council last week. Resolution 17 offered formal apologies for the terror at the church. Resolution 18 apologized to the sophomores, juniors and seniors at Booker T. Washington High School who peacefully marched in protest of the previous day’s incident but were attacked by a group of armed officers.
“The students were met by Police Chief George D’Artois and a mob of armed officers on foot and in squad cars. The students were ordered back to school but stood their ground in protest for the beating to Reverend Harry Blake on Sunday, September 22, 1963,” reads Resolution 18.
“When the children refused to turn back, police brutally attacked them with batons and teargas,” the resolution continues. “Students frantically ran from officers and returned to the campus of Booker T. Washington, police attempted to enter the school and proceeded to attack Principal R. H. Brown and several teachers as they attempted to protect the students.”
Several students and teachers were arrested, including then-student Rev. 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, then-Caddo Parish Schools Superintendent Ollie Tyler presented Austin with a diploma from Booker T. Washington.
Now pastor of Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in Shreveport, Austin, 75, said the apologies were “long overdue.”
“A burden’s been lifted though,” he said. “The apology is well received. It says to me that whenever we try to do right, evil is always present. What I did was right but wrong in the eyes of the law. Now the city says ‘We’re sorry.’ That speaks volumes.”
Councilwoman Tabatha Taylor sponsored the resolutions.
“I wanted to make sure our history was not erased,” Taylor said. “I want people to understand what that day meant and the day after. If we’re to move forward, it was incumbent to apologize as a city for those inhumane events.”
McLain welcomed the gestures.
“It’s a good end, a good reconciliation,” said McLain. “When you see a house of worship desecrated, the impact is very strong. The apologies help close that chapter and provides a sense of healing.”
Sharon Johnson, president of the Booker T. Washington High School Alumnae Foundation, said although the students involved in the 1963 protests have moved on, the official acknowledgement 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’s been said you can’t move forward until you shut the door on 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 city officials. And although you can’t really right a wrong, you can apologize for your actions and heal the wounds.”
Johnson said several people were moved to tears as the resolutions were read in the council meeting.
“Some are still carrying wounds from that incident,” she said.