The legacy of a Riot in Baton Rouge fifty years ago is a story that is still told in a variety of versions of an event that left 4 people dead. The riot happened at a time when an all-white group, Baton Rouge Leaders, claimed race relations were good in the city. Dialogue on Race Louisiana would like to offer an account by an eyewitness.
He is Bobby Thompson, a facilitator for the DOR Original Series, and the longest serving facilitator for the 10-year-old Dialogue on Race Louisiana organization. He is the most requested facilitator by participants in the series and by other facilitators who want him as a team member when leading a DOR Series. Bobby Thompson has a stellar reputation for being reliable and credible with high principles and integrity.
Read his account of the riot below.
Reflecting on the Baton Rouge Riot after 50 Years
It was Monday the 10th of January 1972. There was a not a cloud in the sky. The sun was bright and the air was crisp. The temperature was around sixty-five degrees. I had only been back home a few days and I was already anxious to leave.
It had been a year since my discharge from the Marine Corps, a year and 10 months from active duty in Vietnam. I had moved here from Los Angles where I had always dreamed of living but the dream had turned into a police-state nightmare. I was stopped and detained so often that I had a routine for whenever I left the house. I had to make sure my car “cop-stop-safe”. But It all came to a head when I ended up in jail for a cracked tail light. But that’s another story.
All I could think of while I was locked up was coming home to Baton Rouge. But then, hometown turned out to be a huge disappointment. The atmosphere seemed so heavy and depressed. A lot of the guys I grew up with had gotten hooked on heroin in Vietnam. It was very sad to see. But as fate would have it a friend I had served with in the war was coming through town on his way to Atlanta. He told me all the wonders of Atlanta, good paying jobs as well as the most progressive city in the south. I made up my mind I was going to Atlanta.
Two days before I was to leave I met a couple of friends and drove down to Riverside mall, (formally, and now returned to, Third Street), the heart of downtown. We went to the Fifth Ave shop which was primarily a record shop, but also sold clothes and novelty items. The music of the band “War” emanated from there and was thumping throughout the mall. “All Day Music” gave the place a festive air and everyone seemed to be in a nice grove.
We bought a few albums and some incense and left. Driving east on North Boulevard we passed under the freeway overpass, up the hill, we entered the North Boulevard Business district. My friends were calling this “The strip”. There were all kinds businesses from just passed the interstate all the way to Eugene St. “The Strip” itself ran from South 12th to about South 18th Street. There were bars and restaurants, gas stations and grocery stores. Tabby’s Blues Box, Joe Bernard’s, the Temple theater, the Peppermint lounge, all were on the “Strip”. It was the night spot for young black people to cruise, meet, and hang out.
Just as we crested the hill on North Boulevard we saw a large crowd of people gathered at the corner of North Boulevard and South 13th street. We parked the car just off North Boulevard, on South 11th, and headed toward the crowd thinking we were going to see some kind of rally or a parade. As we approached the corner, it was becoming apparent, by the attitude of the crowd, this was no parade.
As we arrived at the corner. I looked to my left and saw a host of sheriff cars as well as unmarked cars and pickup trucks, screaming to a stop and simultaneously leaping from the vehicles, white men with guns in hand. Most were in plain clothes and looked more like a bunch of armed, redneck, farmers or duck hunters who had abandoned their blinds for bigger game. There was even mud on their shoes. Some wore overalls and flannel shirts or blues jeans, cowboy boots and hats. Others wore uniforms or parts of uniforms. They all wore the same grotesque expression I had seen on faces so eaten with hatred that, at that moment, all humanity was lost as they rushed to take part in a killing.
Some of the people at the rear of the crowd saw the police and armed men pull up. I could see/feel the expressions on their faces and they scrambled to get out of the way. Most were oblivious to what was about to happen and it was happening fast. As I looked into the crowd I saw a black man standing on top of a car, talking to the people through a bullhorn. He was pointing to the back of the crowd. He seemed to be trying to warn them of the immediate onslaught. The sheriff’s deputies, police, and what looked like farmers and hunters rushed the crowd. The people scuffling to absorb the impact. A path was cleared to the car on which the man was standing. A shot was fired and the man with the bullhorn went down. More shots. The sound of people screaming roared into my ears. It was now complete chaos. The scene is filled with the mad frenzy of people in terror. There was more gunfire. I saw helicopters overhead with M60 machine guns hanging from the doors. More gunshots police shouting orders, driving the people into a stampede. The first feeling that swept over me was the horror of being caught in a firefight without a weapon. But this wasn’t Vietnam this is my hometown. That reality came crashing in like a “St. Joe” brick sailing through a plate glass window. The last image I saw was a black man on the ground with a white cop standing over him with his gun drawn. The man had apparently been shot in the leg and was struggling to get up. I could hear more shots as my Marine Crops training kicked in. I ducked low and ran quickly down South 13th Street. It wasn’t until I turned right at the next corner that I remembered my friends. They were right on my heels along with other people fleeing the scene. We circled back to the car and left the area.
We were all shaken by the drama we had just witnessed but just like we used to do after a rocket attack, we joked about what everyone was doing, and what they looked like during all the excitement. But underneath all the laughter was the same nervous silence of death.
I dropped my friends at their house and went home myself. When I arrived, everyone was watching the television news about the incident. While the film footage was the same, the reported sequence of events seemed different from what I had just witnessed. On one hand the report seemed larger than life, like the whole city was rioting, and at the same time it seemed to trivialize it. What was reported was a group of “Black Muslims” was in town holding a series of meetings at the Temple Theater. The shootout took place in front of the theater. I knew this to be true but as of yet I had not made the connection. The night before, I had given a friend a ride to the Temple. There was a large crowd of people, mainly young black men, gathered out front. At the time it didn’t seem too unusual. I did sense the crowd was in a highly agitated state. It didn’t feel like something I wanted to be apart of. I can remember wanting my friend to hurry and get out the car so I could leave.
The news reported that the Muslims decided on a confrontation with the local law enforcement that would draw attention to the racism in Baton Rouge. They accomplished this by blocking off North Blvd, a major east/west artery, with cars and people. In the meantime three news people from channel 2 were covering the story. They were ordered to leave by some people in the crowd. When they didn’t move fast enough they were attacked. Cameraman, Henry Baptiste and news coordinators, Maurice Cockerham, were able to escape but newscaster, Bob Johnson, was caught and beaten severely. I’m not sure where we entered the fracas, but it was sometime between that attack and the arrival of the police. It was reported that the police tried to talk the Muslims into moving the cars when the shooting broke out. In the news report it was not clear who fired first. It may have happened that way, though I didn’t see any attempt to talk with anyone. All I saw was the police attack the crowd then the shooting broke out. I do not know who fired first but I know it was the man standing on the car who was shot first. Maybe we arrived after an endeavor to talk. Maybe the police we saw were reinforcements. Anyway, four people died that day, two officers and two Muslims, and four were injured. Two other Muslims were captured stood trial and sent to prison. Bob Johnson suffered spinal damage and would never walk again. One interesting fact is that Henry Baptiste claims he saw black men pulling shot guns from the trunk of cars. But all the deaths were killed by 38 caliber guns. The sheriff and the police were armed with 38 caliber weapons.
Baton Rouge was placed in a state of emergency, the National Guard was called out, and a dusk to dawn curfew was set in place. Paranoia had risen to a dangerous level. There were reports that the police and FBI were tracking busloads of Muslims headed to Baton Rouge from Chicago. The city braced for the counter attack. The fear that John Brown’s race war was finally about to become a reality. It turned out, there was only one bus and it was the regularly scheduled one. When it arrived, under police escort and a heavy police presence at the station, there were no Muslims on it, just a busload of tired and bewildered passengers. Still, my hometown looked like an armed encampment prepared for a siege.
For some reason the white power structure felt until then race relations in Baton Rouge were good. As long as I lived in BR that was not the case. It only speaks to how complete the oppression was. Just earlier that same day there was a violent confrontation at McKinley junior and senior high school. Over 150 students were involved. In November that same year two Southern University students were shot to death by National Guard.
The same structures and disparities that trigger racial confrontations throughout the history of our state and country to this day are still in place. We can’t just cover it over with an overpass and act as if it never happened. Instead there should be a monument to remind us if we really want racial peace in Baton Rouge we must work for racial and civic justice.