70 Years Later, Memorial Held For Unarmed Black Man Fatally Shot By Police
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And finally, today, we're going to continue our conversation about memorials in the town of Gretna, La. A service was held there today to remember an unarmed black man killed by police, 70 years ago. All these years later, community members are still demanding justice. Jesse Hardman reports.
JESSE HARDMAN, BYLINE: Roy Brooks, doesn't like his town of Gretna, La.
ROY BROOKS: I don't go anywhere in Gretna. I don't patronize them or anything. I go to Walgreens only. I just don't feel as though I'm welcomed here in this town.
HARDMAN: The relationship between the 62-year-old Brooks, who's black, and Gretna, a town that's majority white, was fraught from the get-go. The reason? His grandfather, Royal Brooks, was killed by a local policeman before Roy was born. He often drives by the side of the incident, a few blocks from his home.
BROOKS: This is the old Gretna post office. That's where my grandfather was killed, right over there.
HARDMAN: On February 27, 1948, Royal Brooks was taken off a public bus by a traffic cop. Some witnesses said he'd assaulted the bus driver over a fare disagreement. Others said he was trying to help a white woman who'd gotten on the wrong bus. What's undisputed is the officer shot Brooks who was unarmed. The Louisiana Weekly, a black community newspaper, published the only known photo of the incident.
KAYLIE SIMON: I think you see a lot of African-American people who just witnessed a murder. They look outraged and sad, and they're looking at Royal Brooks' dying body on the street.
HARDMAN: That's Kaylie Simon speaking via Skype. She's a lawyer who's been digging up documents about the case. Simon works for the Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University School of Law, in Boston. Her team's researching hundreds of racially-motivated killings between 1930 and 1970 and sharing what they find with descendants of the victims.
SIMON: Providing the information confirms their reality and their narrative which has often been contradicted by either white newspapers or a possible acquittal in court of the white perpetrator.
HARDMAN: In Royal Brooks' case, the white officer was acquitted and went back to work despite a huge uproar from the black community. Simon's not re-trying the case, she's helping Roy Brooks and his family define what justice means to them.
BROOKS: To get an apology? Yeah, that would be fine with us.
HARDMAN: Gretna Mayor Belinda Constant acknowledges the family's grief.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BELINDA CONSTANT: We do everything we can to ensure that these injustices will never happen again.
HARDMAN: The Brooks family wants a new gravestone. They'd also like Northeastern's research to be preserved by the Gretna Historical Society, that means talking to a local historian B.J. LeBlanc. He equates his hometown with Mayberry the fictitious Southern haven featured in the "Andy Griffith Show."
B J LEBLANC: It's a nice, quiet, peaceful town, although we do have more than a sheriff and a deputy. You know, we have a police chief, and we have a full-time police force.
HARDMAN: LeBlanc admits the police force might not have always treated black residents fairly.
LEBLANC: I think it's a lot different than it was back then.
HARDMAN: But even today, the town's divided. Whistleblowers inside the Gretna Police Department say the agency has a quota system for traffic tickets. A federal class action suit claims this corruption targets black residents. That's why Roy Brooks drives slowly when he passes through Gretna on the way to his grandfather's grave.
BROOKS: I'm walking around here, don't know if I'm walking on my grandfather's grave or not.
HARDMAN: Brooks likes being able to visit, but closure? That's trickier, he says. He still wants to tell his grandfather a few things.
BROOKS: That I love him. I wish I could've learned a lot from him or learn some of his history, you know.
HARDMAN: Brooks knows a little bit more now about how his grandfather died. What he still wants to know - is how he lived. For NPR News, I'm Jesse Hardman in Gretna, La.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, an incomplete identification is given for the Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University School of Law. Its full name is the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University School of Law.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.