Beyond Busing, Reality of the Segregated South

When we reflect on the history of busing, we typically think of segregation; the division of seats in the front for white people and in the back for black people. Diving into the collection of cases that CRRJ investigated, I began to see that the history of buses was more traumatic than mere sites for segregation. In the mid twentieth century, buses were frequently locations of crime scenes for racially motivated murders.

February 27, 1948, in New Orleans, Louisiana, a black woman whose name has escaped history, gave a white bus driver, Preston Hebert, bus fare, one nickel. After handing Hebert her nickel, she realized that she was on the wrong bus. The bus driver refused to return her nickel. Roy Brooks, a 44 year old black man in line for the bus gave her his nickel and told the bus driver he would ride on her fare. This makes sense, right? This was a practical and kind gesture, the kind of human act we hope our children will do when they grow up.

The white bus driver was outraged and ordered him off the bus. Hebert flagged down a nearby traffic cop. Patrolman Bladsacker boarded the bus and struck Brooks in the head with the butt of his revolver before dragging him off of the bus. Bladsacker began walking Brooks towards the Jefferson Parish Courthouse. After about a half of a block, Bladsacker shot Brooks twice, murdering him in front of several people in broad daylight.

Bladsacker went back to his job directing traffic less than thirty minutes after ending Brooks’ life.

A local paper, Louisiana weeks, on Saturday June 5, 1948, wrote “The 64 dollar question is, will he be convicted? Not unless the Louisiana Committee for Civil Rights can win enough backing to arouse the conscious of the community.” I had to ask my grandmother why the title was the “64-dollar question.” She knew right away: 64 dollars was highest amount you could win on a popular game show at the time.

As a public defender who is critical of our justice system, I often wonder whether officers being convicted in court for killing would demonstrate that the system works, that it is fair, when I see that it is not. But then I consider how, absent accountability, the illegal and sometimes lethal actions of police officers may never stop.

Another article, Cyril Brooks Slaying Aired on Floor of Congress; Stops Whitewash, Oakley C. Johnson wrote,

“It might mean more than simple justice in this case: It might save the lives of many Negroes in the future by restraining white policemen from acts of violence against colored citizens. For southern policemen, instead themselves break the law they are supposed to uphold, them ho scot-free. If Bladsacker does not get away with killing Brooks, other trigger-happy white cops will think carefully before taking a life.”

People are often confused by what exactly a grand jury is for—how it differs from a jury trial. At the grand jury a prosecutor presents the evidence in a case. The grand jury examines whether there is some evidence to move the case forward. They don’t determine if the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, they merely assess whether there is probable cause. Probable cause is the same standard the police use to make an arrest. In Bladsacker’s case, a grand jury dismissed the murder charge, but found there was sufficient evidence to move forward on the lesser charge of manslaughter.

The jury trial lasted a little more than two hours. To give some context, as a public defender who has tried cases, it is extremely rare for a misdemeanor trial to last less than a full day. Homicide trials usually take weeks if not months.

The jury acquitted Bladsacker of manslaughter after deliberating for seven minutes. It can take more than seven minutes to merely select a foreperson to facilitate a meaningful conversation.

There are numerous cases like Brooks’s, which began on a bus and ended with no repercussion for the police officer who took a life. Timothy Hood, was killed by Brighton Police Chief Fant after he moved a Jim Crow sign on a congested bus on February 8, 1946, in Bessemer, Alabama and Samuel Bacon was killed by Town Marshall Stanton Coleman after refusing to give up his seat to a white man when there were several open seats on March 15, 1948, in Fayette, Mississippi. Neither officer was held accountable.

It is imperative that we understand and recognize the prevalence of these murders and the multilayered injustices of our past in order to stop repeating them.

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