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72 years before George Floyd, this police killing sparked national protests

How the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project revived the Royal Cyril Brooks case — and led to a city's apology

By Schuyler Velasco

You’ve already heard the broad contours of this story. A Black man does something that challenges white authority. A law enforcement officer kills him in public view. An image of the incident causes a national outcry, and sows the seeds of activism against racial violence suffered at the hands of law enforcement.

It wasn’t Freddie Gray or Michael Brown or George Floyd, not yet. It was Royal Cyril Brooks, a 44-year-old trade union worker in Gretna, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans — shot in the back by transit officer Alvin Bladsacker in 1948, in front of hundreds of witnesses. A widely publicized photograph of the aftermath, which showed Brooks’ son kneeling beside him as he died, sparked nationwide protests. The NAACP got involved; national letter-writing campaigns to then-president Harry Truman demanded Bladsacker’s arrest. 

Bladsacker was eventually prosecuted, but acquitted. The case was quickly forgotten in the national consciousness and remained a hushed mystery, even to members of Brooks’ immediate family. Now, it’s one of many Jim Crow-era crimes that some legal scholars believe is ripe for a different version of redress: restorative justice.

First articulated as a modern Western philosophical concept in the 1970s — but with roots dating back to ancient Indigenous cultures in Canada, West Africa, and New Zealand — restorative justice looks beyond the crime-and-punishment framework of the modern legal system. Instead, it emphasizes repairing harm done by drawing attention, acknowledgment, and some degree of closure to cases from the past. Restorative justice was the underpinning of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa. It’s used on some high school and college campuses to mediate conflicts between students, over issues ranging from vandalism of property to sexual assault. And some legal scholars believe it could serve as one way of reckoning with police and racial violence in the United States today.  

In Brooks’ case, the reconciliation was driven by Northeastern University’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. An initiative out of the university’s School of Law, it’s made up of law students, professors, and, on certain cases, local high school students. Its founder and director, Distinguished Professor of Law Margaret Burnham, spent a long career as an attorney on landmark civil-rights cases and was the first Black woman to serve as a judge in Massachusetts. 

Restorative justice is “an ancient practice,” Burnham says, “but it teaches that the justice system belongs to communities.” 

Every year, the initiative works on about 50 cases in varying states of progress — murders, violent incidents, and other miscarriages of justice against Black Americans, most of which occurred between 1930 and 1970 in the South. 

“In order to understand what these events are all about today, you have to look back,” Burnham says. “We have not yet come to terms with this history. It casts a long shadow over today.” 

“I had questions” 

Growing up, relatives often told Roy Leo Brooks, Jr. how much he took after his grandfather. 

They had the same complexion, the same light eyes, and the same nickname, “Bubba.” He had to take their word for it — Royal Cyril Brooks had died eight years before his grandson was born.

“We have not yet come to terms with this history. It casts a long shadow over today.”

Margaret Burnham (above), CRRJ Founder and Director

To Roy Brooks, Royal was a thinly sketched apparition. People who had known him offered up stray details — he worked the gates at Negro League baseball games, and would sneak people in even if they didn’t have money. He had a big heart. He was a bit of a ladies’ man. He liked to shoot craps. But when the conversation turned to what happened to him, Brooks’ elders got quiet. 

“Starting around age six or seven, I had questions,” says Brooks, now 65. “Why didn’t I have a grandfather? Where is he? My dad, or my aunt and uncle, would explain it to me in bits and pieces, but I’d never, ever gotten the whole story.”

For decades, that’s how it was. Brooks grew up, left Louisiana, worked as a merchant seaman, had children and, eventually, 11 grandchildren of his own. Then in 2017, when he was back in Gretna taking care of his mother, he and his sister, Ira Brooks, got Facebook messages from law students at CRRJ. 

This is typically where the restorative justice work starts, says Kaylie Simon, a Northeastern Law graduate who now works as a public defender in the San Francisco Bay Area and nurtured close relationships with Brooks’ relatives. “We always ask the families, ‘What would you like to see happen?’” says Simon, who took a one-year sabbatical from her job in 2018 to work full-time as the director of CRRJ’s restorative justice arm. “It doesn’t make sense to take action absent the engagement of the families and the community.”

CRRJ’s approach to restorative justice is twofold. The project investigates cold criminal cases and pursues amends for those affected, involving them in deciding what a healing process might look like. And it endeavors to correct the historical record. According to CRRJ Associate Director Rose Zoltek-Jick, there’s a gap in the documentation of American racial violence between the Reconstruction era and the mid-1950s, at the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement. 

“It was a black hole in American history,” she says. “Perhaps because of the Depression, perhaps because of World War II — but in any event, nobody really had looked at the race data, and racial murder after 1930 and before 1954. There’s a continuous line between slavery and today, and we need to have every moment documented.”

In some cases, CRRJ finds legal remedies to pursue, such as vacating wrongful convictions and death sentences. In 2014, the center succeeded in having a judge overturn the murder conviction of George Stinney, a 14-year-old who was hastily convicted and put to death by electric chair in 1944 — the youngest person executed in U.S. history. The change in legal status couldn’t reverse the past, but it served to highlight the failures of the judicial process that Black defendants faced at the time. 

But restorative justice also looks for remedies that traditional law can’t provide — and adds weight to work done by journalists, historians, and educators. American law is an adversarial system, in which neither side is encouraged or expected to admit fault. When that system fails — as it often did in the Jim Crow-era South — restorative justice shifts the focus to the wronged parties, and what they need in order to gain some sense of closure and healing. 

Piecing together the case  

Roy Brooks jumped at the chance to learn more about his grandfather’s story. With the family on board, Northeastern law students in Boston pieced together what happened to Royal Cyril Brooks — with help from students at nearby Cambridge Rindge and Latin, a public high school that partnered with CRRJ for an intensive history program.

They dug up old records from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the NAACP, and contemporaneous Black newspapers. They submitted records requests for historic documents and researched at the Library of Congress and the National Archives. They identified potential family members on social media and through ancestry.com. In 2018, a group traveled from Boston to Gretna to interview Brooks’ family members and scour local archives. 

“To be able to meet the direct descendants brought the case to life on a deeper level,” says Jonathan Charles, a Cambridge Rindge and Latin graduate who spent the last semester of his senior year working with CRRJ on the Brooks case. “This wasn’t just casework. These were real people.”

After years of work, all of that scattered material coalesced into a cohesive account of the incident. According to CRRJ’s records, on February 27, 1948, Royal Cyril Brooks was in line to board a bus at Ferry Landing, Gretna’s bus terminal. The woman ahead of him in line (whose name is unknown) paid her fare — a nickel — then realized she had boarded the wrong bus. Brooks offered to give her his nickel and ride on her fare, a common practice at the time. But the driver, Preston Herbert, grew enraged at the suggestion, and he and Brooks got into a heated argument. 

Herbert flagged down patrolman Bladsacker, who beat Brooks with his police baton and dragged him off the bus. Bladsacker then unholstered his service weapon, pressed it to Brooks’ back, and marched him toward the Gretna courthouse. After walking about a block, Bladsacker shot Brooks twice in front of hundreds of witnesses on Huey P. Long Ave., then a major thoroughfare in Gretna. Brooks’ son, Roy Leo Brooks, Sr. — Roy Jr.’s father — reached Royal in time to hold him as he took his last breaths. 

A photographer for The Louisiana Weekly, a Black newspaper, happened to be in the area and took a photo of Roy Brooks Sr. kneeling beside his bloodied, dying father in the middle of a large crowd. Anticipating trouble, the photographer handed the roll of film to a friend just before police confiscated and destroyed his camera. 

“It’s very rare for us to have an actual photograph documenting what happened in that very moment,” Simon says. Usually, CRRJ researchers start with a lot less. “For some cases we don’t even have the name of the person. There’s just a rumor, or a document saying that a Black boy was killed, and we know a time and a general location but no name.” 

Brooks’ case was rarer, still, for being a national story in its time, and a pivotal event for civil rights in Louisiana. Two thousand people attended his funeral. Local newspapers, including the Times-Picayune, reported Bladsacker’s account that Brooks had been drunk and belligerent, and had appeared to reach for a weapon before Bladsacker shot him in self-defense. But a number of witnesses contradicted this story in subsequent media coverage. 

The photograph ran in Black newspapers nationwide. Brooks’ fellow workers in the local Food, Tobacco, and Agricultural Workers union organized protests and a formed a committee to work for justice in his case, which eventually led to the founding of the Louisiana chapter of the Civil Rights Congress. The local branch of the NAACP took up the case. Then-U.S. Attorney General Tom Clark asked the FBI to investigate. More than a year after the shooting, Bladsacker was arrested and charged with murder, which a grand jury downgraded to manslaughter. After a brief trial, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted Bladsacker of all charges. He returned to work as a patrolman. Members of Brooks’ family would see him out on duty for years after the murder. 

“I’m sure he enjoyed his grandkids,” Roy Brooks muses. 

Despite the attention garnered by the case as it happened, the details had essentially vanished before CRRJ took it up. It isn’t taught in history books, nor mentioned alongside the handful of landmark civil rights cases that do make it into high school and college curricula. That’s true of countless incidents from that time period, Simon says.

“There’s a continuous line between slavery and today, and we need to have every moment documented.”

Rose Zoltek-Jick, CRRJ associate director

“African American people didn’t have equal access to justice,” she says. “Often everybody knew who the white perpetrator or perpetrators were, and the people in power wanted to sweep that under the rug. It’s important to not think of these as individual cases, but as happening on a massive scale. Hiding the information served to protect white people.”

Making amends

Making Royal Brooks a permanent part of history was a huge part of what his family wanted from the restorative justice process. Their first request was a proper gravestone — Royal was buried in Gretna, but they didn’t know where. They wanted a historical marker for the incident and an event celebrating Royal’s life, complete, in true New Orleans fashion, with a second line — a funeral tradition where people march and dance in formation behind a brass band section. And they asked for apologies from two people: Gretna Mayor Belinda Constant and Arthur Lawson, the city’s police chief. They got almost everything they wanted. 

CRRJ helped raise money for a gravestone. It reads, in part, “A civil rights martyr…his death inspired the creation of the Louisiana Civil Rights Congress.” 

On April 27, 2018, at a ceremony at Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in the nearby town of Harvey, Mayor Constant issued a formal acknowledgment of the incident, and apologized to Brooks’ family on behalf of city leadership. “These things should be something we never hear about anymore,” she said in her remarks. “We want to ensure that this is a community that future generations can be proud of.” After the ceremony, congregants danced in the streets behind a group called New Breed Brass Band. The celebration made local and national news, and got an in-depth write-up in The Louisiana Weekly — the same paper that broke the story back in 1948. 

The next year, the state of Louisiana approved a historical marker for Royal Cyril Brooks, the first official memorial in Gretna honoring a Black person. Roy Brooks makes sure to drive by it every day. 

Brooks and his advocates still see the work as unfinished. They didn’t get cooperation from Gretna’s police force. Simon and CRRJ reached out to Chief Lawson through multiple channels and connections, and got no response. The department has never commented publicly on the case, nor would it comment on this story. 

Roy Brooks isn’t surprised. In his opinion, Gretna’s police-community relations haven’t improved much in the past 70 years. He says he was once arrested for public intoxication, despite the fact that he doesn’t drink. Nationally, too, the small New Orleans suburb has a reputation for overzealous policing. A 2016 investigative article for Fusion TV anointed Gretna “the arrest capital of the United States,” and claimed, based on statistical analysis of FBI data, that it had an arrest rate nearly 14 times that of the average town, and five times that of the city of Baltimore. Black Americans make up the vast majority of those arrests. “The police have continued over time to be an oppressive presence for the African American community in Gretna,” Burnham says. 

Black Lives Matter, then and now 

The parallels between the Brooks case and incidents that send Black Lives Matter protesters into the streets today — the viral-for-its-time photograph, the conflicting witness accounts, the time lapse between the killing and Bladsacker’s arrest — can feel striking in their specificity. But CRRJ’s case files are full of such parallels. They even include the start of an investigation into the case of another George Floyd, a 46-year-old man who was beaten to death in police custody in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1945. 

When the 2020 George Floyd killing sparked a national swell of Black Lives Matter protests this past June, “Say their names” became a rallying cry. Names of the victims of racial violence and police brutality — Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless more — were repeated on protest signs, sidewalk messages, and social media posts. “It’s a way to show that the process of justice is ongoing, and there are lots of ways to continue to make sure people know their stories,” Simon says. In California last summer, she organized a Public Defenders’ Black Lives Matter Rally, and made signs with approximately 60 names from CRRJ’s archive. Royal Cyril Brooks was among them. 

Zoltek-Jick, CRRJ’s associate director, says connecting those historical threads is a vital part of understanding America’s often painful racial past — how far the nation has come, and how much work there still is to do. In addition to repeating the names from the present, she says, “we also must remember those names [from history]. But we can’t remember them if we don’t know them. And our project is about knowing the names.”

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Schuyler Velasco is Experience's Senior Editor. 

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