The Rev. Harry Blake survived an assassin’s bullet, a police beating and unjust arrests in Shreveport in the early 1960s as he fought for black people to gain equal rights. He was a go-to person in Shreveport for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during that era.
Afterward, Blake spent decades pushing for better education, health care and housing in his community as pastor of Mt. Canaan Baptist Church in Shreveport.
Blake, who had just retired from the church, died on Wednesday. He was 85.
A Facebook posting by his daughter on March 27 said that he had been exposed to the coronavirus and was ill but improving. Following his death, the family said they didn’t want to take questions from reporters.
State Rep. Cedric Glover said he feels like he has been standing on the shoulders of Blake and the other civil rights icons in Shreveport, including C.O. Simpkins and E. Edward Jones.
Glover served on the Shreveport City Council, then was a state representative and finally was elected as the city’s first African-American mayor in 2006. That means he headed the government that in the early 1960s set the police against Blake and the others fighting for civil rights. Glover served two terms before winning election again to the state House.
“I thank God for him,” he said Friday. “He changed the lives of those who have come behind him. He was simply a giant of a man advancing America toward becoming a more perfect union.”
Blake grew up on a plantation in north Caddo Parish. His mother had a third-grade education. His father, a sharecropper, did not know how to read or write but knew how to read people. Blake attended a one-room church school.
Glover said Blake recounted to him that his formative experiences came as a teenager working at the country store owned by a man named H.L. Whitlow, who recognized that Blake had talent.
Blake, said Glover, came to understand while working in the store that he was at least as intelligent as many of the farmers who stopped there to buy goods. That inspired him to attend Bishop College in Texas.
At his graduation ceremony in 1960, the commencement speaker was King, who invited Blake to come to Atlanta to be interviewed for a position with his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Blake said in an oral history given in 2013. King hired him.
Blake said he was arrested on his first day because a policeman thought he gave a flip answer to a question. Blake had been sitting in his car when he was taken to the police station and was charged with “careless and reckless driving,” Blake said in the oral history.
He was arrested another time and charged with “mental observation,” Blake said, adding, “They couldn’t get anything else. It was all about intimidation.”
“I was arrested I don’t know how many times,” Blake said, with a smile, adding that the authorities thought he was a Communist dupe.
“They thought we were getting orders and instructions from Moscow,” he said, adding that they thought “Negroes were too dumb” so they had “to have somebody think for us.”
Blake also recounted how he was driving on a country lane one day in 1960 when a car pulled up along, and he heard a loud crash. It was the glass of his driver’s side window shattering and then tearing holes in his suit jacket. But the bullet missed, Blake said, because he had been leaning forward to adjust the car radio.
In 1963, Blake and others organized a memorial service at the Little Union Baptist Church in Shreveport for the murder of four little girls the week before in a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Blake recalled in the oral history how Shreveport’s commissioner of public safety, George D’Artois, refused to grant permission for a public march. He also recalled how during the church service, D’Artois and other policemen began beating Blake in the church vestibule and then continued outside.
“They beat me until they thought I was dead or appeared to be lifeless,” Blake said. He went to Texas to recover.
In 1966, he took over as the pastor of New Canaan and soon focused on building housing for low-income residents and senior citizens.
“He did what was necessary to be done for the rights of poor black people,” said state Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport, who was a close friend. “A lot of people didn’t have courage. He had courage. A lot of people were afraid. He wasn’t afraid.”
In later years, Blake served as president of the Louisiana Baptist State Convention and general secretary of the National Baptist Convention.