In 1964, there was a giant earthquake in Alaska, and it had terrible repercussions in Baton Rouge. The authorities here, thousands of miles away, said the City Park pool was cracked by the tremors and it would be too expensive to repair it.
The pool was closed. But it was not Alaska’s disaster that closed it but the earthquake caused by two determined young women who wanted to swim in the segregated pool.
The death of the Rev. Betty Claiborne at 77 recalls again to anyone willing to remember how the evils of discrimination and segregation also inspired flights of just plain idiocy from white officials maintaining their untenable struggle with justice.
As a 20-year-old college student, Claiborne and her sister Pearl George — the former Metro Council member who died in 1997 — sought only what other people had, the opportunity to swim at the City Park pool that was a social hub for the community.
But the protesters never got wet; police arrested the men and said the women got into a scuffle with officers, an allegation Clairborne said was untrue.
"We knew we weren’t supposed to be there," she told The Advocate in 2005. "We went prepared to go to jail, which is why I never understood why they charged us with resisting arrest."
A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling blocking governments from segregating public parks and recreation spaces. It was years before the city’s pools — officially, not bringing in enough revenue to maintain, even in Baton Rouge summers — were reopened. That in City Park never was.
In 2005, Gov. Kathleen Blanco pardoned Claiborne for the city pool conviction, saying the action served to recognize racial injustices of the past. The pardon was the first issued by Blanco and was announced during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.
Claiborne’s life of activism was born, though, as she was a frequent speaker at public meetings and worked in political life for decades, including in last year’s election cycle.
That misdemeanor, as the law of the times had it, resulted in years and then decades of service to a stronger and more united Baton Rouge, a community still sorely in need of common ground, and not only between the races.
Today, a lot has indeed changed. The passing of Claiborne was mourned by many African American public officials, including Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome. It’s important that as Claiborne’s generation moves from the scene that those activists’ courage and determination not be lost from the civic and political culture of our city.