That’s how family and friends remember Morgan City native and former Black Panther Party member Elmer G. “Ge-ronimo” Pratt, aka Geronimo Ji Jaga, during a memorial service Saturday at the Morgan City Municipal Auditorium.
Family and fellow comrades, including Victor Houston, one of the original Black Panthers, as well as Stuart Hanlon, an attorney who helped in the fight to overturn Pratt’s conviction, all remembered Pratt during the service.
Pratt, 63, died June 2 from malaria at his home in a small village in Tanzania where he had lived for at least six years, sister Jacquelyn P. Brown said.
As per his wishes, he was cremated and his ashes were spread on Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
He was one of two men who authorities said robbed and fatally shoot schoolteacher Caroline Olsen on a Santa Monica tennis court in December 1968. He was convicted in 1973 and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. No one else ever was arrested.
Pratt said he was in Oakland for Black Panther meetings the day of the murder. He said FBI agents and police hid and could have destroyed wiretap evidence to prove that.
Before his arrest, Pratt had risen to the top leadership of the Black Panther Party and served as a member of its Central Committee. He was a deputy minister of defense in the Los Angeles chapter.
His lawyers, who included high-profile defense attorney and Shreveport native Johnnie Cochran Jr., said his arrest was the result of a politically charged campaign by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI against the Black Panthers and other per-ceived enemies of the U.S. government.
He was granted a new trial in June 1997 by Superior Court Judge Everett Dickey after authorities learned a key witness in the prosecution’s case had been an ex-felon and paid police informant. The new trial was granted because Dickey said the credibility of the witness, Julius Butler, who had said Pratt had confessed to him, could have affected the jury’s ruling if they had known of his dealings with law enforcement. Pratt was freed on June 10, 1997, at age 49.
He settled a false imprisonment and civil rights lawsuit against the FBI and city of Los Angeles for $4.5 million in 2000.
During Saturday’s ceremony, Houston, who lives in El Paso, Texas, lauded Pratt’s resiliency to overcome anything put in his path.
The Morgan City native overcame two tours of duty in the Vietnam War as a member of the 82nd Airborne, rose to the rank of sergeant and collected two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star. During his time in Vietnam, he escaped death numerous times.
Later as a Black Panther, he survived a 13-hour gunfight with the Los Angeles Police Department.
Pratt persevered through 27 years of incarceration, including eight of those years in solitary confinement for a murder conviction that later was overturned.
Then, after he was released from jail, he dedicated his live to service, Houston said, using his settlement money to help those in Ghana and Tanzania with the Kuji Foundation. There, his organization had processing plants built to preserve one of the African staple food sources.
Houston said Pratt should be mentioned in the same category as Martin Luther King Jr. and is in higher esteem than President Barack Obama.
“I look at our President, Barack Obama, our first person of color (to hold the presidency),” he said. “Although he ended white supremacy in the White House, he still don’t reach the prominence in my opinion of Geronimo Pratt.
“Although he’s the president and he works within the framework of this country, he doesn’t have the background of being a freedom fighter,” Houston added.
He noted that few white citizens were present for Saturday’s ceremony. The few in the predominantly black crowd in-cluded City Utilities Director Bill Cefalu, St. Mary Parish Councilman Gary Duhon, and Morgan City Councilman Larry Bergeron. They joined black leaders, Parish Councilman Albert Foulcard, and Morgan City Councilman Ron Bias.
“All of Morgan City should be here today,” Houston said to applause “Black, white, all cultural (people), because Ge-ronimo was not just a freedom fighter for black folks.”
Saturday’s celebration was one of multiple that is scheduled. Others have been set for Oakland and Brooklyn.
While Cochran presented the case to free Pratt, Hanlon helped with the behind the scenes work to prepare for the trial.
Although Hanlon said racism and hatred surrounded Pratt, he never let it get to him.
“He didn’t have a racist bone in his body,” said Hanlon, who received a standing ovation before and after he spoke.
Hanlon recalled when he first met Pratt, who was a prisoner at San Quentin State Prison, other prisoners tried to kill a prison guard. Hanlon said he witnessed Pratt jump on top of the prison guard to protect him — but to give the impression that he was attacking the guard — and in turn suffered stab wounds.
While Pratt and the prison guard kept quiet about the situation to protect Pratt, Hanlon said the government used this information against Pratt to keep him locked up.
Hanlon said Pratt would have been executed for his conviction of the Santa Monica murder if the death penalty had not been suspended in California.
“He is our Nelson Mandela,” he said. “It’s hard to talk about Geronimo without seeing that. There’re certain people in this world, in our history, (that) are able to stand up and become a beacon to young people and all people alike — white and black. He is one of those folks.”
Although Pratt had 27 years of live taken away from him for a crime he later was vindicated of, Hanlon said he never thought of Pratt’s life as tragic in any sense.
“His whole life was a triumph. It’s a triumph of the will of the human spirit and power of one person to make a difference and to stand up,” Hanlon said, adding that Pratt’s only crime was that he was a powerful African-American leader.
In his memory, Houston recommended a large statue be constructed in a park here and that a street be named after him.
“Geronimo, we’re going to miss you,” Houston said. “We love you. The world ain’t gonna never forget you, brother. The struggle that you participated in continues.”