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Carrying the Torch 

During his lifetime, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke with dignity and eloquence. We can best honor his vision on Martin Luther King Day on Monday, Jan. 20, by addressing America's most difficult topic: race relations.

Setting goals is essential to any discussion about race, says Tulane University historian Lance Hill, whose well-reasoned strategies as research director of the old Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism (LUCAR) inspired the crushing political defeats of white supremacist David Duke in Louisiana. "If you don't set goals first when talking about race, you risk mere venting of frustration and anger, which is often worse than not talking at all," says Hill, now director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane. We agree, and our goal here is a better understanding of race and Louisiana history.

In our recent cover story on port security ("Armed and Dangerous," Dec. 10, 2002), we were chagrined to learn that Kenneth Kaiser, the director of the FBI in Louisiana, had not been briefed on the history of domestic terrorism in the state, notably racial violence by the Ku Klux Klan. In response, Kaiser reminded us that the FBI does not consider the KKK a terrorist organization. Indeed, the bureau never did, says Hill. "The Klan escaped being characterized as a terrorist organization only because it was a homegrown group," Hill says, referring specifically to the Klan's terrorizing of blacks in the 1960s. "But they fit every definition, including using violence for political ends and operating under the cloak of secrecy."

More recently, the FBI belatedly consulted research by Hill and former LUCAR co-chair Lawrence Powell that laid a historical foundation for the government's recent case against Duke, who pleaded guilty to defrauding his supporters for personal profit. The FBI should now consult those scholars as they continue to try to solve the unrelated murder of a black policeman in Washington Parish more than 40 years ago ("FBI Reopens Bogalusa Shooting Case," Aug. 21, 2001).

In our story last week on the 30th anniversary of the deadly Howard Johnson's attacks, we recounted how black and white cops bonded under fire from a self-styled black militant. So, too, did civilians. The late Father Peter Rogers recalled in his 1983 book Tragedy Is My Parish that a black hotel housekeeper told police that an unknown white man stepped between her and the gunman, a gesture that apparently persuaded the sniper to allow them both to live. Police Deputy Superintendent Louis Sirgo conducted the interview. Hours later, Sirgo was shot to death by the sniper while leading a police rescue party up a stairwell of the hotel.

We also recalled a forgotten but still prescient speech by Sirgo, a white 17-year NOPD veteran who advocated the ouster of political extremists by eliminating the poverty and social conditions in which they thrived. Sirgo denounced public indifference to a "vindictive system" of crime and punishment and "the greatest sin of American society -- the status of the American Negro." It is tragically ironic that such a forward-thinking police officer would be shot down on the landing of a hotel stairs, just as King was felled in Memphis less than five years earlier.

An eternal flame now burns in front of NOPD headquarters in honor of Sirgo and four other officers killed at Howard Johnson's. We can do better than that. Sirgo and Alfred Harrell Jr., an African-American police cadet and the first of 10 people killed by the sniper, both possessed a compassionate intellect that should be a model for the police rank and file. A further tribute would be memorial recognition of the department's research and planning division as a "think tank" for progressive policymaking and community action. For example, NOPD's school resource officers could attend a Harvard University seminar in May titled: "School to Prison Pipeline: charting intervention strategies of prevention and support for minority children." The program is a three-year initiative launched by the Harvard Civil Rights Project, which was founded in 1996 "to help renew the civil rights movement by bridging the worlds of ideas and action."

At a minimum, Police Chief Eddie Compass should consider delegating school resource Officer Stephen Harrell -- the younger brother of Alfred Harrell Jr. -- to track the Harvard research and make recommendations for local implementation. "When I put on my uniform, it's a tribute to him," Harrell said of his late brother. We trust he will carry that torch.

Crime prevention -- through educational opportunities and jobs development -- is inseparable from the goal of understanding and improving race relations. It is often lonely, discouraging work. Martin Luther King knew this as he addressed a Memphis church audience in 1968, on the eve of his death. "I guess one of the great agonies of life is that we are constantly trying to finish that which is unfinishable," he declared. "Well, that is the story of life. ... And the thing that makes me happy is that I can hear a voice crying through the vista of time, saying: 'It may not come today or it may not come tomorrow, but it is well that it is within thine heart. It's well that you are trying.'"

Let us all honor Dr. King -- and officers Sirgo and Harrell -- by continuing to try.

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