For a Champion of Racial Harmony
By Chris Gustafson
This story first appeared in the February 1997 edition of ASCD's Educational Leadership. Through her story, the author reminds us of the importance of honoring those who have given their lives in the pursuit of equal rights and peace.
On a snowy night in late January 1969, Edwin Pratt was at home with his wife and young daughter when he heard a snowball thump against the front of his house. He opened the door to investigate and was met by a fatal shotgun blast. Police followed the footprints of two assailants through the snow to their getaway car, which was parked nearby. But the pair disappeared. Because Pratt, 38, was executive director of the Seattle Urban League and a prominent member of Seattle's African-American community, the FBI was called in to help with the investigation. Twenty-seven years later, the case is still unsolved.
The house in which Edwin Pratt lived and died is less than a mile from North City Elementary School, where sixth-graders are learning about the civil rights movement. Although Martin Luther King, Jr. was already a familiar name, we've been introduced to new people (Emmitt Till, who was murdered for talking to a white woman; the "Little Rock Nine," who integrated Little Rock High School) and new ideas, like boycotts and nonviolent direct action. We've seen films, read first-person accounts, and acted out our own nonviolent responses to provocation.
Our Need to Know
We were astonished to learn that violence had taken the life of a civil rights leader who lived right in our community. We wanted to know more. So the sixth-graders in both my class and my team partner Shirley Hills's class invited the detective currently in charge of the case to our classrooms.
In response to one of many questions, he explained that there is no statute of limitations on murder cases and that he is still seeking the killers. Although he couldn't disclose all the details, he did tell us that while the two suspected gunmen have probably died, the people who hired them are likely still alive. Students offered a lot of guesses about their motives. (At the time of his death, Pratt reportedly was involved in two projects: getting minorities into the construction trades and getting stricter enforcement of drug trafficking in the city's Central Area.)
We still had many questions, so a group of students formed a team to interview one of Pratt's best friends. Charles Johnson, now a Superior Court judge, was one of the first people to arrive at the scene after the shooting. He recalled the fear that other civil rights leaders felt and their determination to continue their work despite Edwin Pratt's death.
Another interview team contacted the executive director of the Seattle Urban League, Roz Woodhouse, who had also known Edwin Pratt. We learned that the League is still concerned about equal housing opportunities, more jobs, and integrated schools, as it had been under Pratt's direction from the time he was named executive director in 1961.
Pratt was behind the "Triad" school plan for combining several elementary schools, each with only two grade levels, in order to break down segregation barriers. A local newspaper reported that he "pragmatically" accepted the ensuing "brickbats hurtled at the League" saying that, "At least we've got them thinking about the problem." In response to a student's question, Woodhouse explained that Pratt and his family had lived in an integrated neighborhood to take the lead in opening up every area in our city for all people to live in.
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