LSU Associate Law Professor Chris Tyson, a Baton Rouge native, reassured a diverse crowd of LSU students, administration and community members Monday that discussing race relations is “an essential first step in giving context to the epic urban crisis unfolding on us all.”
Tyson’s speech was part of LSU’s presidential symposium, “Moment or Movement: A National Dialogue on Identity, Empowerment and Justice for All.” Tyson moderated an opening session in the Paul M. Hebert Law Center on the racial and spatial dimensions of Baton Rouge’s summer from a historical perspective.
The two-day event includes panels and speeches from experts and community leaders on the divisive issues prompted by the police shooting of Alton Sterling and the shooting-deaths of three law enforcement officers during a summer of discontent.
Tyson told of a conversation he had with a local white businessman immediately following Sterling’s shooting in which the man said he had little knowledge of Sterling’s neighborhood or life. He added, however, that he knew one thing:
“He was convinced that no one would just be selling CDs on a Tuesday night,” Tyson said. “‘He (insisted Sterling) had to be up to something.”
Tyson challenged the man, saying nothing Sterling could have done merited his death and asking how he had such confidence in his knowledge of a community he had never set foot in.
“There was a pause, and what ensued was a wonderful conversation,” Tyson said. “One that continues. And I’m happy that we were courageous enough and patient enough with each other to engage it.”
The majority of Tyson’s lecture centered around the history of African Americans in Louisiana – from the era of slavery up to Sterling’s death.
He chronicled Louisiana and Baton Rouge’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, including the issues of bus boycotts and school segregation.
“Thirteen students desegregated Baton Rouge High School when the 1963-1964 school year began,” Tyson said. “My mother would follow two years later.”
Tyson turned the lecture from history to a current “tale of two cities,” focusing on the differences between the two halves of Baton Rouge – North and South - a topic Tyson detailed in two commentary pieces that ran in The New York Times this summer.
He said North Baton Rouge is defined by everything north of Government Street, while South Baton Rouge is surrounded by upscale residences and commercial regions. The North is predominantly black and poor, while the South has some diversity but it virtually middle class, Tyson said.
“The former has been dubbed the worst place to live in Louisiana,” Tyson said. “The latter, the best.”
John Noland, the chairman of the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority, spoke during the question and answer session that followed Tyson's speech. He said the organization’s attention has been focused on rectifying some of the city’s past injustices.
He also criticized Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden, saying the mayor, who was instrumental in getting the authority off the ground, had now “turned his back” on the organization and halted funding.
“We have kept body and soul together until the arrival of the next mayor, which happens in a few months,” Noland said. “I’m praying that the new mayor will come with the enthusiasm for the kind of work Baton Rouge so desperately needs.”
Tyson noted there are “promising things on the horizon,” but everyone must wait to get past the “political hurdles.”
A member of the audience asked Tyson when a conversation – one in which people threw aside politeness – would begin to seriously address racial issues.
“It’s happening, I think,” Tyson said. “What we say this summer was the decline of politeness, which I frankly think is a good thing. In order to get to another place, there’s probably a lot more hurt and pain we have to endure.”