First assignment took away innocence

It may surprise some that I was baptized by fire in Louisiana.

My first assignment for a small Ruston newspaper in 1978 was to help the editor interview local citizens about Louisiana’s last lynching.

Although the 1938 lynching near Ruston was 40 years earlier, many participants and offspring were still alive.

A black man was accused of raping a white woman (and was probably guilty).

After three white teenagers caught him, a mob began torturing him with a branding iron in an unprintable way.

They promised the sheriff if he met them across a field, they would turn him over. However, as soon as the sheriff left they hung and shot the accused repeatedly.

“I saw the sad part of what a riot can do,” the sheriff told us. “It’s pretty ugly.”

One of the teenagers who captured the accused had become a preacher and told me tearfully, “I wonder about his soul and the souls of the others. … They were ashamed of what they had done.”

A 93-year-old man, who took me to the site, told me, “The Negro asked me if I could help him. I told him, ‘Could you help me if I was in your position?’ He said, ‘I reckon not. I know I’ve done some things wrong, but I guess I won’t be doing them anymore.’”

The elderly man added, “As soon as they strung him up, there must have been 40 guns shooting into him.”

The coroner reported more than 100 bullet holes.

Citing insufficient evidence, the grand jury refused to indict anyone in the man’s death.

My baptism by fire saved me from the usual cub reporter’s introduction to journalism through greased-pig races — and immersed me deeper than a bayou church’s swampy baptismal in cleansing my innocence about the dark side of man.


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