This was the day that all of his neighbors here had prayed for, his supporters had fought for and that he never doubted would arrive.
On this day, as former Black Panther Party leader Elmer Gerard “Geronimo” Pratt returned home to the Louisiana bayou of his youth, he broke through a wildly cheering crowd and sprinted into his 93-year-old mother’s house for a quiet reunion.
Once inside Saturday, he asked more than a dozen relatives to leave the room so that he could speak to her privately.
“I wept like a baby when I saw my brother on his knees in front of my mother,” said Jack Pratt, an older brother.
So eager was Pratt, 49, to see his mother, Eunice, he nimbly climbed through the sunroof of the limousine that had brought him from the airport. He bounded across the hood and quickly waded through the crowd into the cinder-block house.
He had not seen his mother since 1974, when she took a Greyhound bus from Louisiana to visit him at Folsom Prison, where he was serving a life term for a murder he insists he did not commit.
Pratt was freed on bail Tuesday after that conviction was overturned--a decision that is being appealed by Los Angeles prosecutors, who insist that Pratt committed the crime. Among Pratt’s first words after his release were: “I got to see my mama. I’m a mama’s boy.”
Pratt made no public comments about his 20-minute meeting with his mother, who is alert but frail and is unable to speak clearly.
When Pratt invited his relatives back into the room, the family reunion was on in earnest. Men and women held him in long embraces, and tears flowed freely as friends told him how much they had prayed for the day he could return home.
Rosemary King, who changed Pratt’s diapers when he was a baby, was there with a gift of pralines and a family heirloom--"a very old” metal ashtray shaped like the state of Louisiana.
An old high school buddy handed him a “catfish kit” and a T-shirt reading “Blue Devils Forever” from Sumpter Williams High School, where Pratt played quarterback.
He was back in the bayou where he had been an altar boy at Holy Eucharist Roman Catholic Church--where he first earned money shining shoes and going to the store for the likes of Miss Virginia, Mr. Pete and Mr. Frye.
This is where he played with his boyhood friend Lawrence “Pud” Brooks on the levee at the end of the street, where he rode out howling hurricanes while his mother read Shakespeare, Longfellow and Poe to her children gathered around her as the rain drummed on their tin roof. His grandmother started the first school for black children in Morgan City.
On Saturday, still savoring the taste of his first week of freedom after spending more than half his life in prison, Pratt greeted his hometown crowd with an emotional speech delivered in the rhythm and cadence of a sermon.
“I came to see my mama and my homefolks,” he said, as they shouted back their approval. “It wasn’t easy getting here. We had to turn a case of injustice to justice.”
He told the crowd that he was whipped and tortured in California’s prisons. “I told them they were wrong,” he said. “I didn’t do nothing. They didn’t care. I said OK. I’m going to keep on until the truth comes out. I ain’t no murderer.”
Now that the truth has come out, Pratt said, “the people want answers. And there will be answers.”
Pratt was convicted in 1972 of murdering Caroline Olsen and critically wounding her husband, Kenneth, during a robbery on a Santa Monica tennis court. Pratt has always maintained that he was innocent and that he was in the Bay Area attending Black Panther Party meetings when the crime occurred on Dec. 18, 1968.
Retired FBI Agent M. Wesley Swearingen supports Pratt’s contention, saying the bureau had him under surveillance and knew he was in Oakland the evening of the murder. Pratt has said over the years that he was targeted for “neutralization” by the FBI’s infamous counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey reversed Pratt’s conviction May 29, ruling that Los Angeles County prosecutors had suppressed key evidence favorable to Pratt that could have led to a different verdict. Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti is appealing Dickey’s decision.
Garcetti’s appeal was far from the minds of the ecstatic throng who turned out Saturday. They were thrilled that Pratt was back home in the town where he has always been known simply as Gerard.
Here on the banks of the Atchafalaya, where Pratt’s late father, Jack, taught him to shoot water moccasins when he was a child, the neighborhood lay out a spread of jambalaya, red beans and rice, barbecued chicken and crayfish.
Friends came from New Orleans, Patterson, Lafayette, Centerville, and they brought signs letting him know they were there. Four network television trucks were parked outside the Pratt home, and their crews were joined by dozens of amateurs wielding video cameras.
Pratt told the crowd that he really didn’t want such a lavish homecoming. “I wanted to see my mama. I’m scared of making her nervous because she’s an old lady now. But I got to accept the love that’s coming at me.”
He introduced Johnnie Cochran Sr., his attorney’s 80-year-old father, a native of Shreveport who had traveled with Pratt to Louisiana from Los Angeles on Saturday.
“We just want to thank you for all your love and all your prayers, and keep hope alive,” Cochran said, standing on a kitchen chair in the Pratt front yard.
Someone in the crowd yelled: “And thank God for Johnnie Cochran!”
Pratt aimed his next remarks at the scores of teenagers and younger children in the crowd: “Without the older people making a way for us, we wouldn’t be here today. I want you to know that you got to stop disrespecting the elders. You got to start listening to them.”