The trip to Shreveport that left Sam Cooke hoping for a change BY BLANE SKILES | june 22, 2019

SHREVEPORT, La. (KSLA) - On October 8, 1963, Sam Cooke, already a renowned musician, drove to Shreveport for a performance at the Municipal Auditorium. Cooke and his wife, Barbara, rode together in his Maserati while his brother, Charles, and the band's manager followed in a limousine. The four headed for what was then the Holiday Inn on North Market Street, where they had reservations, but they would never check into a room.

Through months of research, public records requests and dozens of interviews, KSLA has pieced together the events that ensued. What happened next, in fact, would further sculpt the city's evolving role in the civil rights movement.

Just three weeks before Cooke arrived in Shreveport, racial tensions in the south reached a tragic flash point when members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed a predominantly Black church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four girls.

The following Sunday, a planned vigil in Shreveport turned violent when police officers — led by Public Safety Commissioner George D’Artois — severely beat Reverend Harry Blake inside Little Union Baptist Church.

That was the Shreveport that Sam Cooke and his three companions drove to in 1963; and when they arrived at the Holiday Inn, the group met the same hate driving those attacks.

Even though Cooke had a reservation at the hotel, the staff refused to give them a room. In his biography of the singer, Dream Boogie, Peter Guralnick describes the incident:

“The man at the desk glanced nervously at the group and said he was sorry, there were no vacancies. Charles protested vehemently, but it was Sam who refused to back down. He set his jaw in the way that Barbara knew always meant trouble. Sam kept yelling. He had just as much right to be there as any other damn body.”
The Holiday Inn on North Market Street, depicted in a 1967 postcard on the right, is now the Royal Inn Motel.

“Barbara tried to cool him down,” explains David Washington, a close friend of the Cooke family who remembers Sam’s brothers recounting the incident. “But that’s who Sam was, he was all business.”

According to Guralnick, Barbara feared the white hotel staff would kill her husband and begged him to stop yelling. “They’d just as soon lynch you as look at you,” she said.

The Castle Hotel was located on Sprague Street in the St. Paul's Bottoms neighborhood, also known as "The Bottoms." (Source: Willie Burton, The Blacker the Berry: A Black History of Shreveport)

The three were finally able to get Sam to the car and the crew left for the Castle Hotel on Sprague Street, which was a popular place for Black celebrities visiting town and the hotel where the rest of the evening’s performers were staying.

They peeled out of the parking lot with the car horn blaring, and the hotel manager reportedly called the police.

When the four arrived at the Castle Hotel, they found officers waiting for them.

Washington says the honking was unintentional. The Maserati — which Cooke purchased from fellow singer Eddie Fisher — had a malfunction that would cause the horn to stick if you turned sharply to the left.

According to newspaper accounts of the incident, Shreveport police believed the group purposefully laid on the horn.

“The Negroes were seated in their car in front of the motel and were blowing their car horn loudly and interrupting other guests,” read an article in The Shreveport Times the next day.

A detective told The Shreveport Journal that the group “honked the horn for a lengthy period of time and refused to leave.”

Police arrested Sam, Barbara, Charles and their manager, Senior Roy Craine.

D’Artois told reporters that the group wasn’t arrested for trying to register at the Holiday Inn, but for creating a disturbance. Newly unearthed Shreveport Police Department records confirm reports from the time that all four were charged with disturbing the peace.

Shreveport Police Department record cards show citations for Sam and Barbara Cooke for disturbing the peace (DP) on October 8, 1963.

“They were surprised, but not shocked,” says Washington. “They were angry.”

Police held Cooke and his companions for more than five hours. They were released after posting $102 bond each.

Some reports say the concert was almost canceled because of a phony bomb threat at the venue, but seven hours after their release, Sam Cooke took the stage at the Municipal Auditorium.

John Paul Jackson, now 72 years old, remembers the night well. He was a junior at Booker T. Washington High School and went to the concert with friends.

“I found out he was coming to town and decided to drive my buddies,” he recalls. “I had a driver’s license and access to the family car.”

Like others in the audience, he was oblivious to what had transpired earlier in the day.

“He gave a hell of a performance. We didn’t know he had been arrested until we read it in the paper the next day,” said Jackson.

Unfortunately, those stories were all too familiar for Jackson, who participated in student protests following Rev. Blake’s beating that September.

“I was shocked because I had just seen him the night before, but living in those times, it wasn’t uncommon,” he says.

The arrest at the hotel wasn’t the only interaction the Cooke family had with law enforcement that night.

An article in The Shreveport Sun says Charles was arrested again during the concert.

According to Guralnick, Charles said he went to the store to pick up liquor for the afterparty and asked the white woman behind the counter, “Baby, how much is that VO5?”

That angered another customer who called the police.

When officers arrived and found an open bottle of champagne in the car, they charged Charles with a DWI, but he “was out on bond shortly afterward,” according to The Sun.

An article in The Shreveport Sun described Cooke's arrest

Everything that happened here had a profound impact on Cooke. With the racism he experienced in Shreveport as the impetus, he began to write. He wrote of the change that he hoped for, the change that he and other oppressed people of color knew was a long time coming, but the change he thought was coming nonetheless.

Within two months of leaving Shreveport, Cooke had written one of the most important songs of the civil rights era, “A Change is Gonna Come.”

“There is no question the song was inspired by what happened in Shreveport,” says Guralnick. “It was such a terrible thing that happened and the song was a direct outgrowth of it.”

According to Washington, the song may never have been written without the incident in Shreveport and the inspiration Cooke received from Bob Dylan’s popular song, “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

While the song wasn’t an instant success, it eventually became Cooke’s biggest hit. In 2005, Rolling Stone magazine named it one of the greatest songs of all time.

“It not only became an anthem for the civil rights movement, but for every social justice movement since,” says Guralnick.

Cooke didn’t live to see the success of his now beloved song or the end of segregation. He was killed in 1964, just a year after writing “A Change is Gonna Come.”

While Cooke never saw the progress that’s been made, he also hasn’t witnessed the struggles still facing women and minorities today. A dark fact that unfortunately makes his song even more timeless.

Sam Cooke poses in 1964. (AP Photo)

Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins will issue a public apology Saturday to the Cooke family as Carla Cooke, Sam’s daughter, performs at the annual Let the Good Times Roll Festival.

“Much has changed since 1963 and we have brave men and women like Sam Cooke to thank for that,” said Perkins in a statement.

“I am issuing this apology for two reasons: First, the Cooke family deserves it. Second, because Sam Cooke’s legacy reminds us that change comes when people take action.”

While there’s little doubt that Cooke was frustrated with how he was treated, the truth is that much of what happened here remains a mystery. Barbara is the only one of the four arrested who is still alive, and she couldn’t be reached for this story.

And while we may never know how Cooke truly felt as he left town in the Maserati, Guralnick summarizes his thoughts this way:

“For Sam, it was one more reminder of just how fragile was the black man’s place in the white man’s world, just how tenuous were the bonds of status, safety, and human dignity in a fundamentally racist society.”

Copyright 2019 KSLA. All rights reserved


Header Image: AP Photo; Birmingham Church Bombing: AP Photo

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