Rev. Betty Claiborne

Rev. Betty Claiborne (seated) leads a prayer vigil with other community leaders at Gus Young Park swimming pool in response to the closing of the pool on June 16, 2015.

Rev. Betty Claiborne, a beloved Baton Rouge civil rights leader, died Saturday, Jan. 11 at the age of 77. 

Claiborne started her civil rights activism when she was a 20-year-old college student. Along with her sister and two others, Claiborne attempted to integrate City Park pool, a segregated pool that was a social hub at the time, according to NPR.

Police officers stopped the group before they could enter the pool. According to The Advocate, the police claimed that the women got into an altercation with the police, which Clairborne denied. 

In an interview with the Advocate in 2005, Claiborne said, “We were prepared to go to jail, which is why I never understood why they charged us with resisting arrest.”

Claiborne was sentenced to 90 days in jail, but she and her sister took their case to the Supreme Court, which found that the segregation of recreational facilities is unconstitutional. However, the simple battery charge she received during the arrest remained on her record. 

“Doing right is never easy,” Claiborne told NPR in 2005, “but doing right is always right.”

Governor Kathleen Blanco pardoned Claiborne in 2005. The pardon was announced during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. Though Claiborne said she was never ashamed of the arrest, the record was keeping her from getting a degree in theology, which she went on to receive after her pardon. She went on to become a Reverend. 

“It’s not just a relief for me, it’s a relief for my community,” Claiborne said in a 2005 interview with NPR. “I believe today, in the homes of the people, there is a new spirit.”

In the midst of Supreme Court cases striking down Jim-Crow laws, Baton Rouge closed many of its public pools. The city claimed the pools were closed due to lack of funding, but many activists believed it was to avoid desegregating them. 

Claiborne did not stop her activism there. She organized non-profits and helped steer people towards public office. Even as her health declined, she was preparing for the upcoming election cycle. 

District Judge Trudy M. White told the Advocate that Claiborne was one of the people who influenced her to pursue her law career. White said Claiborne was a powerful public speaker. 

“When she rolled that wheelchair into a room, everyone stopped and listened,” White told the Advocate. “She was fearless.”

Claiborne’s funeral was Wednesday, Jan. 15 at noon.

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