Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, the former Black Panther leader who was wrongfully imprisoned for almost 30 years for killing a white schoolteacher, has died at age 63 in Africa, his former lawyer announced. The godfather of Tupac Shakur, whose mother (Afeni) is also a former Black Panther, Pratt leaves behind a rich legacy and lessons.
Pratt’s nearly three-decade confinement, and subsequent release, was called the single most important case of legendary legal lion Johnnie Cochran’s career. Many people incorrectly believe that Cochran’s biggest legal victory was the innocence verdict for OJ Simpson during the “Trial of the Century.” It was not, by far. Cochran himself said the release of Pratt was an “absolute personal obsession” because of what Pratt stood for and how badly he and his family suffered for that stance.
Pratt served his country faithfully and honorably during two tours in Vietnam. He then served his community faithfully and honorably as an advocate of armed resistance as a leader in the Black Panther Party during the Black Power Movement in the late 1960s. The former activist died in a small village in Tanzania where he lived with his wife and child. The cause of death is still unknown, says his former lawyer.
Pratt is best known for being convicted of murdering white schoolteacher Caroline Olsen in 1968. Many theorize that Pratt was, as were the rest of his Black Panther comrades (and other freedom fighters including Assata Shakur) a victim of the FBI’s ruthless and illegal vendetta against black militants. Pratt eventually served 27 years in prison – eight of them, incredibly, were served in solitary confinement – before the case was overturned in 1997. Cochran called it “the happiest day of my life practicing law.”
Notice that Cochran did not say it was the freedom of Simpson nor the exoneration of Michael Jackson, whom Cochran also represented, who gave him the greatest joy. It was a case of game recognizing game. It was one freedom fighter, who carried a briefcase, securing the freedom of another freedom fighter who carried a gun.
Pratt’s contributions were recognized years later when he received one of the loudest cheers when he spoke at Cochran’s celebrity-filled funeral in Los Angeles in 2005.
Pratt’s life has great meaning for successive generations who live and sleep under the blanket of protective freedoms that he helped provide.
- Never gave up: “His legacy is that he never gave up,” said his former lawyer Stuart Hanlon. “He never got despondent or angry” while rotting in prison and thinking that he would spend the rest of his life in prison.
- The Power of Forgiveness: Pratt said he held no bitterness about spending almost three decades behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.”I don’t think bitterness has a place. I’m more understanding,” Pratt told CNN in a 1999 interview. “Understanding doesn’t leave any room for bitterness or anger.”
- Power of Spirituality: No one knows how you can last eight years in hellish solitary confinement and three decades overall without resentment and bitterness eating him up from the inside, except his belief in a Higher Power. He said his spirituality and love of music helped him through that period.
- Power of Meditation: “My mantra was the blues,” Pratt said. “It would go through my head when I was going through my meditations,” Pratt said. He credited meditation with helping to transport his mind out of the horrific conditions he had to deal with inside the prison.
– terry shropshire