Southern Strategy

A new cold-case initiative could help solve the 1969 murder of Edwin Pratt, if only the FBI would give it the time of day.

Edwin Pratt had a dream: Seattle schools would be desegregated, housing lenders would be unbiased, and the workplace would be color-blind. Then, on a snowy night in 1969, someone shot Pratt in the face, presumably for being black.

Pratt, the crusading director of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle and father of two children, was 38. That's also the number of years his murder has remained unsolved. Though detectives have long suspected that three white men—two of whom now are dead—were hired to kill Seattle's most prominent 1960s civil rights crusader, the major question remains: Who put up the money?

"It is an important case that has significant meaning to this community," says current Seattle Urban League President James Kelly. "We still don't know who was behind it."

But Kelly's questions about Pratt's murder apparently won't be resolved anytime soon, despite a just-launched U.S. Justice Department review of cold-case hate crimes that date back to the '60s and before.

The FBI won't confirm which unsolved crimes it's actively pursuing, except for a 1946 lynching of four black sharecroppers in Georgia. But, says Seattle FBI spokesperson Fred Gutt, "I can tell you, of those matters reviewed to date, no cases associated with Seattle were identified for that process."

That doesn't sit well with the Urban League's Kelly. He says he plans to contact the FBI and the National Urban League headquarters in New York to push for a timely review of the Pratt case. After all, says Kelly, among the civil rights groups that have teamed up with the FBI on the cold-case initiative is the Urban League, which Pratt worked for when killed.

"Our [Seattle] board of directors has repeatedly declared that it's important to keep this case going, even if it's a cold case," explains Kelly, "because today's technology and DNA could make a difference now."

Kelly says he'd also like to see certain questions cleared up about the Pratt investigation. Though Pratt's death was similar to the 1963 racial shooting of NAACP leader Medgar Evers in his Mississippi driveway, Seattle and King County authorities seemed intent on finding African-American suspects—even restaging the murder using black stand-ins, police later admitted.

Federal investigators seemed to have a blind spot, too. Two days after the shooting, then–U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, according to federal documents exclusively obtained by the Weekly, wrote a memorandum to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover: "It has come to my attention that certain black groups are circulating a story to the effect that the death of Pratt was caused by White racists," wrote Mitchell. "Does your bureau have any information to the contrary, and, if so, is there any way it might be publicized through local police or otherwise."

Mitchell's query was forwarded to the Seattle FBI office, which was looking for a civil rights violation that would give it jurisdiction over the case. However, copies of 1969 FBI teletypes between D.C. and Seattle repeatedly stressed that the race of the shooters couldn't be established because the shooting took place at night.

Four months after Pratt's death, a teletype from Hoover's office to Seattle noted the probe had not "produced information which would indicate Pratt's death was a result of his civil rights activities." Seattle authorities were told to submit a closing report, according to the documents. The investigation was subsequently shelved, and the heavily redacted FBI documents give no indication that the Justice Department ever revisited the case after local authorities, in the 1990s, confirmed the killers were most likely white.

Stephen Kodak Jr., supervisory special agent at the FBI headquarters press office and spokesperson for the newly launched cold-case initiative, was circumspect after being asked about the Pratt case and the Justice Department's interest.

"All we can say at this time," Kodak says, "is that the FBI field offices are in the process of assessing all civil rights cold cases including those referred to us by our partners: the NAACP, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the National Urban League."

After Pratt was killed by a shotgun slug while standing in the doorway of his Shoreline home on Jan. 26, 1969, community and political leaders across the U.S. lamented his death while praising his nonviolent tactics in life. Flags in Seattle flew at half-staff, President Richard Nixon said he was shocked and saddened, and the National Urban League's director, Whitney Young, asked Seattle to do some soul-searching.

But authorities resisted labeling Pratt's killing a racially motivated crime after Pratt's wife and other neighbors couldn't positively identify the killers' race, although widow Bettye Pratt, who died of natural causes in 1978, said she thought the killers were white.

The King County sheriff at the time, Jack Porter, conceded to reporters shortly after Pratt's death thathe saw no reason for the slaying "other than politics or race." But it wasn't until 1994 that the sheriff's office confirmed a report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that a white ex-con named Tommy Kirk, 21, was most likely hired to assassinate Pratt. Kirk himself was murdered four months after Pratt by an alleged co-conspirator, Texas Barton Gray, 49.

In late 1969, Gray, later convicted of manslaughter for Kirk's slaying (supposedly over a drug debt), told detectives that Kirk admitted to killing Pratt—but Gray didn't cop to his own role in the assassination. Others later told police that both Kirk and Gray had privately confessed to the Pratt shooting, officials said. Gray died of a heart attack in 1991.

A third person at the scene, said to be the getaway driver, was never identified, nor were the person or persons who presumably paid to have Pratt killed. Furthermore, investigators could never firmly establish the most-rumored claim: that white building contractors, infuriated by Pratt's demands to hire more black workers, bankrolled the slaying.

The FBI's new review, which Director Robert Mueller said will cover major unsolved racial slayings "committed four days or 40 years ago," is thought to be focusing on civil rights deaths in the South. But the Urban League's Kelly thinks Pratt's puzzling murder deserves equal consideration.

"We strongly object to the FBI not including [Pratt's] case," Kelly says. "We think it's no less important than the Thomas Wales murder," he adds, referring to the ongoing FBI investigation into the unsolved 2001 Seattle shooting of an assistant U.S. attorney. "Every lead needs to be reviewed and re-reviewed until the perpetrators are caught."

The Pratt case remains an open investigation in the county's files, according to King County Sheriff Sue Rahr. For that reason—open cases are, somewhat ironically, sealed by law—she turned down a Weekly request to view the files. A sheriff's official says, however, that there may be "a lot of leads in those files that the FBI could follow."

Says Seattle FBI spokesperson Gutt: "If they are aware of any new information and they haven't pursued it, or there's something more we should know, we'd have an interest in hearing about it."

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
comments powered by Disqus