Coroner Says Black Activist Was Murdered by Suffocation

(CN) – Ruling the incident a homicide, a Louisiana coroner said Monday that a black civil rights activist whose body was found in the trunk of her car last week was suffocated to death.

East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Dr. William Clark determined Sadie Roberts-Joseph, who founded a museum for black history in Baton Rouge and advocated for Louisiana’s observance of the holiday Juneteenth, died from “traumatic asphyxia, including suffocation.” She was 75.

In an interview, Clark said a mechanical obstruction to Roberts-Joseph’s airway caused the homicide. The result was preliminary because it will be days before the coroner learns the results of toxicology tests.

Roberts-Joseph organized the first Juneteenth celebration in Baton Rouge back in 1991 and was an advocate for a national observance of the June 19 holiday that commemorates the emancipation of black slaves at the end of the Civil War.

The discovery of her death coincided with Tropical Storm Barry – which briefly became the first hurricane of the year – rolling across the area around Baton Rouge, leaving parts of the city flooded.

“It is with great sadness and respect we investigate any unexpected or traumatic death,” the coroner’s statement said. “When our investigation involves an innocent victim, such as Ms. Sadie Joseph, it is particularly tragic. Our condolences are extended to Ms. Joseph’s family and friends.”

On Saturday, the Baton Rouge Police Department called Roberts-Joseph’s death a “heinous act,” saying its detectives were investigating the incident and noting that she had worked with the department to distribute bicycles, for instance.

The FBI and the Baton Rouge NAACP did not immediately return requests for comment.

In one Facebook post on Saturday, the Baton Rouge branch of the NAACP called Roberts-Joseph “a trendsetter and icon in this city.”

Michael McClanahan, state president of the Louisiana NAACP, said many people would leave conversations with the soft-spoken Roberts-Joseph with their backs straighter and their heads held higher.

“She let black folks in Baton Rouge know that we were a proud people,” McClanahan said in an interview. “We had history on our side, that we were kings and queens and that we were entrepreneurs, that we were educated people and that we were a productive people.”

Her museum, The Odell S. Williams Now and Then African-American History Museum, contained artifacts from black history, from artifacts from Africa to a bus used during the Baton Rouge boycotts of 1953. It was one of the first bus boycotts in the civil rights era and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the city to learn how to replicate it in Montgomery, McClanahan said.

Moving forward, McClanahan said his group, along with others in the community, will partner to find justice for Roberts-Joseph and go beyond finding the person who killed her.

“The best way to help Sadie in her death is to find the root causes that makes people want to do this kind of stuff. Whether it’s because of environmental issues of poverty, what have you,” McClanahan said.

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