[Raphael Cassimere is Jr. is Seraphia D. Leyda Professor-Emeritus, at University of New Orleans (UNO)]
Ever since I was extended this invitation to speak to you, I've wondered how I would approach this subject. There were so many different points I wanted to cover, but time will not permit such an extended discussion. I invite any questions on any points you feel I did not include after the presentation. After due consideration, I decided that the best approach would be to discuss autobiographically my personal involvement in the civil rights struggle of the sixties and its subsequent impact on my life thereafter. Since I matured in the sixties as the civil rights [movement] pace quickened, I think that I can speak with some accuracy on this period. Permit me however, to back up a little to set this discussion in an appropriate historic setting.
About twenty years ago [c1983], three of us were returning from an NAACP conference in Shreveport. We stopped at a Shoney's restaurant in Vicksburg, Mississippi that Sunday morning. We were the only three black customers in the place, and except for two or three black employees, everyone else in the restaurant was white. Except for the hostess and our waitress, no one spoke to us, but we didn't experience any sense of hostility, either.
After we had finished and were waiting for the check, I almost instinctively thought about some very different reactions that we might have experienced in the past, certainly 20 or 25 years earlier [c1960s]. That morning, however, we seemed almost invisible to the other customers. Nevertheless, I asked Llewelyn Soniat my longtime friend and colleague, "Why were white people fighting so hard to keep us out of here?"
The question apparently surprised him because he paused momentarily, but finally said, "I don't know." I asked the question not because we received any negative response from either white employees or customers, but because we received no response at all from people who, just a few years earlier, probably would have reacted to our presence with violence, or at the very least, would have given us insulting or threatening looks.
I continued pondering this question for a some time, but did not come up with an acceptable answer. Some years later, however, I pondered another question, "Why were we fighting so hard to get in?" Was that what the civil rights movement that I had joined in 1960 all about? Did the numerous participants, black and white, young and old, suffer so many deaths, tolerate so many indignities, endure innumerable insults, simply to get service at a Shoney's restaurant that all of us now take for granted?
Obviously, there must have been more significant goals, and much more relevant objectives, but not necessarily as clearly defined then as now. In trying to explain to others what the sixties movement was all about, I first had to try to come to grips with certain issues for myself, although I had been an active participant. .
I want to review this period the way I personally experienced and remember it. I was born in 1942, right after the United States entered the Second World War. Some years ago I became curious about what the world, in general, but New Orleans, the Crescent City, The Queen of the South, in particular was like, the year I was born.
As a historian, of course, I knew that the United States was in the midst of the Second World War, and the country was led by Franklin D. Roosevelt, now in his unprecedented third presidential term. I knew that Sam Jones was Louisiana's governor, and Robert Maestri was completing a six year stint as New Orleans mayor without having been elected by the people. But I also wanted to know what life was like for black people during this time.
I decided that the local newspapers might be a good place to start. Although there were three dailies, The Item, The States, and Times-Picayune, they often ignored the black community, and so I decided to check back issues of the black journal, The Louisiana Weekly.
I discovered that life was even more difficult for Americans of color than I had previously imagined. These are just three of the stories I uncovered: The year of my birth right here in New Orleans, long noted for its tolerance and supposed racial moderation: a seven-month pregnant black woman had been jailed along with her ten-month old baby — her crime — she had refused to allow her younger sister to scrub the porch of a white neighbor — and so she was arrested simply on the complaint of a white woman.
That same year, again in New Orleans, black teachers were still struggling to secure salaries equal to their white counterparts. For example, in 1941 a black teacher with a Master's degree and ten years teaching experience received $50 less per year than a beginning white teacher with no degree and no years of teachings. Some white janitors made more money than most black teachers! But in 1941, the NAACP attorney A.P. Tureaud had won a lawsuit to force the equalization of salaries for black and white teachers in New Orleans. But Tureaud had to file a total of 15 more suits over the next six years to equalize salaries across the state.
In 1942 the Orleans Parish School Board opened Booker T. Washington High School — it was only the second public high school for black New Orleanians, both of them located on the upriver side of Canal Street. In fact when I enrolled at Joseph S. Clark Senior High School 14 years later, Clark was the only high school for African American students on the down river side of Canal Street. Booker T, as we called it, was built largely with federal funds and a grant from the Rosenwald Fund. It was one of a few new schools built expressly for African Americans. Most black students attended classes in older dilapidated building which had first been used for white students and later converted for black use.
Clark High School had originally been built for black elementary students, but because it was located in a predominantly white neighborhood, to satisfy protesting white neighbors, the school board converted it into a white school. Nearly a quarter-century later this building was returned to African Americans to satisfy the increased demand for more space for black high schoolers.
It was into these inferior, overcrowded, understaffed schools that I began my education in 1947 at Macarty School in the Lower Ninth Ward. I was the seventh of eight children of working class parents. We may have been poor, but we didn't know it. My father was fortunate to have one of the better jobs available for working class African Americans. He worked for Domino Sugar Refinery, and because it was unionized he earned a bit more than many non professional black workers.
Sometimes between pregnancies my mother worked in a sewing factory. But my parents had the determination that their children would go farther than they had gone; not because they had no desire to receive a better education, but because the society into which they had been born and reared, denied them and most black Americans an opportunity to be well educated. Both of them, however, not only encouraged us to go, but enrolled in night classes in order to further educate themselves.
On Monday, May 17, 1954 as I was nearing the end of seventh grade, something happened to change my life forever. I have never forgotten it. In my mind's eye I can still recall where I was sitting. I was in my last period class when the telephone rang for our teacher, Miss Anna Lacaze, who was also the Ranking Teacher, and that's why she had a phone in her classroom.
Miss Lacaze looked white, and I'm sure was often mistaken for white, but she was a model teacher. She had taught many of our parents. She lived in the neighborhood and before she could afford to buy a car, she would walk to school, always well-dressed like a professional, with hat and gloves.
When Miss Lacaze passed through the neighborhood, she would be greeted by the neighbors, many who were former students. Even the street gamblers would paused shooting dice long enough to tip their hats and say "A Good Morning Miss Lacaze." On this particular afternoon after Miss Lacaze put down the phone, we knew that her phone call must have been of great significance, because she had a broad, almost radiant smile on her face, which was unusual, because, she didn't waste many smiles in the classroom.
A devout Catholic, often she would stop teaching to say a prayer for us poor sinners. When she signed your autograph book, it was always the same thing: Always stay close to God. Imagine how she tried to explain to us about the Supreme Court's ruling against segregated schools. I doubt that any of us fully understood her explanation. She told us that we had to be ready if we were going to be successful when going to school with whites.
A few minutes later our principal, Mr. George Long, was in the hallways talking to different teachers so I overheard him as he tried to explain the significance of the decision. It had come as a total shock to me. Even though I lived in a racially mixed neighborhood of poor black and white working class people, like my contemporaries I had been brought up to believe that we would always exist in a separate and unequal society. To be sure, neighbors sometimes exchanged visits, children played together; sometimes we even rode the buses together, but always divided by a wooden screen which bore the legend, 'for Colored Patrons Only.'
It was against those hateful screens that I made my first protest. I had to ride the bus to get to high school and passed several white high schools on the way. I encountered white students, listened to them discuss their school work, confident that I was at least as good a student, if not better. I would turn the screens around so that I didn't have to read what I considered insulting language.
One day an older white man observed me changing the screen and tried to force me to turn it around. I always wondered why he objected to my actions considering the fact that he would sit-in front of the screen and would not read it in any case. By coincidence two white policemen got on the bus looking for someone, and he threatened to have me arrested, but I still refused. As it was the police walked past me and took off the person they were looking for.
The older man said nothing to them, but decided to turn it around himself, but not before directing some insulting obscene words toward me. But to me I had won, perhaps my first personal civil rights victory. And I continued this quiet protest until finally, at the end of my junior year, a federal court ordered the screens removed and the buses desegregated.
On that very day, May 31, 1958, another date that I will always remember, I rode right behind the driver, much to the disgust and annoyance of both black and white passengers. I learned that many black people were contented with the privilege of riding in any seat, but did not care to actually exercise that privilege.
Later, about 30 years ago, I overheard two elderly African Americans discussing the sad state of race relations since 'they' had desegregated society. One professed to the other who agreed, you know they treated us better when we were in the back of the bus. I didn't butt in their conversation, but I thought to myself I must have ridden the wrong buses because I never experience the sense of paradise that they supposedly remembered.
During the beginning of my senior year at Clark High, another historic change occurred. LSUNO, a new branch of LSU [ Louisiana State University], the state's white flagship university, opened its doors to black students as a result of a federal court order. Some of my former Clark colleagues enrolled that first year, and I determined that I would follow them to this integrated school the next year. At first my parents were a little apprehensive about the personal safety of black students, but considering the low tuition of $25.00 per semester, and the increased debts that they had already incurred in educating two of my older sisters at private institutions, it didn't take too much convincing.
Sending me to LSUNO made good sense, if only from the standpoint of dollars and cents! When I first entered the university, I was surprised to find that the only racially segregated facility was the school cafeteria which was leased to Morrison's Cafeteria, a white owned chain which operated across several Southern states. At first, Black students tolerated this exclusion because this was not totally unexpected, and at least there was a stand up snack bar where we could eat.
That first semester was an interesting one, as we experienced no open acts of violence, as some of the first black students had the previous year, but there were enough hints and subtle messages that we were not wanted, including those made by a few instructors.
Most white students were neither openly friendly nor hostile, but there were a few who were brave enough to break the ice and openly interacted with black students. In any case we held our own. In fact, many students, of both races were shocked when a black student made the highest grade in each of the almost legendary Professor Friedlander's History classes. And Friedlander was acknowledged as being the hardest history teacher on campus.
In the Spring, 1960 semester, we began a boycott of the snack bar. Our boycott was triggered in part by sit-in demonstrations at Southern University in Baton Rouge. A number of my former Clark classmates participated in the protests including Jerome Smith, the former drum major of Clark's High School band. How surprised I was to learn that Jerome, who always strutted around like a peacock, was now a drum major for civil rights. He went on to become one of the Freedom Riders, who was attacked and beaten, but he never gave up. Jerome is truly one of the unheralded champions of the civil rights movements. His name ranks high on the list of 'Freedom's Friends.'
We ended our snack bar boycott successfully a year later when the university canceled Morrison's lease and reopened and began to operate its own desegregated cafeteria. The summer of 1960 I accepted an invitation to join the NAACP as it revitalized its youth council here in New Orleans. I was elected vice president, and by the end of the year I had gotten so involved that I became its president, a position, I held for the next six years.
In September, 1960, we joined with the new chapter of CORE for the first local sit-in at F. W. Woolworth and McCrory's stores on Canal Street, then the hub for retail shopping for practically all of metropolitan New Orleans. They did not desegregate immediately, but had the demonstrators arrested. However, that did not stop us, as we began a boycott.
At first it seemed to have had little success as many people, including a good number of blacks did not believe that we could make a change. But we soon learned that it only takes a little success to make a difference between profit and loss for most retail businesses. By 1962, however, McCrory's and Woolworth began serving black customers at all of their lunch counters.
During the Fall of 1960 we conducted an intensive voter registration campaign and helped to increase black voter registration which played a small part in helping to carry Louisiana for John F. Kennedy.
But shortly thereafter, the state legislature changed the registration laws and made it extremely difficult for African Americans to register. Potential voters had to swear that he/she had not lived in a common law marriage during the last five years. Additionally, he/she had to swear that he/she had not fathered or given birth to an illegitimate child during the last five years. At this time, the state entered 'legitimate,' or 'illegitimate' on its birth certificate. Since the vast majority of registered voters were white, this provision did not affect Caucasians nearly as much as African Americans.
[Because citizens who were already registered voters did not have to re-register to comply with the new rules.]
The state now also used a test, supposedly to determine if you had the equivalence of a sixth grade education. A prospective applicant had to compute his exact age in days, months, and years, as well as answer questions such as what is the size in square miles of the District of Columbia, or which amendment provided for the direct election of U.S. Senators, or who was the second president of the U.S? ONE wrong answer disqualified applicants who could not reapply for another 30 days.
Not until Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which eliminated such requirements did many African Americans have a chance to register again. And register they did, many older black citizens in their sixties, seventies and eighties, registered for the first time in their lives. Some on them stood in long lines for days in the hot summer sun, because they believed that registering to vote was a long step on the road to be free.
We all wanted to be 'free.' Although only a few of us were actively involved, most black Americans wanted to be free, without really understanding what that meant. I'm sure, to many of us it meant that every form of legal segregation would be eliminated. And we were sure that one day we would be. I remember once in 1963, a colleague and I were on a lunch break from picketing dozens of department stores. We were in a hamburger shop. when coincidentally, someone played a hit song by Ruby and the Romantics, Our Day Will Come ... and we'll have everything. We instinctively looked at each other and said Yeah!
In 1961 the national NAACP had adopted a catchy little slogan: "Freed, but not yet free, free by '63." So we were willing to pay whatever the price. And it was costly as many whites were just as determined that we would not be free. Violence increased greatly. A few individuals were lynched, black churches and private homes were burned: The list of civil rights martyrs, men and women, black and white, young and old, is endless: Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, and Viola Liuzzo to name a few.
But we persevered because we believed that we were winning. And to be sure there were a few small, if only symbolic victories. For example, in 1961, the first black bus drivers were hired in New Orleans, and strange as it may appear, the city of New Orleans began hiring black garbage collectors that year for the first time.
In 1962, biracial committee was formed to begin dialogue to begin the slow process of peaceful desegregation. This was a strange committee which never met as a unit, but the two co-chairs of each group would meet and serve as intermediaries. The white committee was led by the two Harrys: Kellerher and McCall, both influential leaders in the white community. The black group was headed by Attorneys Revius Ortique and Lolis Elie, each who later served as judges.
To be sure the committee helped to desegregate some local restaurants and snack bars, particularly, those operated by national retail chains, such as Walgreen's Drug stores, Sears, and Woolworth. The committee utilized the so-called Dallas Plan, which called for gradual desegregation through a series of tests. Black patrons would visit certain white establishments which would serve the testers and only them.
Thereafter, and if there was no negative reactions, after several different attempts, then these stores would be opened to the general public. I especially remember the reaction of one of the waitresses at a Walgreen's lunch counter when we first went to test the change in policy. She served us, but made a point of loudly breaking the dishes after we had been served. Now some people would have been insulted and refused to return, but not us. We decided that we were still hungry and thirsty, and ordered more food and drink. Well, she broke these as well.
The next day I wrote to the manager and informed him that we had enjoyed the services so much that we would coming back, and by the way if he could afford to have his waitress break his dishes, that was OK with us. Of course it was not and he so informed us. I don't know what, if anything, happened to this waitress, but she was not there on our return visits.
In 1963 we began a two-year effort to secure meaningful employment for qualified black workers and also to desegregate eating and rest rooms facilities in more than thirty stores on Canal Street. Prior to the sixties no black, no matter how well qualified, could sell hot dogs at the lunch counters downtown. We often pointed out that Dr. Albert Dent, President of Dillard University, could not sell socks at any of those stores. Black workers could cook the food, clean the floors, or take out the garbage, but were never qualified to be a sales persons.
In fact it had not been too many years since some clothing stores began allowing black patrons to try on clothes before purchasing them. Originally we planned to picket only five or six major stores, but ended up boycotting thirty five altogether. We assumed that the store management would give in to our demands within a month or so. However, on July 25, 1963, we began what would become a two-year boycott that we called the Canal Street Campaign. Of the hundreds of people who participated only 5 of us stood the course for two years.
It lasted much longer than we had intended primarily because we did not have the united support of the community. Most of the adult leaders of the biracial Citizens Committee became upset because they believed that we hampered their ability to negotiate. In any case, we insisted that we would continue until each store met goals established by the NAACP Youth Council. Many black customers either sneaked in, or went in through side or back entrances. Many simply walked across our picket lines.
However, we attracted support from black and white citizens, and our membership actually soared. I remember just prior to beginning we had about a dozen active members and six dollars in our treasury. By the end of the summer we had increased both our membership and treasury dramatically. We soon learned that we were not without power. Although most of our members were students, including college, high school, and even some elementary school students, we managed, albeit barely, at times, to continue the struggle. It got lonely, there were times when I picketed alone.
Occasionally, white bigots, and even black opponents attacked us, and usually the police only intervened when circumstances forced them to prevent a minor incident from becoming a major one. At first the police tried to intimidate us by asking each picket for identification. When this did not work, they stopped asking. We always practiced self defense. We never hit first, but we believed that we had the right to defend and protect ourselves; and we did. We never used the sandwich-board type of picket sign which left the head exposed. Instead, we used two thick pieces of poster board stapled together to a wooden stake, covered over with clear plastic.
This type of sign afforded protection from almost any weapon except a gun. We would give you one free lick, but we responded in kind. I remember the surprised look on the face (actually surprised and bloodied face) of one of our attackers, who exclaimed that "Y'all not supposed to hit back, to which I replied Y'all not supposed to hit us. In retrospect I now realized that he, as did most people, black and white, perceived of the civil rights workers as helpless victims. I want to tell you, we were not.
One day I was picketing alone, that was always one of hazards of being President. The President was expected to be present and on time, all the time. On this particular day I was picketing in front of Maison Blanche, the city largest department store. when I noticed a white man coming directly toward me. When I realized that he intended to walk through me, I lowered my sign to take the blow. He hit me in my jaw - HARD - after which I broke my sign over his head - VERY HARD. Then I went to get a policeman who took his time and by the time we returned of course the man had left. But when I had first demanded that the policeman come, he informed me that Headquarters told me not to touch you, and that an earlier complaint we had filed against him had almost cost him his job. His comments electrified me, though it did not relieve the soreness in my jaw. I thought to myself: Imagine that! The police are afraid of us.
Most of the time, we controlled our agenda and forced others to respond to us. We didn't take "No" for an answer, only "Not now — not until you forced me to change." Often hecklers would call us bad names. I remember one in particular. He was an usher at the Loew State Theater. Those of you who are my age, or a bit older, may remember that there were uniformed ushers at the better theaters. This particular usher would pass and loudly exclaim, "Communist! One day before he could speak, I shouted to him "Communist. Boy! he was shocked and thereafter he would cross the street to keep me from calling him a Communist.
Actually it didn't bother us if we were called Communists, we didn't know any, or know much about them. One day a well intentioned white man condescended to tell us that we were being used by the Communists. He warned us that Communists were godless, burned churches, deny citizens their political rights, and refused to allow them to criticize the state. To which I exclaimed, "Oh! That's who they are, church burners, cross burners, I always thought that was the Klan and the White Citizens Councils."
Eventually, we succeeded in breaking some of the smaller stores. In fact even the larger stores such as Sears, Maison Blanche, D.H. Holmes and Krauss had begun hiring a few African Americans for jobs above the menial level and had desegregated their eating and rest room facilities. By the summer of 1964, we had settled with all but four large stores. And even in those stores, there had been some progress made, but the management refused to negotiate seriously with 'youth.' I well remember a Mr. Sellers, manager of the downtown Sears store, who treated us with sarcasm. He would always remark that the picketing did not hurt his business and as long as we picketed everybody else, he wanted us to be sure to picket Sears.
We finally ended the boycott in August of 1965, August 12, to be exact. By that time Congress had passed the comprehensive Civil Rights Act of 1964 which made illegal practically all forms of public segregation, including Charity Hospital where I had been born. The new law also included a provision which made it illegal to refuse to hire based on race or color. As a result of this added pressure, we negotiated an end to the boycott. As it turned out we settled with Sears last. We had always said that whoever was last 'would catch hell.' Some of you may recall that Sears was located on Baronne and Commons Streets and had about three or four different entrances.
Before we went to see Mr. Sellers we had surrounded Sears with a dozen or more pickets. When Mr. sellers saw us he began with his usual sarcasm about how glad he was that we were still picketing Sears, but once we informed him that we no longer picketed any other store, except Sears, he very quickly changed his tune. He couldn't understand why, because "Sears frequently made contributions to Dillard and Xavier Universities," and "Sears always tried to treat its Negro customers fair."
[Dillard University and Xavier University of Louisiana are two Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBU) in New Orleans.]
And on and on he went for about five minutes. We pointed out to him about how unfair Sears had been when it provided water fountains 'for white only.' and none for black customers. Although we knew that Sears had already hired a significant number of black employees above the menial level, we continued to picket for two more days before we agreed to end the picketing. His personnel manager must have telephoned us nearly a dozen times to find out when we would lift the boycott. I must say that he was much more cooperative than his boss had been.
Thus, after a little more than two years we formally ended the Canal Street Campaign. On August 12, 1965 we announced the end of the campaign. A local TV reporter who came to cover our press conference, commented that he had covered a number of press conferences announcing the beginning of a selective buying campaign, but this was the first time that an organization had actually announced that it had ended one successfully
Indeed it have been a success. Literally, hundreds of Black people now worked in jobs that had been held exclusively by whites in the past. Now black customers could eat at any lunch counter or in any restaurant and utilize the same rest room facilities that all other customers used. During the same period of time, we participated in a boycott against Schwegmann's, the largest chain of local supermarkets to force the desegregation of its eating and rest room facilities and to hire black cashiers. In fact, Schwegmann's did not even hire Blacks to bag groceries. But that campaign ended successfully, as well. Along the way, we succeeded in getting Coca Cola to hire black drivers and black women to work inside the plant on the assembly line. These successes bolstered our spirit which sometimes had fallen pretty low at different times in 1964 when it appeared that nobody was listening to us. But now we not only felt confident, but also that we needed to shift gear, so to speak, get involved in something other than another economic boycott.
We did not wait long. Just a few days prior to the official ending of the Canal Street Campaign, Congress had just passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and we were anxious to get involved in a citywide voter registration campaign. We joined in with a coalition of civic and community groups, including the League of Women Voters, to push the black voter registration up by about 15,000 by the end of 1965. And each succeeding year the registration increased which helped to lay the foundation for a series of political victories during the next few years.
Contrary to popular belief, we did not get paid. The bulk of our members were too young to work, many of them between the ages of ten and fifteen, one of them was three! Some of us were college students and we had a sprinkling of adults, some as old as 70. If you picketed four hours or more, we'd buy your lunch, usually a hamburger and a drink, which cost less than a dollar.
Sometimes sympathetic passers-by, black and white, would give us five or ten dollars, but for the most part we raised our own funds, mostly from dances. We used to sponsor three dances a year and netted about $1500/dance. We rented and furnished our own office after we got too independent and the adult [NAACP] branch kicked us out of the little office they had given us, but we persevered.
The strength came from the camaraderie within the group. We not only picketed together, but many of us attended the same schools or churches, lived in the same neighborhoods. Before ecumenism became fashionable, we lived it. We came from uptown and downtown, back of town and even out of town, we were black and white, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish too. We very frequently socialized together.
We loved to party and dance, the Slop, Mashed Potatoes, Twist, Watusi, the Limbo and Cha Cha Cha, the L.A. Stomp, and the Chinese Bop. Eleven couples dated and married, including my wife Inez and I. Inez was the secretary of the youth council for five or six years. One day I realized that she was more than my secretary and friend. We have been married for 33 years.
Most of our funds defrayed the cost of our travel to conventions. The NAACP is divided into local adult and youth chapters, which in turn are federated into state conferences. The state conferences are grouped into seven regions. Louisiana is joined with Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas in the Southwest Region. We would often travel to these meetings with our sweatshirts or tee shirts with the name of our chapter emblazoned on them.
In 1964, while the FBI was still looking for the missing civil rights workers (Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner) we were wearing our New Orleans NAACP Youth Council sweatshirts. And of course we were sitting in the front of a Greyhound bus. When we changed drivers in Jackson, Mississippi, the driver declared seeing those NAACP shirts was as bad as someone spitting in his eyes.
We loved to go to these meetings; they opened new worlds to us. Prior to attending my first state convention in Lake Charles in 1961, I had only traveled as far as Baton Rouge once, when I had gone to Boys State in 1958. My first flight was to Shreveport and the first time I traveled by train was on a return trip from Shreveport. We got a chance to meet new colleagues and make new friends, and we always had an opportunity to eat food prepared differently from what we had in New Orleans. Those conventions also gave us an opportunity to compare notes and learn new tactics which we might use back home. If we had been successful using a particular technique, we passed it on, and the reverse was true. Even if we were not currently successful, there was always reports of successful efforts occurring in other places, and usually it inspired us to continue.
Sometimes someone would come to a state meeting with a plea for assistance in organizing a local chapter in their community. Our youth council helped to organize new units in places like Vacherie, New Roads, Edgard, Lafayette, Opelousas, and Luling. I remember holding a meeting in Opelousas in a public playground, but the authorities had not given permission to hold the meeting so the lights were not turned on. I spoke to a number of people, none of whom I could see, and I'm quite sure none of them could see me.
On one occasion we received an urgent plea for help in Ferriday. I had never heard of Ferriday before, but soon realized that it must have been a troubled spot when an older member suggested we go to Ferriday, "But get out before dark." To get to Ferriday, you have to pass through Mississippi. We went, had a meeting and solicited more than enough memberships in order to form a new chapter.
We did get out before dark, thank God, because that very night someone burned down the meeting place. The younger members tried to minimize the danger by suggesting that they had burned down the place because the food was so lousy. That was another lesson we learned, not all blacks could cook.
BUT, Just when we thought we were almost free, the civil rights coalition began to fall apart. Even the NAACP and Urban League were attacked from within and without for being nonresponsive to the 'real' needs of the community. Actually, the critics identified a major dichotomy within the civil rights movement. Many of the civil rights gains could be enjoyed only by the better educated middle class blacks.
For many of the poorest African Americans, having the right to stop at Shoney's without the economic means [to do so] was a cruel hoax. Additionally, as better housing became available many middle class black leaders began to desert the old neighborhoods, leaving the poor feeling more alienated and frustrated.
The activist phase of the movement practically came to a standstill in 1968 when Martin L. King, Jr. was assassinated. Pessimism and confusion ensued as most of the civil rights organizations, CORE, SNCC, and SCLC, all but went out of existence. In the meantime the frustration and hostility that many blacks in the inner cities experienced broke out in angry rioting and burning as many used this as the only effective method to express their anger and frustration. Unfortunately, this became very common during the late sixties and seventies in one large city after the other, in Harlem, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Newark, Washington, D.C., but not New Orleans.
It was not because New Orleans did not have its share of problems — it did. In fact the housing problems of many other inner cities were not nearly as serious as here in New Orleans. However, black New Orleanians are either more conservative, or are more easily pacified. It may be our reputation for having a good time that makes it more difficult for people to become as frustrated and hopeless as in other places. Maybe because we have Mardi Gras, and so many other festivals, we are easily lulled into complacency.
During this whole period I was a student, at UNO, or LSUNO, more accurately. My personal activism did not come without cost. My grades suffered and it took me 5 2 years to complete my degree requirements, especially since I switched majors from pre-med to History. But I was not alone, many leaders of the struggle either dropped out permanently or graduated later than originally expected. The late Tom Dent, a renown local poet, had nearly completed his doctoral program when he dropped out to get involved full time. Tom never received his doctorate. Julian Bond who should have graduated in 1961 didn't receive his first degree until 14 years later in 1975. Jerome Smith who was a junior at Southern [University] when he got involved was expelled and never completed his degree.
After receiving my B.A. I considered going to the Peace Corps, took the placement exam and was assigned to Senegal, but soon changed my mind when I learned Peace Corps duty did not exempt you from the draft. So I decided to stay in school to keep my student deferment. So I enrolled in the graduate program. In 1967, as a graduate teaching assistant I made history when I became the first African American to teach at LSUNO.
It was both historic and somewhat ironic, I was now teaching where much more eminently qualified black scholars could not have been hired 10 or 20 years early. The first day, two white students walked out and demanded transfers to another class. When asked Why? they responded, For obvious reasons, to which Professor Larry Leder, Department Chair declined, For obvious reasons.
For many years thereafter I was hurt over this unfair rejection, but about 10 years ago, in reciting this incident to another audience, it finally dawned on me that those two left, but 35 others stayed, which only included one black student, and all of us benefited from this pioneer experience. Russ Trahan, dean of the Engineering College, was one of the students. Often we talk about that experience.
When I received my Masters in 1968 I was far less optimistic about the future of race relations. So when I went off to pursue a doctorate at Lehigh University [Bethlehem, PA] in the fall, it was almost as if I was back in the wilderness after having seen the elusive promised land of freedom. In retrospect, I now realize that the next three years was a very fortuitous transition period for me.
I went to Lehigh at the invitation of Professor Leder who had been one of my mentors in the history department. He left the chairmanship here at UNO to become chairman at Lehigh. When he asked me if I wanted to come to Lehigh I told him 'Sure!' Actually, I had hardly heard of Lehigh, but I looked it up and learned that it was only 90 miles from NYC. He arranged for me to attend on a graduate assistantship.
When I arrived in Bethlehem in August, of sixty-eight, I received a cultural shock. Little in my previous experiences in New Orleans prepared me for the Pennsylvania Dutch community in the Lehigh Mountain Valley. The black population in Bethlehem was less than one percent of the total, and Lehigh's black student population was even smaller. When I visited the campus for the first time and observed that all of the maintenance and food service employees were white, I asked myself, 'Where am I?'
I learned that while Bethlehem had some of the same racial problems that existed in New Orleans, it was on a different level. Apparently, the few African Americans were too few to constitute a threat. There were more complaints about discriminations from the various ethnic communities that had been recruited to work for Bethlehem Steel, or 'The Steel,' as the locals called it. Indeed, I found a very nice white colleague who agreed to room with me and we found a very nice boarding house on the right side of town.
Our landlord and his wife couldn't be nicer. They were both ethnic Catholics who bemoaned discrimination they allegedly faced from the Protestants who controlled the community. The husband used a euphemism for Protestants, he blamed all the problems on the Masons. I soon learned that Lehigh was an upper middle class school, which sometimes referred to itself as one of the 'Little Ivies.' About half of their football games were scheduled against Ivy League schools.
Many of the students were third and fourth generation Lehigh men and seemed more conscious about social class than race. The undergraduate school did not admit women students until the fall of 1971, after I had graduated. I learned that Lehigh had only admitted its first black student in 1951, and coincidentally he was returning as a visiting professor for the 68-69 term.
That same year more than 30 black undergraduates were admitted more than quadrupling the previous high for black students. As both a student and teaching assistant I was able to view my new situation from a different perspective. I compared Lehigh which was more than a hundred years old to UNO, which had just completed its tenth year when I left in 1968. Academically, I had been well prepared and did not find any student better trained than I, and there were quite a few who were not as well qualified.
For the first time in my life, I interacted on a daily basis with people who were super-rich. Some of my students received more in allowances than I received for teaching them. I was reminded of something that the comedian, Joe E. Brown once said, "I've been poor and I've been rich, richer is better."
When someone asks me about my Lehigh experience I tell them I loved Lehigh, but Bethlehem was a long way from New Orleans. The best words to describe it were 'deadly dull.' I often escaped to New York about two or three times a month.
I looked up the local chapter of the NAACP and was pleasantly surprised when I met the vice president, who was white. He presided over the meeting. I asked about Pennsylvania's public accommodations laws, especially as it related to barber shops. I was informed that there were no black barbers in Bethlehem, but most black men had their had cut in one of the neighboring towns. Fortunately, I had an Afro and didn't get my hair cut more than three or four times a year. I had gotten my last haircut in Harlem several months ago. I was told that the state law covered barbershops. It was decided that I would go to the shop nearest campus, accompanied by one of the local NAACP members.
When we arrived, the barber seemed a little surprised, but to my surprise he said he had wondered why no black students had come into his shop and I was his first black customer. I became a regular and we often talked about New Orleans, one of the few places he had not visited. I assured him that it was much more exciting than Bethlehem. Nevertheless, Lehigh's absence of excitement was a blessing in disguise because I had few distractions and finished my degree within three years.
During the second year my friend and mentor, Joseph Logsdon came to Lehigh. Joe had not only taught me and encouraged me to continue my education, he had been actively involved with the NAACP, often attending its conventions. He, too, soon learned that Bethlehem was not our kind of town. He and his wife, Mary often had me over for red beans and rice and we would console ourselves with real New Orleans coffee.
With our mission done, we both returned to New Orleans as UNO professors in 1971. We were both pleased to learn that my former professor, Steve Ambrose, was also returning to UNO after an 8-year absence. Steve was much more renown now, after having published a number of books, including a multi-volume history of Dwight Eisenhower.
Joe and I were both excited about returning to a New Orleans now pregnant with change. The city council, at the insistence of the NFL, had passed a local public accommodations ordinance which covered facilities such as barber shops and bars, which had not been affected by the federal civil rights law.
The city had also elected a young Progressive mayor, Moon Landrieu who opened more opportunities to African Americans. Joe and I had hardly been in town a week when local officials of the NAACP welcomed us back and immediately immersed us in crafting a legislative redistricting plan which resulted in the election of eight black members of the state legislatures. Joe and I would get involve in New Orleans councilmanic redistricting.
As for LSUNO, it finally had hired full time black faculty, not surprisingly a historian, Paul Sanford, and there were two or three other African Americans in other departments. Additionally, Jerah Johnson, had succeeded in securing a joint History-English appointment for the reclusive, but legendary itinerant scholar, Marcus Christian.
The new Student Government Association President was a black student, Ronald Wilson, who previously I had worked with as president of the campus chapter of the NAACP. Not long after my return, by chance, I met Miss Lacaze, who was now a retired principal. She asked me what I was doing, and when I told her that I was now teaching history at LSUNO, she flattered me and said she was not surprised.
I tried in turn to flatter her, by rehearsing that experience that I had had in her classroom in 1954, but she would have none of it, "You see, you succeeded because you were ready and with God's help you will succeed at LSU." Miss Lacaze passed away nearly 20 years ago, so the assessment of my thirty-two years as a UNO professor will have to come at another time, and another place, and perhaps from another source. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to reminisce about an important part of my life.
Here in New Orleans, at SUNO, some students led and conducted two strikes against campus administrators, as well as the 'system' in general. The first one in 1969 resulted in no real gains. The second one in 1973 provided the impetus for some much-needed change, such as improvement in the library services, and air conditioning for some buildings.
There were a few protests during this period, but for the most part, not as effectively as before. But near the end of this period there were also a few gains, mostly in the political arena. Blacks were elected mayors of a number of large cities: Cleveland, Los Angeles, Atlanta, as more and more the movement was being reshaped and redefined by politicians, not community activists, most [of whom] had not played an active role in the civil rights movement. Here in New Orleans, Dutch Morial, who had served as president of the New Orleans Branch NAACP during the mid-sixties, became the first black member of the state legislature in 1968. When Morial became the first black juvenile court judge, Mrs. Dorothy Mae Taylor replaced him and became the first black woman to ever serve in the state legislature. Morial's career would be highlighted by his election as New Orleans' first black mayor in 1978.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected president and there was a renewal of hope again as he appointed a sprinkling of Black leaders to his cabinet such as Patricia Harris and Andrew Young. More cities came under the control of black mayors such as Dutch Morial in New Orleans, Coleman Young in Detroit, and Wilson Goode in Philadelphia.
But neither the new president or the new black mayors could do much about the widening gap between the black poor and the black middle class, especially as the latter began to move farther away from the inner city. Leaving those they left behind more cynical and more hopeless as they became easy prey to the new drug culture, which seemed targeted for black communities. The welfare system, designed to keep poor people poor by denying them an opportunity to rise above their economic level, grew in size often resulting from increased teen pregnancies. Each year more and more black babies were born to parents who were unmarried to each other, so that by 1990, more than 60% of all black babies were born to unmarried mothers. And each year the age of new mothers were lower than the previous year and the vicious cycle seem to begin anew. Most of these not only entered the world dependent on the welfare system, but the odds that they would ever escape that dependence, increased each year.
New black political leaders began to replace civil rights leaders, who either had died, or faced stiff competition from the newcomers. These new leaders were different. They had a new agenda, much of the time a personal agenda. Most of the early political leaders had begun in the civil rights movement. Most had some commitment to the cause of the masses of black people. Many of the new leaders, however, were full-time professional politicians with their more pragmatic rather than community agenda.
By 1984, black mayors presided over 4 of the top ten cities in the nation, but they came into power at a time of white retreat to the suburbs and with them, much of the financial resources, including major employers. The Republican administrations of the eighties began to challenge the meager civil rights gains, especially the affirmative action plans and set asides programs for racial minorities.
In 1984 and 1988, as the Democratic Party began its retreat from the support of civil rights issues, blacks flocked around the candidacy of Jesse Jackson, who made a very respectable showing in the party primaries, including winning Louisiana's in 1984. However, Jackson also demonstrated that while a black candidate could mount a serious campaign, the vast majority of white Americans were not yet ready to vote for a black candidate and when the party passed over Jackson for both its presidential and vice presidential nominations, black Americans felt even more isolate, frustrated and alienated.
In the meantime, the number of homeless and hungry among the nation increased. The drug problem in most black communities reached epidemic proportions. To make matters worse, AIDS made its appearance and soon began to create havoc among inner city residents.
Here in New Orleans, the crime rate soared. Complaints of police brutality increased even under the administrations of two black mayors and two black police superintendents. And although blacks captured a majority of the seats on the local school board and a black educator served as superintendent, national test scores showed that public school students in New Orleans lagged far behind their counterparts in other parts of the country, indeed other parts of the state. As school facilities deteriorated and academic performances declined, so did support for public education, especially among the black middle class which deserted public schools in increasingly large numbers.
In 1991 the lethargy and despair that permeated the black community throughout this period finally began to dissipate by fear that David Duke could be elected governor. Most reasoned that as bad as things were, under a Duke governorship they would get infinitely worse. And so for one of the few times in the state's history, black voters came out in greater number than did white voters. Some of this energy spilled over into the 1992 presidential elections as blacks voted enthusiastically for a new Democratic president who promised that there would be a major change from the Reagan and Bush years of hostility and indifference. Only time will tell if the Clinton Revolution will fulfill the promises made.
Now we come to the future, my generation will have to exit the stage. It's your turn. You, and members of your generation can help determine whether or not there will be a better future than the immediate past. It does not take a large number of people to begin change. Revolutions do not always begin with leaders, sometimes revolutions produce leaders as they progress.
I don't want to leave you hopeless; things have been worse, but they can and must get better. In fact, either they will get better or they will certainly get worse. You will determine which direction the country will go. But if you are to be successful in overcoming remaining problems, you must build new coalitions, based, not simply on common racial ancestry or class, but commonality of interest, the environment, economic, social and other human problems. The road will not always be easy but positive change can come.
Nearly one hundred years ago, the venerable Frederick Douglass in the last years of life, received a delegation of young leaders who were greatly concerned about a rising wave of violence, including the lynching of black men all over the South. They also agonized over the increased segregation laws that Southern legislatures passed, practically relegating former slaves back into servitude. They asked the old patriarch for some advice, undoubtedly hoping for some words of inspiration or encouragement. But Douglass was as blunt as he was prophetic. "Things are going to get much worse, before they get better, but keep on fighting."
Two years later he died . Some of those leaders kept up the fight. And so did some in my generation and so must you. Keep on fighting to make this a better community, not just for yourselves, not just for blacks, but for all of our fellow creatures who inhabit this place.
Copyright © Raphael Cassimere, 2003
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