Originally published in The Nation's Longest Struggle: Looking Back on the Modern Civil Rights Movement by the D.C. Everest school system of Wisconsin. This interview was conducted and edited by Junior and Senior High School students of the Everest system. For more information, see D.C. Everest Oral History Project.[
Raphael Cassimere Jr. is a sixth generation New Orleanian, and has a Doctorate of Philosophy from Lehigh University. He was the first black instructor at the University of New Orleans, and retired with the rank of Professor-Emeritus after 37 years at the University of New Orleans. Cassimere wrote a book called African Americans in New Orleans Before the Civil War. He has been continuously ative with NAACP since 1960.]
See New Orleans Merchant
Boycotts & Sit-ins for background & more information.
We would like you to tell your story of what you experienced during the Civil Rights Movement.
Okay. I got involved slowly. I was a student at the University of New Orleans, this was in 1960, when the NAACP organized its youth council. I was invited to come to a meeting and when I attended my first meeting in July of 1960, I saw a lot of my fellow students from the university. I was elected vice-president of the youth council.
We immediately got involved in a voter registration drive to teach African Americans how to register to vote. This was just before the presidential election of 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. We were also involved in the first sit-ins at lunch counters against F.W. Woolworth and some other stores. This was in September of 1960. We picketed the stores for more than two years, trying to get them to change their seating policies. At that time they had separate restrooms for black and white customers. They had separate restrooms for members of a different race!
We didn't get very much done the first year, but at least we got organized and it led to much bigger actions over the next four or five years. In 1963, we got involved in a two-year long boycott against about thirty-five different stores to get them to hire blacks other than as their cooks and for cleaning-up, as sales-personnel, managers, and so forth. It lasted more than two years, but we were successful in getting hundreds of people employed in places where they had not been allowed to work before.
We did desegregate all of the cafeterias and the lunch counters. We also desegregated theaters and hotels and motels. We were very, very successful in get ting this done with students who would picket during their off-hours while they would work fulltime as students. We had college students, high school students, junior high students, and even a few elementary school students.
How was your family affected by your involvement?
Well, I was really the only one in my family that was actively involved. They were supportive. My parents were somewhat fearful that there might be retaliations, because there were retaliations against Civil Rights workers in other places, but they did not try to stop us. This was basically, again, a youth-led movement, and certainly they were very proud of what we had accomplished. I met the person who I eventually married; my wife was actually the secretary of the youth council for much of that time. And in fact, I think there were ten or eleven couples who married out of the youth council. So it not only was an opportunity to work together for civil rights, we also had an opportunity for fellowship and some of us fell in love and got married.
What was the philosophy of the NAACP?
The philosophy of the NAACP basically was self-defense. We were committed to nonviolence but we did believe that we had our right to defend ourselves. So we always said we'd give whoever opposed us the first hit. But we were going to defend ourselves. Now I certainly admire Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the people in other groups who pursue the same kind of nonviolence that Gandhi had, but we did not do that for the most part. We actually felt we had the right to defend ourselves.
Are you saying that blacks and whites, when you were in the NAACp, didn't cooperate?
No, I'm not saying that at all, because we did have whites involved in the NAACP. We had quite a number of whites who pigmented with us and there was certainly white freedom fighters. When we had the very first sit-in, there were whites who were involved with us. No, that's not what I'm saying at all. The people who opposed us were white but there were also some white who were supportive of us. Of course there were not nearly as many whites as blacks, but a significant number, because there were whites who were kind of behind the scenes. Some gave financial support, others provided assistance, legal assistance. Now this was really an interracial ecumenical movement. Christians, Jews, a few Muslims at that time, blacks, as well as whites were involved.
How did you feel at the time about the national leadership and his regard for Civil Rights action?
I felt that they were slow in giving support. President Kennedy said some good things but was slow in taking action. In retrospect, because I'm looking back after fifty years, probably he didn't realize how serious the problem was and we certainly didn't realize the extent of the opposition.
I mean, I'm just looking today in 2011, still the largest number of white voters in the south vote one way and the largest number of black voters in the south vote a different way. So while there have been changes, there still have been some rescissions. I don't think that the leadership in government understood how extensive and just how strong the opposition was and at the same time because we were young, we were probably really impatient, which was good because we pushed a little bit harder. But we did in fact see some very significant change that took place that took over the decade of the 1960's.
What made you want to join the NAACP Youth Council?
I was invited and interested enough when I was invited to attend a meeting by one of my classmates. I probably did not intend to go because this was 1960. There had been a number of killings and church bombers against NAACP officials and different places. Not just in the South, but here in Louisiana. I had promised him that I would attend a meeting but actually had not planned to go. But by chance we met up at the public library that evening and he had brought me, and as I had said earlier, when I saw so many students from the university there I decided I should join. I never looked back.
Did you meet any of the Freedom riders?
Yes, I knew a number of them personally. It's interesting because it was probably not plain, but I'd say most of the people who were active initially in civil rights came from our high school. Some of us had been friends before, so obviously we all knew each other very well. It may have been more by chance then by planning but I knew Jerome Smith, Jane Thompson, and her sister Alice, their brother Pierce, who I later taught, and several others. Eventually I met many more of them.
Were you ever hurt or encountered by segregationists?
I was involved in a few fights, yes. I was never brutalized by the police, not physically although, sometimes verbally. They said mean things to us. We got involved in some scuffles but it wasn't nearly as bad as some of the other people who were beaten, dragged, and even eventually killed.
What was the scariest thing that happened to you when you were involved in the NAACP?
That's hard to say. It was serious things. I guess the most serious things that happened were the positive changes that took place. I was born in the largest statewide hospital in the state — New Orleans. And when I was born in 1942 it was really segregated by race, there was a "Colored" sign and there was a "white" sign. Now it often makes it — I didn't expect to see desegregation in my lifetime. When they desegregated in 1965, basically it was in response to federal law. That if you did not desegregate then the millions of dollars in federal funds would be cut off. That was probably the easiest transition.
[The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited public facilities, such as hospitals, from operating on a segregated basis.]
My wife and I were talking about that not that long ago because the hospital was separated and designated "C" meaning colored and "W" for whites and there were wheelchairs and crutches and there was other equipment and even hospital linen was marked C and W. It was very interesting after the desegregation, the C became "center" and the W became "West." Then they came up with an E for "East". So instead of C and W, there was W, E, and C. That took place very, very quickly and with very little fanfare. There were some whites who protested but then eventually they realized they needed health care. I looked at blacks and whites who were so well integrated not just in this hospital, but all of the hospitals in this city. So that was one of the things that took place.
I guess other things were elections and city's first black mayor. Blacks in the school board and city council and the state legislature, so those were significant things. On a personal level, I guess that when I went to the University of New Orleans which had been integrated a year before, there were problems that black students had there before. We could not even eat the university's cafeteria. But a few years later I became the university's first black instructor. So I guess on a personal standpoint, that was very significant. And after I got my doctorate, I came back and I taught there until I retired 37 years later.
Do you have any regrets?
Very, very few. I'm even getting old. I've had a very productive and a very good life. No, I don't have any serious regrets. I guess if I had any regrets, it might be that there seems to be some regression, that race relations are not as good as I had hoped they would have been. I think that things were better maybe 25 or 30 years ago than they are now in some respect.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
Oh, certainly, I mean momentarily. There were times when we were demonstrating and it didn't appear that we were making much of an impact. We tried to encourage blacks to get more involved and they didn't but that was momentary. But what would always help us was the NAACP is divided into seven geographic regions so in addition to the national conventions or meetings we have regional meetings. At these meetings there was always somebody from another part of the state or another part of the country who reported on some recent success. In other words, we had some momentary setbacks. Someone always said, "Well this is what we did in North Carolina," or, "This is what we did in Oklahoma City," or, "This is a tactic that we used successfully in Denver." It always provided that kind of encouragement. So yes, I was discouraged, but it would only be momentarily.
What was it like to live like that every single day?
Well, I think that most people misunderstand the extent of the problems. Everyone has problems at some time, no matter where you live. Survival depends on your ability to adjust to your problems. The key to success is learning how to balance difficult times with happy times. Most people believe that slaves were always sad. However, there must have been times, even during slavery, when the slaves didn't always think about the fact that they were slaves. Slaves, after all, were people. For blacks, even though they were discriminated against, were no different from other people and learned to enjoy life even admidst adversity. Trust me, there were happy times for us, particularly growing up in New Orleans, which was a relatively fun city. Even when we were discouraged, we had get-togethers and we would eat, dance, and go to movies together. So I would say much of the time was fun, because with so much optimism, there was so much hope.
Do you have anything else to tell us?
I'd be happy if you have any more questions, but I think if there is one thing I want to point out to you, and it is that a lot of our activities were led by students, like yourselves, or a little bit older. During the sixties, you could see the same thing happening all over the world, and you can see it happening today. Many of the social movements at that time all across the world were led by students, and you don't have to have many people to get started. When we got started, we didn't have a whole lot of people or money. Even though in total numbers there were a lot of people involved, the percentage of the population that were actually involved was not very large.
There are a lot of people who today claim to have been active in the movement, but that's not really true. The largest number of people you might say were mere contributors. They may have put up some money, or may have been well-wishers, but there weren't that many people actively involved; just a handful of people worked actively within the movement. We see the same thing happening today, like the protesters on Wall Street, indeed the entire Occupy Wall Street Movement. Remember, practically all the other movements that take place happen because just a few people start the ball rolling and then more supporters will follow.
Did you ever question what you were doing?
Certainly. In fact, it's always a good idea to question what you're doing. Are we using the right tactics? Are we right with what we are doing? I don't think there's anything wrong with that. You want to make sure that you're not being a bully, taking advantage of somebody. You want to rethink what you're doing. Sometimes you have to change tactics, which is good. You know, it could always lead to corrections. Why is it that people are not listening to you? Is there another point of view that you ought to be looking at? That's what we did often.
Are you still the president of the New Orleans NAACP?
Oh no, I was president in the youth council. I was in the adult branch, I served in a number of positions. I was secretary in the adult branch, I was the vice president of the state organization and I served as regional chairman. But no, I never served as the adult president. Even though I was very active with them. Still active with the NAACP on the local and the state level. I have attended every single national convention since 1961. We just had our national 2011 convention in California. So I had an opportunity to visit different parts of the country and participate in the movement and different places at different levels, but not just in the NAACP as a result of my working in the NAACP have met different leaders. I have had an opportunity to serve on government boards and commissions. I suspect the biggest thing is that it has significantly made me a better teacher in my personal experiences and the civil rights movement has made it possible for me to talk about the civil rights movement. Not only as an active commission but as somebody who actually participated in it.
Did you make any long lasting relationships with people during the protest?
Oh many, many! In fact many people who I knew, just because I met them through the NAACP such as Julian Bond, who just stepped down as the chairman of the NAACP national board. I knew Roy Wilkins, NAACP national leader during the 50's, 60's, and 70's, as well as his successor, Benjamin Hooks, and so many of the nationally prominent figures. I met sports hero Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron and others. I knew them because I worked alongside them.
Dr. Cassimere now works in the History Department in the University of New Orleans. He is married to Inez Hale, has two children and one grandchild.]
Interviewered and Transcribed by: Grant Werner, Kate Welton, Emma Whitman, & Hannah Welsh
Copyright © D.C. Everest Area Schools, 2013