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Monumental Journey 

A new travel book highlights the civil rights movement -- and underscores how difficult it is to find civil rights markers in New Orleans.

In 1998, Jim Carrier was living on his sailboat in Key West, Fla.,, and planning to cruise the Pacific Ocean, when news reached him of a horrific event. James Byrd Jr. had been dragged to his death by three whites in the small town of Jasper, Texas. That event sent Carrier, a 35-year veteran reporter whose credits included several books and stints with the Associated Press and Denver Post, back into the fray.

"That event grabbed me by the throat and made me question what I was doing about this," Carrier recalls. "All my involvement with civil rights welled up." Carrier traveled to Jasper, intent on writing a book about hate crimes and how communities deal with them. While there, he learned about the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Montgomery, Ala. "I offered them three months of writing in exchange for access to their data," Carrier recalls. The result was the guide "Ten Ways to Fight Hate," of which SPLC has distributed 2 million copies so far.

Carrier stayed on and created the Web site for the center, a task that committed him to Montgomery for two more years. But he also began discovering well-marked civil rights sites in Montgomery and nearby Birmingham. He noticed that visitors from as far away as Africa would steadily arrive to visit the Maya Lin memorial to 40 civil rights "martyrs" in front of the Southern Poverty Law Center. These observations spurred Carrier to a new project, a guide to the civil rights movement that would encompass all the states of the former Confederacy and Washington, D.C.

Carrier's new book, A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement (Harcourt), touches on sites in Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Kansas, home to the school segregation suit that resulted in the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. The book's publication is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision, which reversed the 50-year-old doctrine of "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites and opened the way to school integration across the country.

But Carrier doesn't limit his book to the civil rights period of 1954-1968, when protest marches, sit-ins and school integration scuffles were at a fever pitch. "People just didn't wake up in 1954 and start marching," says Carrier. "The civil rights movement sits atop layers of civil rights activity that is unending."

The Brown v. Board decision, for instance, resolved a question that had been raised by school desegregation cases going back into the 1940s. Resistance to enslavement and inequality goes back much further, says Carrier, all the way to Africans resisting enslavement before they ever boarded the slave ships in Africa. Thus his book includes the Florida stadium where Jackie Robinson first integrated baseball, a historic marker near the home of abolitionist and free man of color Frederick Douglass in Baltimore, and the North Carolina city of Wilmington, where a white mob chased blacks from political power and shot at least 20 people in 1898. It also includes information on a few Underground Railroad sites, a slave rebellion led by Gabriel Prosser in 1800 near Richmond, Va., and an exhibition of Jim Crow-era memorabilia in the old state capitol in Jackson, Miss.

That's one reason why it's such a shock to find Louisiana lumped together with Arkansas and Tennessee in a single chapter. What feels like a cursory treatment of New Orleans, with only nine distinct sites noted, in fact points to a larger problem: neither New Orleans nor Louisiana has done much to make its civil rights landmarks visible to the public. That's particularly shocking since the train ride that prompted Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that established the "separate but equal" doctrine that Brown overturned, came to an end less than a mile from the Federal Courthouse on Royal Street where Brown and other civil rights decisions and laws were enforced during the 1950s and 1960s.

Carrier presents a great discussion of Plessy in his introduction to Louisiana sites, but nowhere do readers get a sense that this case has roots in the neighborhoods of New Orleans.

A travel guide has to highlight sites that are both visible and visitable, Carrier points out. Thus he emphasizes the plaza across from City Hall, where a statue to the Rev. Avery Alexander provides a touchstone for the story of how Alexander was dragged up the stairs by his heels after trying to integrate City Hall's basement cafeteria in 1963. New Zion Baptist Church (2319 Third St.) also has a plaque explaining that this was where the Southern Christian Leadership Conference formally established itself as a permanent organization on Feb. 14, 1957. Such signage allows a visitor to stand outside the church and imagine the gathering, which included the Rev. Martin Luther King and Zion pastor the Rev. Abraham Lincoln Davis, where SCLC was born. Nearby A.L. Davis Park at the corner of Washington and Simon Bolivar avenues, where Davis rallied protesters for New Orleans' lone civil rights protest march on City Hall, is also easy to identify and so merits mention.

But much of the city's history is difficult to locate. "It's hard to find the Liberty Monument (now located behind Canal Place beside the railroad tracks), but it's an important story because that's one of only two places in the U.S. where black leadership was overthrown," says Carrier. "The Federal Courthouse site (400 Royal St.) ought to have a big damned sign on it too. That was the site of one of the most amazing confrontations that ever occurred in the South." As Carrier describes it in the guide, U.S. Circuit Judge J. Skelly Wright staged a pitched battle with the Louisiana Legislature from within these halls, issuing orders to counter legislative orders designed to stop school integration as fast as racist legislators in Baton Rouge could issue them. "The Louisiana Legislature went loco," says Carrier.

Even the William J. Franz school, where young Ruby Bridges was the sole student after white parents withdrew their children in 1960, doesn't have a historical marker, though a reproduction of the Norman Rockwell painting The Problem We All Face, showing Bridges entering school flanked by four federal marshals, hangs in the office. Carrier says he even visited a teacher in room 202 at Franz and learned that she was not aware that Bridges had had class alone with her teacher all that long year in that very room.

Franz principal Waldo White says it's not exactly clear that the layout of rooms is the same as it was in 1960. Further, he says faculty and students at Franz celebrate the date when the schools were integrated, Nov. 14, each year, and that they occasionally receive visits from Bridges herself. Visitors curious about the school's role in integration often stop by, White says. The fact remains, however, that the school at present has no plaque or explanatory marker.

Does the absence of marked sites mean Louisiana was not a significant player in the national struggle towards civil rights for blacks? Hardly. The integration of Franz and McDonogh 19 (now Louis Armstrong) schools in 1960 drew such vitriolic pro-segregation protest that it galvanized national media attention, arguably helping sway national sentiments in favor of racial integration in the schools. It also prompted New Orleans Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel to excommunicate two segregationist leaders, Una Gaillot and Leander Perez, marking the entry of the Catholic Church into the battles of the civil rights era.

The Plessy case, which came about because a well-organized group of professionals dubbed The Citizens' Committee orchestrated the arrest of light-skinned Homer Plessy, is an undeniable landmark in the march towards civil rights. Although the decision in the case marked a step backwards, Plessy and his supporters defied the law that forced blacks and whites to ride in separate railroad cars as consciously as Rosa Parks and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) would, 60 years later, defy laws that required blacks to give up their seats to whites on public buses. But it was the presence of a professional class of educated, politically savvy blacks rooted in New Orleans' antebellum culture of free people of color that made the Plessy protest and the ensuing lawsuit a reality.

One problem, says New Orleans Human Rights Commission director Larry Bagneris, is that New Orleans doesn't fit with the national pattern of protest and violent confrontation. "In New Orleans, unlike most major cities, most everything that happened was done behind the scenes with people like Moon Landrieu and A.P. Tureaud and Dutch Morial."

Instead of burning their neighborhoods down, says Bagneris, New Orleanians accomplished desegregation quietly and behind the scenes. 'When we desegregated the buses, the only thing they did was take off the screens and throw them away. Same with the lunch counters -- they just threw the signs away."

That's the thesis of Kim Lacy Rogers' 1993 book Righteous Lives: Narratives of the New Orleans Civil Rights Movement (New York University Press). Rogers describes the ongoing collaboration between Uptown lawyers like Harry B. Kelleher, Harry McCall and Darwin Fenner and members of the Black Citizens' League, including Revius Ortigue and Lolis Elie, that marched New Orleans toward integration beginning in the early 1960s. But Rogers paints a slightly less rosy picture, one in which the Louisiana un-American Activities Committee staged a raid on the offices of the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), and the City Council passed laws prohibiting the right to peaceful assembly, paving the way to the jailing of protesters. The SCEF raid, in 1963, led to another Supreme Court decision, Dombrowski vs. Pfister, protecting the free speech of those involved in desegregation activities -- yet another advance in the struggle for civil rights.

If New Orleans doesn't have a legacy of protests, it does have a history of resistance to enslavement. Local teacher Jim Randels points out that contemporary New Orleans contains the site of several maroon colonies, encampments of escaped slaves who staged liberation raids and aided runaways while living out of reach of the colonial law in the swamps. "If you think of the original freedom fighters in the U.S., it's the maroons," says Randels. "They're fighting for freedom -- not like the colonists fighting to avoid paying taxes to the British." The encampment of the most famous maroon leader, San Malo, can be pinpointed just downriver of the St. Bernard Parish line.

Randels also calls attention to the 1811 slave revolt started by Sainte Domingue slave Charles Delondes on the plantation of Col. Manuel Andry, about 40 miles upriver from New Orleans. Before it was squashed, the revolt grew into the biggest slave revolt in the United States. Its suppression, and the subsequent display of the heads of its executed leaders on pikes, is a gruesome but important part of understanding the legacy that fueled the drive for equal rights here. Neither Louisiana's maroon colonies nor the 1811 slave revolt are mentioned in Carrier's book.

Perhaps the history of a grassroots movement should be written from the grassroots. Frederick Douglass High School students involved with Students at the Center, an elective writing program that Randels directs inside the public schools, are doing just that. When they discovered that the train station where Homer Plessy was arrested in 1892 once stood in their neighborhood at the corner of Royal and Press streets, they began researching Plessy and other civil rights figures. Now they are working with neighborhood groups to construct a full-fledged civil rights memorial, with a landscaped garden and tributes to labor leaders, gay activists and victims of ethnic violence, on the site where the station once stood. The effort, being led by the nonprofit Crescent City Peace Alliance, has the endorsement of several descendants of Homer Plessy. The city has also endorsed the memorial and will add to any seed funds raised for the project, says Bagneris. Organizers estimate the memorial will be completed in the next three years.

New Orleans Tourism Marketing Commission executive director Sandy Shilstone points with pride to a rise of more than 10 percentage points in African-American tourism here, to a total of 14.9 percent, during the first six months of 2003. She attributes that rise to careful placement of what she calls "blended" ads, but says that specialized tours highlighting civil rights or African-American history haven't been part of the pitch. "Everybody's looking for food, music, history, culture," says Shilstone.

Bagneris echoes the observation that tourists come to New Orleans looking for entertainment. "They want food and music," says Bagneris. Still, he points out several important civil rights sites inside Orleans Parish that are not recognized in Carrier's book. Those include the statue of Civil Rights lawyer A.P. Tureaud at St. Bernard Avenue and A.P. Tureaud Boulevard, the "Yolk of Life" statue on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard where determined picketers struck stores for discriminatory hiring practices in 1960, and the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, newly refurbished by the city, on Claiborne Avenue across the street from the site of the Rev. Avery Alexander's old church. In addition, he says, he is in touch with a group that rescued the original lunch counters from the Woolworth's where Southern and Xavier students once staged sit-ins. Somewhere down the line, the city might help them create a monument, Bagneris says.

Bagneris also has pledged to propose a brochure depicting the city's civil rights sites to the Human Rights Commission. That's good news to tour operators like Shaun Lain of College Campus Tours, who is more comfortable organizing tours to civil rights sites in Birmingham, Selma, Memphis and Montgomery than in New Orleans.

"In New Orleans, we need to develop a museum that would be set aside to honor the civil rights movement," says Lain. "In fact, a slave museum would be even better, since New Orleans was the main slave port for the Confederate states. I would really like some of the great thinkers, local historians, educators and pastors in New Orleans to form a committee to develop a museum and research center devoted to slavery and the civil rights movement. It is important to involve local pastors, since the church has been the heart and soul of all movements within the black community."

Carrier agrees that New Orleans could use a museum on the history of civil rights activity in the city. The city publishes a black history guide, he says, but it leans heavily towards the arts. Instead of seeing civil rights sidelined into an aspect of black history, he says, he'd like to see it embraced as an essential, patriotic American story.

"Why, if we're going to read about the civil rights movement in New Orleans, do we have to pick up a black history guide?" Carrier asks. "This is a story that belongs to all of us. If I had a dream about this book, it would be to convince the South that civil rights is its greatest gift. People around the world think of it as the place where the civil rights movement began."

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