Publication Date

December 1, 2012

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

As in many urban centers across America, the black population of New Orleans exploded during the years immediately after World War II. While the rest of the nation was in the midst of the second great migration of African Americans from the rural south to the industrial North and West, New Orleans witnessed a mass influx of other black southerners. New Orleans was a prime location for black migrants wanting to stay in the South but looking for another experience. Although New Orleans was in the South, it was by far the most unique city in the United States. French, Spanish, African, and Caribbean influences, along with the city’s deep ties to the Catholic Church, made New Orleans culturally more progressive than other cities in the Jim Crow South. Further, the city’s large Creole population often served as a buffer between native-born Southern blacks and local whites. Indeed, visitors to New Orleans, noting its low level of residential segregation often concluded that New Orleans was a model city for race relations. Because of the city’s reputation for being carefree, easygoing, and a place to have a good time, New Orleans appeared to lack any visible racial problems.

When black migrants arrived in New Orleans after World War II and settled into the city’s notorious housing projects, shanties, and shotgun houses. The city’s white community fled to the surrounding suburbs of Chalmette, Arabi, Mereaux, Metarie, Kenner, Slidell, Mandeville, and Covington. The black presence in the city went from roughly 33% in 1940 to 43% by 1970. White flight out of the city led to disinvestment in economic development, jobs, housing, and education. The city’s power structure refused to listen to, let alone address, black issues, placing the city on a racial powder keg by 1960.


Civil Rights/Black Power

These tensions were first exposed in the fall of 1960 when members of New Orleans CORE launched direct-action protests on Canal Street. In November of that same year Judge Skelly Wright ordered the local school system to desegregate. The city exploded as conservative whites mobbed the central business district, assaulting African Americans, verbally abusing police officers, and rampaging through city hall. The presence of protestors on Canal Street and the resulting violence in the aftermath of the school desegregation order made it apparent that the Crescent City was unfortunately not that distinct from other locales in the South.

Throughout the early part of the 1960s, the black freedom movement in New Orleans was largely lead by members of New Orleans Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), under the direction of Oretha Castle Haley, along with labor leader Clarence “Chink” Henry, and Rev. Avery Alexander, who represented a group of progressive African American pastors. Since the city’s main newspaper, The Times-Picayune, rarely covered black concerns, the black Louisiana Weekly kept African Americans up-to-date on the happenings within the community. Although the black community was far from monolithic, it coalesced around the issue of police brutality, which had the ability to affect all African Americans, regardless of skin tone, social class, or economic standing. The arrival of the Black Panthers in 1970 elevated the racial consciousness of the city. The city produced other black power organizations, such as the Free Southern Theater, Adhiambo, black student groups, and myriad cultural nationalist organizations who wanted to liberate black folks from European ways of thinking and doing.

From Politics to Protest

ut liberating the minds of black folks did not address their material needs. For this, African Americans looked to the political structure. The city’s black vote began to show its strength beginning in the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, following the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Two organizations, the Southern Organization for Unified Leadership (SOUL) and the Community Organization for Urban Politics (COUP), institutionalized the black vote in New Orleans. SOUL catered to the more politically active and militant, like those that were active in New Orleans CORE, while COUP catered to young black professionals who were more assimilationist and conservative in their outlook. Since the black population still represented a minority, both organizations functioned as powerless patrons to the larger white political establishment.

Activism in New Orleans shifted from protest to politics with the 1977 election of Ernest “Dutch” Morial as the city’s first black mayor. While Morial was in many ways a bit more conservative than his black predecessors such as Cleveland’s Carl Stokes or Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson, he attempted to make change where he could. One of his major strategies involved reforming the rogue New Orleans Police Department, which was well on its way to becoming the most corrupt and brutal law enforcement division in the United States. During his two-term tenure Morial spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with public safety issues that included white officers accusing him of favoring black officers, as well as black activists labeling him a sell-out.

White Flight, Disinvestment, and Hurricane Katrina

When Morial left office in 1985, New Orleans was in the midst of a steep economic decline, white flight, urban disinvestment, Reagonomics, and an oil bust that cost over 60,000 workers their jobs, all buttressed by federal and state indifference. Faced with astounding rates of poverty, high unemployment, and meteoric rises in homicides and violent crimes, inner-city New Orleans was becoming a place that care forgot. Much of the crime problem in New Orleans throughout the mid 1980s and mid 1990s was directly related to the crack epidemic, which city officials were unable to adequately address.

By the early 1990s, some critics would argue that New Orleans was simply out of control. The white power structure made no effort to address black issues, preferring instead to focus on maintaining the city’s tourist appeal. Indeed, with the Sugar Bowl, Mardi Gras, JazzFest, Essence Fest, the Bayou Classic, and the Super Bowl, on occasion, the white elite had no reason to invest in areas outside of the Central Business District and the French Quarter.

The city experienced something of a resurgence during the eight-year, two-term tenure of Marc Morial, Dutch’s son, who was elected mayor in 1993., The young attorney decreased the crime rate, reformed the police department, and secured investment in the core areas of the city. However, the structural problems of poverty, unemployment, poor housing, limited educational opportunities, a lack of health care, and decreasing city budget, left far too many black residents struggling. It took a natural and man-made disaster named Katrina to highlight the unfortunate social and economic realities of black New Orleans. Now, more than seven years after Hurricane Katrina, too many black Orleanians are still trying to find hope in the midst of despair.

For Further Reading

Kent Germany, New Orleans After the Promises (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007).

Arnold Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon, eds., Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1992).

Leonard N. Moore, Black Rage in New Orleans: Police Brutality and African American Activism from World War II to Hurricane Katrina (Baton Rouge, LSU Press, 2010).

Leonard N. Moore is currently a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and he is working on a book on the life of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. He is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.