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The Struggle for Education

Illustration by Joseph Daniel Fiedler

Before there was Brown, there was Bush, at least in New Orleans.

Both are names of important federal court cases that forced the desegregation of the nation’s public schools in the 1960s, but Bush vs. Orleans Parish School Board is the lawsuit that created pandemonium here, tarnished the city’s reputation and changed its dynamic forever.

The Bush suit, filed in 1952, created an avenue for black activists to integrate New Orleans schools earlier than many other cities in the South. Filed two years before the U.S. Supreme Court ordered desegregation in Brown vs. The Board of Education, the NAACP-instigated lawsuit aimed at desegregating New Orleans schools was dormant until the Brown decision gave it legs.

A federal judge first ordered New Orleans schools to desegregate in February 1956 – 60 years ago next month. The order came a year after the death of Emmitt Till, a black teenager murdered in Mississippi by two white men who accused him of whistling at a white woman. A few months later the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery bus boycott and became the leader of the civil rights movement.

The New Orleans School Board delayed desegregation until 1960, but the four-year gap between the first and final court rulings contained many events that eventually coalesced into a vastly different New Orleans society and political climate.

Before Brown, New Orleans was ruled by Jim Crow laws that made most social interaction between white people and black people illegal. They often lived next door to each other, but they couldn’t eat together, attend school together or worship together. The laws created hostile living conditions for all black families and unpleasant ironies for the black elite.

Sybil Haydel Morial, for example, the daughter of a black physician, remembers well the moments in which her privileged inner-world clashed with external reality. She recounts them in a new memoir entitled Witness to Change. She opens the book with memories of her 1950 debut to society, which included an elaborate gown, white gloves and a perfumed garden. In a recent interview, she recalled having an unpleasant thought: “It struck me we were pretending to be royalty and here we are sitting in the back of the bus.”

By the time of the Brown ruling she had left the city, earned a degree from Boston University, met King and become the first black teacher in Newton, Massachusetts. Living the good life with a sense of equality not possible in a hometown ruled by segregation, she had no plans to return to Louisiana, she says.

 The Brown decision changed everything. It also seeded a romance that eventually created a political powerhouse.

While home on holiday soon after the decision, Sybil Haydel met Dutch Morial, the first black to graduate from Louisiana State University’s law school and destined to become the city’s first black mayor. Already trailblazers in their chosen careers in 1954, the Brown decision gave them much to talk about.

“We were on the same page,” Sybil Haydel Morial remembers. “He was excited that I felt about it the same way he did.”

She wanted to come home “to be part of the solution,” and he wanted her to become his wife. Their desires intermingled in 1955. In ’60, while Dutch Morial was building a reputation in the law firm that filed the Bush case and Sybil Morial was tending to young children, one of whom became the city’s third black mayor, the school board finally complied with the court’s Bush decision and desegregated two New Orleans schools.

The board’s resistance to various rulings by Judge J. Skelly Wright was fueled by an early survey of parents that revealed 82 percent preferred closing schools to a “small amount of integration,” says Politics and Reality in an American City, a 1969 book about New Orleans’ reaction to the Bush decision.

Morton Inger says in his book that the school board’s resistance was a reflection of community reactions to desegregation. Mayor Chep Morrison stayed out of the controversy entirely to protect his political ambitions, Inger says, and the business elite ignored it as long as possible. Some women’s groups worked to keep the schools open, including one known as the Girls, but the state, under direction of Gov. Jimmie Davis, did everything in its power to block desegregation.

In November 1960, under pressure from Wright, the governor called a special session of the Legislature and pushed through 17 bills aimed at circumventing the judge’s desegregation order. They included laws to oust school board members who favored keeping schools open and terminating any teacher agreeing to teach black children. Of the New Orleans’ delegation, Inger says only Rep. Moon Landrieu, then still known as Maurice, voted against all 17. Rep. Salvatore Anzelmo voted against 16.

Landrieu, now 85, shies away from being called a hero, even though at the time he fully expected that his defiance would end his political career. After the city’s blacks finally achieved equality at the ballot box, however, they helped elect him to the New Orleans City Council and the mayor’s office. They also helped elect present Mayor Mitch Landrieu, his son, and former U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, his daughter. Mitch Landrieu, first elected in 2010, was the first white politician elected mayor since Morial’s historic election in 1978.

During the anti-desegregation special session, Moon Landrieu said in a recent interview that, “the rhetoric got to be very ugly, very crude, racist.” He also remembers two pieces of legislation that were especially easy to oppose, despite the public hostility that engineered threats and cost him many friends. One called for a one-cent tax to help oppose integration, and one made it a crime for a religious leader to publicly say that segregation was morally wrong.

“I remember speaking against that,” Landrieu said. “To my memory, that was the only victory Sam and I had. It was ridiculous to put a minister in jail for speaking about morality.”

All attempts to stop the desegregation of two schools in the 9th Ward on Nov. 14, 1960 failed. When black girls entered two all-white schools in the 9th Ward, angry mobs formed.

Every white parent eventually withdrew their children. Inger said parents who tried to stay suffered severe losses, and at least one family had to leave town.

Suddenly New Orleans, which previously enjoyed a reputation as racially peaceful, even progressive on race issues, hit the national news. Mothers throwing tomatoes and shouting threats at 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, the first black student to attend an all-white elementary school in the South, became a common sight for many days. Federal marshals protected her. Noble Prize-winning author John Steinbeck, who witnessed the mob, wrote that he “heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate.” Three years later, Look magazine immortalized the embarrassing drama with a Norman Rockwell illustration.

Within a few years, most of New Orleans’ public schools and many of its parochial schools had mostly black student populations. White parents abandoned the schools by moving to the suburbs. Today, even though the city’s urban center is enjoying a renaissance of culture and real estate prices have skyrocketed, the city’s much-improved public schools remain majority black and mostly white private schools thrive.

“It’s not right yet,” Morial notes. “The struggle continues.”

 

Next month marks a 60th anniversary

 

 

 

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