The New Orleans post-Katrina African American landscape
Written by  // Wednesday, 26 August 2015 11:30 //

vincent sylvain 200x196by Vincent T Sylvain,
Publisher of The New Orleans Agenda


Civic engagement is one pathway for communities of color to access much needed opportunities and resources to achieve equity with their White counterparts. This chapter discusses the civic engagement landscape in pre and post-Katrina New Orleans and the ways in which it facilitates and/or hinders participation of communities of color; in the areas of voter participation, volunteerism, youth community organizing and organization membership. It also provides a brief history of recent decades of civic engagement specifically within the Black community in New Orleans, paying special attention to political organizing and Black political organizing groups in the city and how they interfaced with a corporate structure dominated by old-line white families who controls most of New Orleans financial institutions.

On September 22, 2005, the African American Leadership Project (AALP), a 3year old network of about 50 New Orleans African-American community, business and religious leaders focused on Agenda building, policy analysis, strategic dialogue and consensus building submitted a document to the Congressional Black Caucus outlining what they termed 'A Right to Return' principles as the framework for rebuilding New Orleans. Among the twelve demands was principle #2 which stated:

"All displaced persons must retain their right of citizenship in the city, especially including the right to vote in the next municipal elections. Citizen rights to the franchise must be protected and widely explained to all dispersed persons. The provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 should be examined and enforced in this regard."
AALP's Chairperson Gail Glapion and Project Manager Mtangulizi Sanyika went on to state, "The rebuilding and reconstruction of the city of New Orleans is an important historical, practical, and cultural imperative for the US today. New Orleans (aka African Orleans) is arguably the United States city that most displays African cultural retentions and traditions, effortlessly blended into everyday life. It is also a city that evidences how a diversity of human cultures blend into a mosaic that demonstrates the essence of the multicultural idea that America still dreams of. The Crescent city is one of the world's great "Cultural cities," with a grand musical, culinary, architectural, religious, life rhythmic, folk, artistic and literary tradition comparable to any in the world. Indeed, New Orleans represents an indigenous people's "way of life," and an extraordinarily unique human civilization."
Such positions taken by the AALP, Louisiana Justice Institute, Louisiana Unity Coalition-NCBCP, ACORN, and national organizations with local affiliations such as that of the National Urban League, the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation - Rebuild Hope Now, the Rainbow Coalition, and others were different from positions taken by some of New Orleans' white counterparts. As the Wall Street Journal reporter Christopher Cooper wrote in a September 8, 2005 article; Old-Line Families Escape Worst of Flood And Plot the Future, "The power elite of New Orleans -- whether they are still in the city or have moved temporarily to enclaves such as Destin, Fla., and Vail, Colo. -- insist the remade city won't simply restore the old order. New Orleans before the flood was burdened by a teeming underclass, substandard schools and a high crime rate. The city has few corporate headquarters.(1)
The new city must be something very different, Mr. (James) Reiss says, with better services and fewer poor people. "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically," he says. "I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out."
At the time when Katrina hit, Jimmy Reiss was serving as Mayor Nagin's appointed chairman of the city's Regional Transit Authority (RTA). Reiss was a descendent of one of New Orleans old-line Uptown family residing in the gated community known as Audubon Place. "More than a few people in Uptown, the fashionable district surrounding St. Charles Ave.; have ancestors who arrived here in the 1700s. High society is still dominated by these old-line families, represented today by prominent figures such as former New Orleans Board of Trade President Thomas Westfeldt; Richard Freeman, scion of the family that long owned the city's Coca-Cola bottling plant; and William Boatner Reily, owner of a Louisiana coffee company. Their social pecking order is dictated by the mysterious hierarchy of "krewes," groups with hereditary membership that participate in the annual carnival leading up to Mardi Gras" writes Cooper.
He adds, "Some black leaders and their allies in New Orleans fear that it boils down to preventing large numbers of blacks from returning to the city and eliminating the African-American voting majority." (2)

The Dallas Meeting and the Shadow Government
On September 8, 2005, ten days after the storm, accompanied by Dan Packer, Entergy's CEO, Nagin flew to Dallas, Texas for a combination of "rest and recuperation" as self-described by Nagin and to participate in a meeting arranged by Reiss and other members of the Business Council. "That Saturday, the mayor drove himself to the giant Lowes Anatole Hotel just north of downtown Dallas for what he later described as "my meeting with the shadow government" of New Orleans. (3)
In spite of political gains, "Uptown (whites) still retained its economic clout despite the shifts in majority from white to black. Its people were still the city's CEOs, top lawyers, bankers, and real estate developers. Whites controlled the business community and dominated philanthropic circles". It was individuals from this sector who would largely serve as the make-up of those attending the 'Dallas Meeting'. "By Reiss's count, fifty-seven members had shown up. Almost everyone in the room was white." (4)
On Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day, "The streets of New Orleans were filled with angry and determined protesters, both survivors of Hurricane Katrina and their supporters... We're back to take it back" and "No justice, no peace!" a crowd estimated at 5,000 marched from the historic Congo Square-also known as Louis Armstrong Park and described by Reuters as "a centuries-old meeting place where African slaves once gathered to trade, play music and dance"-to City Hall for a rally, where they demanded "Justice after Katrina."
"Groups represented on the march included Community Labor United; Common Ground Collective; Million Worker March Movement; Millions More Movement; Troops Out Now Coalition; FIST-Fight Imperialism, Stand Together; New Black Panther Party; ANSWER and others. African drums accompanied the chants, and the march was led by the Soul Rebels, a New Orleans brass band."(5) Under the leadership of the People's Hurricane Rights Fund and Oversight Coalition activist Malcolm Suber, citizens brought their demands to the office of Mayor Ray Nagin that included an end to evictions, the right to return for evacuees, and a halt to Mardi Gras festivities in the midst of the devastation of the Black community.
As citizens groups began to mark their territorial battle ground, the organization such as Common Ground Collective/Relief and ACORN under the leadership of local organizer Stephen Bradberry would lay claim to protecting among other neighborhoods, the Lower Night Ward, a community according to the 2000 census of 14,800 people living in an area bounded by Florida Avenue, St. Bernard Parish, St. Claude Avenue and the Industrial Canal. It is also an area which suffered multiple breaches in the levee system from the storm surge generated in the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO).As early as December, Common Ground began operating the first distribution center in the Lower Ninth Ward to assist returning residents with gutting, repairing, and other basic needs. In March 2006, Common Ground commandeered possession of Martin Luther King Elementary School as act of defiance and to stake a claim on behalf of returning Katrina survivors. 7th Ward activist Diane "Mama Dee" French who never left New Orleans during Katrina opened her own home on North Dorgenois Street near Broad and St. Bernard Avenue early in the wake of Katrina for relief efforts.(6)
ACORN focused most of its efforts towards rallying against Mayor Nagin's threats to use his powers of eminent domain to seize vacant and damaged properties; particularly those located in the Lower Ninth Ward. ACORN also brought attention to the double standards which were taking place in regards to loan repayments of damaged homes; while banks were allowing middle-class families the latitude of 90 days or more in which to address mortgage payment, many of New Orleans poorer residents had subprime loans which was allowing only 30 days for borrowers to catch. "Three weeks after the storm devastated the city, ACORN released a report -"How the sub prime mortgage industry is sandbagging Katrina-affected homeowners"- to expose the industry's double standard. After the media publicized the report, ACORN--along with labor unions and consumer groups--demanded meetings with the banks and sub prime lenders and successfully negotiated plans to prevent foreclosures for dozens of homeowners."(7)

In addition to their "NO BULLDOZING" sign campaign and legal action, their efforts also included physically blocking bulldozers for demolishing homes. In time, ACORN's clean-up/house-gutting program saved more than 1,500 homes citywide. While ACORN ultimately was dismantled, their work continued though activists like Vanessa Gueringer, Gwen Adams and others. It was the efforts of these groups which many say inspired actor Brad Pitt to launch his Make It Right foundation which on December 3, 2007 committed to rebuild 150 houses in the Lower Night Ward.
While the average Lower Ninth Ward resident only earned an average of $16,000 a year, homeownership in this part of the city was still higher than many other parts of New Orleans. Shepard Smith told Fox viewers several days after the flood that "The Lower Ninth Ward, for better or worse, served as a proxy for poverty in New Orleans... And it would be the Lower Ninth Ward-a mixed-race community before school desegregation but 98 percent black at the time of Katrina-that stood as a synecdoche for anyone debating the rebuilding question starting to dominate the discussion a few weeks after the storm.(8)

The Unwritten Rule; Racial Balance on the City Council
In 1970 New Orleans elected Moon Landrieu, a white liberal as mayor. A strong supporter of efforts to integrate New Orleans school system, Landrieu was able to capture 90 percent of the African American votes in his successful bid to lead the city. During his eight years of service, Landrieu would become New Orleans first white mayor to appoint a vast number of blacks to high ranking positions as well as be known for pushing for policies and resource allocations that would benefit black citizens. However such stance did not ender Landrieu to many of the white conservatives who had long appreciated a place of privilege in New Orleans.

While still in the mist of evaluating and developing a recovery plan from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans would learn of a governmental related event that would ultimately cause a transformation of its political landscape; one in which it had become accustomed to for thirty years. Oliver Thomas, an African American who held one of New Orleans' two Councilman-at-Large seats resigned his council seat after pleading guilty on August 13, 2007 to bribery charges for actions taken prior to Hurricane Katrina.

Back in the late 1970s as African-Americans began to gain a greater political foothold in New Orleans elective offices, an "unwritten rule" between Black political leaders and the white corporate and political leaders decided that the city's interest was best served if it had a racial balance in the at-large seat, a similar courtesy exist a bit later in regards to the many of the city's judicial seats. In honor of that commitment there had not been any organized attempts by major Black political organizations to win the second at- large council race even as demographics began to favor the Black population. Thomas' legal situation would test the will of whites to honor the decades old "unwritten rule" which had been in place.

New Orleans had always maintained a black and a white individual in the two at-large positions since the Reverend A.L. Davis who had been a Civil Rights leader became the first African American to serve on the City Council. Reverend Davis was appointed to the District "B" seat on the City Council in 1975 to fill the unexpired term of white Councilman Eddie Sapir, who had been elected judge of Municipal Court. Reverend Davis was eventually elected to the seat in 1976 along with Joseph DiRosa, a long-time political fixture in the white community. Due to a redistricting dispute, which had delayed the 1974 elections until 1976, the council members elected in 1976 served only until 1978, when a regularly scheduled election was held. Reverend Davis did not run for re-election in 1978.

In 1977, New Orleans elected its first African-American mayor, Ernest N. "Dutch" Morial; a prominent political figure who had a number of first accomplishments; including becoming the first African American to receive a law degree from Louisiana State University, the first black member of the Louisiana State Legislature since Reconstruction in 1967, the first black Juvenile Court judge in Louisiana in 1970, and the first black Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal judge in 1974. Dutch Morial served as mayor of New Orleans from 1978 to 1986. Morial won the mayor's seat by amassing 95 percent of the black vote and 20 percent of the white votes. He was able to carry the black vote even without the support of the cities' two major local black political organizations, Southern Organization for Unified Leadership (SOUL) and Community Organization for Urban Politics (COUP).(9)
Dutch Morial was also the founder of the Louisiana Independent Federation of Electors (LIFE), a political organization that worked largely for the election of African-American candidates or those who supported African American causes.
After the first Morial, Sidney Barthelemy would become New Orleans second African-American mayor, he won by garnering 88 percent of the white vote and only 25 percent of the black votes. However, after his continued support of Morial's affirmation action policies, Barthlemy began to lose much of his white supporters.
Dutch's son, Marc H. Morial would eventually follow in his dad's footstep by serving as mayor of New Orleans a decade later from 1994 to 2002 as New Orleans' third African American mayor. During Marc's first run for mayor he was only able to garner approximately 7-9 percent of the white votes, a testament to the racial divide that persisted in New Orleans as late as 1994. Prior to being elected mayor, the younger Morial served as a member of the Louisiana State Senate from 1992 to 1994. Marc Morial now serves as President & CEO of the National Urban League.

In 1978, Sidney John Barthelemy became the second African American elected to one of the two at-large council seats; he served along with Joseph I Giarrusso, a former superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department (1960-1975). Barthlemy served until 1986 when he was elected mayor of New Orleans, while Giarrusso served until 1994 following the adoption of term limits by the electorate.
The 1986 elections continued to preserve the bi-racial balance in the at-large seats, electing Dorothy Mae Taylor, who in 1971 had become the first African American women elected to the Louisiana House of Representative and re-electing Councilman Giarrusso. Taylor retired from the council in 1994.
Taylor and Giarrusso were replaced in 1994 by James Singleton and Peggy Wilson. Singleton, a political grandfather of the Black Organization for Leadership Development (BOLD) political organization based out of the poverty stricken Central City neighborhood had served as the elected member from District B since 1978, while Wilson hailed from the "silk stocking" community of the Garden District and Uptown New Orleans. Wilson was first elected to the council as a district member in 1986. She was later defeated in 1998 by former councilman and Judge Sapir. Thus, maintaining the balance on the council of having an at-large member from each predominant race.(10)
In 2002 New Orleans elected C. Ray Nagin to succeed Marc Morial as mayor. Black himself, Nagin would still take on the African-American political establishment, promising to eliminate the city's living-wage ordinance and the city's set-aside program for minority- and women-owned businesses. Both the city's only daily newspaper; The Times-Picayune, and the city's influential political weekly; Gambit, endorsed Nagin's candidacy. That help solidify Nagin's standing in the white community, garnering him 86 percent of the white vote, enough to compensate for his 40 percent showing in the Black community. He was sold as a reformed-minded business candidate that would turn New Orleans around. Plus, it did not hurt that Nagin's run-off opponent while having successfully served as the most recent Police Superintendent under Morial, was not from New Orleans.
Nagin would preside as mayor during hurricane Katrina and would get re-elected in 2006; his second term would run until May, 2010. Reverend Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalitions along with Melanie Campbell, President & CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation (NCBCP), and others would play a prominent role is helping to ensure that Katrina survivors who had been dispersed to over 44 states in the country voting rights would be protected and not face massive disenfranchisement in the upcoming New Orleans election on April 22, 2006.
"In a moment captured from a page of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, thousands of disenchanted citizens marched across the Crescent City Connection Bridge on Saturday, April 8, 2006 in "The March for Our Right to Return, Vote and Rebuild", seeking the right of displaced New Orleans citizens to vote in the election. After fiery speeches delivered on the grounds of the Ernest M. Morial Convention Center by leaders of the civil rights movement, politicians and celebrities, such as Rev. Jesse Jackson, the president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, and celebrity Judge Greg Mathis, the marchers crossed the Crescent City Connection Bridge, spanning the Mississippi River, where thousands of New Orleans citizens were stranded after Hurricane Katrina and the floodwaters of the Gulf of Mexico caused devastation in the city last summer. Other speakers included entertainer Bill Cosby, former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, Bruce Gordon, president of the NAACP, Sibal Holt, Louisiana AFL-CIO president, Charles Steele, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Bishop Paul Morton, Louisiana State Senator Cleo Fields, Congressman William Jefferson, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Jr., Cedric Richmond, chairman of the Louisiana Legislature Black Caucus, and many other political, religious and labor leaders. They charged that to not meet their demands would result in a clear a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.(11)

Louisiana's Governor Blanco met their demands and issued an executive order to put in place satellite voting places in cities and states where Katrina survivors was now residing. Her orders also required Secretary of State and Attorney General to make an updated voter roll. Local leaders such as Urban League of Greater New Orleans' president Nolan Rollins, Sheila Williams of the New Orleans Rainbow Coalition, NAACP president Danatus King, Katrina evacuee Carl Galmon of the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute, NAACP activist Llewellyn Soniat, Public Housing Resident Leader Cynthia Wiggins, Community United for Change's W.C. Johnson, Norris Henderson of VOTE, the late Rev. Marshall Truehill and others would all claim victory.

[1]Old-Line Families Escape Worst of Flood And Plot the Future, Christopher Cooper, The Wall Street Journal, September 08, 2005
[2]Repub. Rep: "We Finally Cleaned Up Public Housing In New Orleans. We Couldn't Do It, But God Did", John Hardwood, The Wall Street Journal, March 2008
[3]Katrina: After the Flood, Gary Rivlin, Simon & Schuster, p 73
[4]Katrina: After the Flood, Gary Rivlin, Simon & Schuster, p 80-86
[5]March on New Orleans: 'We shall not be moved', LeiLani Dowell, December 15, 2005
[6]Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six, Jordan Flaherty, Haymarket Books (August 17, 2010)
[7]How ACORN Helped Save New Orleans for Katrina Survivors, John Atlas, HuffPost, September 30, 2010
[8]Katrina: After the Flood, Gary Rivlin, Simon & Schuster, p 118
[9]Race Rules: Electoral Politics in New Orleans, 1965-2006, Baodong Liu and James M. Vanderleeuw
[10]Is New Orleans heading to a 5-2 African American City Council?, New Orleans Agenda
[11]Thousands march in New Orleans for right for Katrina survivors to vote in the city's April 22 election, Rainbow PUSH, April 7, 2006
[12]The Supreme Court of the United States asked to hear case of 7500 New Orleans school workers fired after Hurricane Katrina, Press Release, Vincent Sylvain, The New Orleans Agenda, March 2015
[13]Katrina and the Second Disaster: A Twenty-Point Plan to Destroy Black New Orleans, Dr. Robert Bullard, The New Orleans Agenda, December 23, 2005
[14]Citizen Participation in the Unified New Orleans Plan, Abigal Williamson, Ph.D. Candidate in Public Policy, Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, March 21, 2007
[15]Citizen Participation in the Unified New Orleans Plan, Abigal Williamson, Ph.D. Candidate in Public Policy, Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, March 21, 2007
[16]Citizen Participation in the Unified New Orleans Plan, Abigal Williamson, Ph.D. Candidate in Public Policy, Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, March 21, 2007
[18] Ibid.
[19]Homeless again in New Orleans, Michelle Goldberg, SALON, February 7, 2006
[1]New Orleans City Council Shuts Down Public Housing Debate, YouTube Video, December 2007
[20]Clamoring to Come Home to New Orleans Projects, Susan Saulny, The New York Times, June 2006
[21]New Orleans Council Votes for Demolition of Housing, Adan Nossiter and Leslie Eaton, The New York Times, December 21, 2007
[22]Old-Line Families Escape Worst of Flood And Plot the Future, Christopher Cooper, The Wall Street Journal, September 08, 2005
[23]Rebuilding of 'Big Four' public housing complexes to start next week, Michelle Krupa, The Times-Picayune, December 6, 2008
[24]Iberville housing complex area: the next Lakeside Shopping Center?, Kathy Rackdahl, The Times-Picayune, October 2010
Other referenced material:
1. Jed Horne, Breach of faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City, New York: Random House, 2006, p. 201
2. Statement of Testimony, Submitted by Traci L. Washington, ESQ, Director of The Louisiana Justice Institute to the Louisiana House of Representatives House & Governmental Affairs Committee, February 2011
3. New Orleans City Council approves demolition of Iberville Housing Development, Richard A. Webster, NOLA.com / The Times-Picayune, May 2016
4. Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six, Jordan Flaherty, Haymarket Books (August 17, 2010)
5. The Peoples' Plan: A Cautionary Tale of Equity Planning in New Orleans' 9th Ward, April 22, 2007, By Kenneth M. Reardon

Charles "Chuck" Toonsblog: Shades of Nash Roberts!! I had a dream of sorts following the Katrina incident (I understate) and this is the image that happened. It scared someone who doesn't frighten easily and reminded someone else of a nightmare that he'd had.

Editor's Note: A section on redistricting will be added later.

Vincent T. Sylvain
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