New Orleans' History of Struggle

Derrick Morrison

Development Drowned and Reborn
The Blues and Bourbon Restorations in Post-Katrina New Orleans
By Clyde Woods
Edited by Jordan T. Camp and Laura Pulido University of Georgia Press, 2017,
376 pages, $34.95 paperback.

“According to several accounts, the populist movement in the state began with formation of the Louisiana Farmers’ Union by white small farmers from Lincoln and five other northern parishes [counties] in 1881. By 1890 this organization had joined the three-million-member Farmers’ Alliance. The latter began in Texas during 1877 as the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union before spreading throughout the South and to the Great Plains. This populist movement was allied with the one million members of the Colored Farmers’ Alliance, which also spread from Texas to encompass the South. The latter had fifty thousand Black farmers as members in Louisiana, primarily in the Red River cotton parishes. The goal of the alliance was to improve rural life, incomes, education, and democracy by forming cooperative storage facilities, mills, gins, stores, and credit….

“This movement also linked with the national Populist Party…the gubernatorial election held four years later [1896] was defined by the Great Depression of 1893, a collapsing agricultural economy, a populist mobilization, and shifting alliances.” (67-68)

THIS EPISODE IS from the work of Clyde Woods, who was associate professor of Black studies and acting director of the Center for Black Studies Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Woods joined the ancestors in 2011.

Published in 2017, the book is composed of five chapters completed by Woods, while the last three and the Conclusion were pulled together based on his notes by his colleagues, Laura Pulido, professor of ethnic studies and geography at the University of Oregon, and Jordan T. Camp, a term assistant professor of American studies at Barnard College.

The book reflects monumental scholarship assembled by Woods. It is a page-turner and a fitting portrait of New Orleans — covering such topics as the post-Civil War Recon­struction Era, the rise of the Populists, the Garvey movement, and the origin of the Mardi Gras Indians. It is a cultural as well as political study, and should be part of the city’s tricentennial celebration in 2018. The endnotes reveal the breadth and depth of the author’s research.

His account of the naked political repression of 1896 continues:

“On election day, April 21, 1896, the fusionists [populists] were able to secure victories in the north-central parishes. However, there was massive voter intimidation and fraud in the majority Black northern Louisiana cotton parishes along the Mississippi and Red Rivers….

“Before the legislature convened on May 14, Democrats’ refusal to count Black populist votes in Natchitoches Parish resulted in hundreds of armed white populists assembling for an attack on the courthouse before they were dispersed by the state militia. Black populists seized stuffed ballot boxes in St. John the Baptist Parish and prepared to engage the militia before they too were dispersed.

“The New Orleans Daily Picayune predicted ‘war and rapine, and blood from the Arkansas line to the Gulf of Mexico if the populists did not submit’ to the stolen election. Reports circulated that nine thousand whites from the northern hills were preparing to march on the capitol….

“On May 6 the Democratic State Central Committee…denounced the ‘monster, horrid, formless and crowned with darkness’ that was attempting to overthrow democracy and uplift that ‘great horde of ignorant blacks who yearn for social equality.’ It warned that ‘this land shall not be a Hayti or San Domingo.’ Hearsey, the publisher of the Daily States, concluded that ‘dictatorship’ was ‘the most suitable form of government for Louisiana,’ and dictatorship is what the Bourbons delivered.” (69-70)

Blues and Bourbons

Woods uses a “Blues” motif throughout. The Blues agenda is defined as “the push for the fundamental democratization of all aspects of regional life, the dismantling of the political hegemony of the plantation bloc, the breakup of racial and economic monopolies, the economic redistribution of monopolized resources to oppressed and working-class communities, the creation of sustainable communities, the full recognition of human rights, and the affirmation of Black cultural and intellectual traditions.” (188)

Portraits he paints of Blues musicians include Charles “Buddy” Bolden, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson (Gospel Blues), Isidore “Tuts” Washington, Lonnie Johnson, Professor Longhair (Henry Byrd), Dave Bartholomew, James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, and many, many more. The cultural history is part and parcel of the political, social and economic phenomena described by Woods.

On the ruling oligarchy, Woods writes, “The term Bourbon was increasingly used during the 1880s to describe the militarized, authoritarian, planter-dominated regimes in each southern state that led the violent movement to overthrow Reconstruction, disenfranchise Blacks and impoverished whites, and create the institutions of debt peonage and prison slavery.

“Yet, according to William Holmes, the principles that guided the House of Bourbon were more fully restored in Louisiana than in any other state: ‘Louisiana Bourbons were ultraconservatives who considered any “whisper of moderation” as “rampant pseudo liberalism.” Without pretense of subscribing to a noblesse oblige attitude, they identified closely with the propertied interests and espoused rabid racism….

“Nowhere else did public services sink so low, as was illustrated by the fact that in the 1880s Louisiana was the only state, North or South, to show an absolute rise in the per cent of white illiterates.’” (57-58)

On the city, “The New Orleans wing of the Bourbon bloc was composed mainly of representatives of the leading banks (Canal Bank, Hibernia Bank, Whitney Bank, and the Marine Bank and Trust Company), major law firms, cotton merchants and financiers, major planters, and shippers, all of whom had strong ties to national and international financial centers.” (80)

Through the unelected Board of Liquidation of City Debt, the bankers controlled “the city’s revenue, bonds, and budget.” (80) The clout of the Board, which continues to exist today, was horribly demonstrated during the Great Flood of 1927.

To supposedly protect New Orleans from the flooding waters of the Mississippi, the bankers orchestrated — with the participation of elected officials — the dynamiting of the levees in the downriver parishes of St. Bernard and Plaquemines, displacing around ten thousand people and then, adding outright desperation to an already dire situation, offered them pennies on the dollar as reparation for their losses. (108-110)

The subsequent political fallout saw the election of an outsider, Huey P. Long, as governor in 1928. Woods chronicles African-American migration to and from the city during the Long years, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt presidency, and the post-WW II economic expansion.

Woods cites as “pillars of the Blues tradition: African American communal life, human rights, public spending for comprehensive social services, racial justice, the sanctity of ethnic cultural communities, economic redistribution, cooperative sustainable development, and the philosophy of and movement to attain regional and global justice.” (262)

How are these “pillars” to be achieved? The period between 1965 and 1977 is defined as the “Second Reconstruction.” (180) Just as the First Reconstruction was marked by the creation and implementation by the federal government of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Second Reconstruction was characterized by the reimplementation of the latter two plus the 19th Amendment in order to demolish Jim Crow segregation in the South.

The 14th Amendment, legislatively, was sealed by Congressional passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 15th and 19th Amendments by passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Civil Rights Struggle

But the Second Reconstruction didn’t achieve the Blues agenda, as Woods clearly illustrates. To tackle that dilemma we have to re-appreciate two events recalled by him: the Baton Rouge, Louisiana bus boycott of 1953 and the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955. (176-177)

Both movements were led by Baptist ministers: Rev. T.J. Jemison in the former, Dr. Martin Luther King in the latter. Both started off demanding reform of Jim Crow laws that mandated white and Black seating arrangements on city buses.

The Baton Rouge protest lasted a couple of days, tweaking the Jim Crow structure; the Montgomery effort went through a whole year. However, the Montgomery movement, benefitting from the earthshaking judicial decision of the U.S. Supreme Court outlawing school segregation in 1954, had filed a lawsuit on public transport along with the boycott.

The Supreme Court unanimously declared bus segregation unconstitutional in December of 1956.  That decision, a tremendous victory, sealed the meteoric rise of Dr. King as the key leader South-wide in the fight against Jim Crow.

The following year King and his leadership team formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC. One of the best descriptions of this motion is located in Taylor Branch’s first volume, Parting the Waters, America in the King Years, 1954-63.

SCLC became the indispensable weapon in the unfolding Civil Rights movement. Both bus boycotts signaled an awakening of Black people in the South. SCLC was an action organization, a vehicle for mass mobilization.

Coupled with the NAACP’s legal battles and the allied activities of SNCC and CORE, SCLC was the necessary ingredient for eventual victory. Its mass action campaigns in Birmingham in 1963 and in Selma in 1965 led to the legislative victories in ’64 and ’65.

Nonetheless, the legislative overthrow of Jim Crow in 1965 did not mean the end of racial discrimination. As Woods quotes Dr. King from a speech in 1967:

“It’s more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. And it’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality. And so today we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality….” (190)

Example Set for New Movements

The end of Jim Crow, however, inspired the Southern Black masses and spurred the Northern Black population to fight the more devious forms of discrimination that denied civic equality and equal opportunity. The fights in the North and West were highlighted by the Los Angeles rebellion in Watts in 1965 and the rebellion in Detroit in 1967.

Just as SCLC was indispensable in the fight against Jim Crow, the various forms of committees to end the war in Vietnam became the necessary instruments in mobilizing students and others starting in 1965.

There were many peace organizations before the escalation of the U.S. military adventure in Vietnam. But the committees became the essential action component in asserting the right of U.S. citizens to speak out and act on foreign policy issues — not leaving it to politicians and government think-tanks. One of the best narratives of this movement is in Out Now! A Participant’s Account of the American Movement Against the Vietnam War by Fred Halstead (1978).

The book is still in print. And of course, when the last helicopter lifted off the U.S. embassy as the Vietnamese people reclaimed their land on April 30, 1975, the end of the war did not signify the end of U.S. military adventures abroad.

Right now the policies of the U.S. government are an obstacle to the flowering of democracy in the Middle East. The U.S. and West European governments want control of Arab oil, and therefore over who will and who will not constitute governments in Arab lands. Let the Arab masses decide!

At this juncture in the quest for social justice we find ourselves on the threshold of the birth of a new labor movement, a new unionism. The assault by big business on labor and unions in the name of austerity — cutting social expenditures, privatizing public healthcare, housing, and education, and shrinking the unionized space — is pushing workers, organized and unorganized, to seek new ideas and new strategies.

Fight for $15 is one such movement. (The best expression of that fight is found in the portrayal of Jonathan Rosenblum, Beyond $15, Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement. It records the maturing of the struggle at Sea-Tac Airport outside Seattle, in achieving a union and $15 hourly minimum wage.)

Out of the approaching awakening and upsurge of U.S. labor, of which Sea-Tac is a harbinger, working people will revitalize some unions and create — and I emphasize create in the fashion of the anti-Jim Crow and anti-Vietnam war movements — new forms of organization.

As James Gray Pope, Ed Bruno and Peter Kellman wrote in a recent piece in the Boston Review, “Organized labor is being strangled by laws that block workers from exercising the rights to organize, to strike, and to act in solidarity. Unions should respond by building a rights movement, placing the struggle for those rights front and center in all movement activity, including organizing, protest, civil disobedience, political action, administrative advocacy, and litigation.” (http:bostonreview.net/forum/james-gray-pope-ed-bruno-peter-kellman-right-strike)

Unlike the big financial, industrial, and commercial companies who put profits before human needs, the insurgent workers will put human needs before profits. And in so doing we will achieve some if not all and more of the social justice goals outlined in the Blues agenda of Clyde Woods.

January-February 2018, ATC 192

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.