Earlier this week, I wrote about my adventure to learn more of New Orleanian shoemaker, Homer Plessy, and how his arrest kicked off a series of events leading to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. I was amazed to discover our city’s role in this most important moment in our country’s evolution.
Even after learning this, I kind of assumed that was the end of New Orleans’ major contributions to the movement. Obviously, I know a majority-black city was affected by what took place over those tumultuous decades in the middle of the 20th century, but when I think of the big moments, my mind wanders to the bus boycotts in Baton Rouge, Rosa Parks in Montgomery, and cities likes Selma, Birmingham and Memphis.
So, this past Martin Luther King Day, in A.L. Davis Park before the start of the parade, when I heard Mayor Mitch Landrieu address the crowd with the words, “Dr. King who was physically right across the street where the SCLC started and began. We are not in some far away and distant place. We are at the place where it started…” my interest was piqued. I hadn’t even known King visited here.
King’s star began to rise in 1954 when he became the the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The following year he called out apathy among church leaders in Birmingham and then led the Montgomery bus boycott following Rosa Parks’ arrest, which concluded with the district court-mandated ending to the segregation of Montgomery public transportation.
In January of 1957, looking to scale their success with Montgomery buses all across the South, as well as to move toward the full desegregation of public facilities, 60 black ministers and leaders, including King, met in Atlanta under the not-short-but-quite-descriptive name, “Southern Leadership Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration.” The SLCoT&NI (I made that acronym up, but…c’mon) sent President Eisenhower a letter requesting he come to the South to place “the full weight of his office” in demanding local police protect all citizens and enforce law and order indiscriminately. When Eisenhower declined their invitation, the organization announced a follow-up meeting here, in New Orleans, issuing a press release including the following:
It is ironic that less than three weeks ago millions of dollars were spent on an inaugural ceremony [for Eisenhower]. The climax of which was the oath by President Eisenhower “to uphold the Constitution of the United States.” We Negro leaders from 29 communities and ten states ask for nothing more than this…and we ask for it here, in the South, and now.”
In the last week of January, 2200 New Orleanians braved inclement weather and filled Coliseum Arena (formerly at 401 N. Roman Street) to hear the man people called “Modern-day Moses” lead his people to freedom. “We have seen the coming of Old Man Segregation to his death bed,” he preached to an inspired crowd.
The previous day he met with Clarence “Chink” Henry, president of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1419, an all-black union, as part of King’s goal to increase pay and improve working conditions for African Americans.
On February 14, King and 96 other black religious leaders of 35 communities from 10 states met in Central City to plan their next steps in pressuring the federal government to act. They met inside the New Zion Baptist Church on Third And LaSalle streets where members officially founded a national organization — still in existence today — with a much more manageable name: the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
King was elected the organization’s first President that day. “Segregation,” he told the group in a close-door session, “was a great cancer in the body politic.” And there mission was to end it.
But “it was no picnic,” New Orleans Reverend Samson “Skip” Alexander told the New Orleans Advocate last year. At 89-years-old, he is one of a fading number of civil rights activists who were present in the church that day. “Very few of us are left.” He recalled how many people were threatened with violence or lost jobs just for asserting their rights. At the time, even his neighbors didn’t understand his devotion to the cause of ending segregation and discrimination. “A lot of people used to tell me, ‘Man, why don’t you stop all that stuff? Every time I look around, they’re arresting you off the streetcar or off the bus.’”
Around the South, the violence was frequent and increasing. King’s home was bombed as were the homes and churches of other movement leaders. Images of fire hoses and police dogs being turned loose on black Americans — even black schoolchildren — were aired on televisions across the nation.
In 1957, the civil rights movement was in some ways fairly new. “We were unorganized,” Alexander said. “And we needed to become organized as a force.”
In New Orleans, that organizing often took place at Dooky Chase, the restaurant of Dooky and his wife, Leah — a New Orleans superstar and the first African American to receive the illustrious James Beard Foundation’s lifetime achievement award. Opening its doors for business in 1941, it started out as a poboy shop, similar to most other restaurants that catered to black New Orleanians during segregation. But, when the two married in 1946, she pushed to upgrade to a white tablecloth establishment.
The gamble was a success. “When you asked someone to go out to dinner back then,” one patron remembers, “it wasn’t a question of where. You knew you were going to Dooky Chase. The only question was when you were going.”
There weren’t black-owned banks back then, so the restaurant also filled that void, cashing checks for customers.
Because of the restaurant’s loyal and intense following (police knew they couldn’t shut it down), and because of a well-hidden staircase leading up to a room on the second floor, Dooky Chase was one of – if not the only – restaurant in which black and white Civil Rights leaders could meet and eat together (illegally at the time). And they often did.
Their website, and countless articles, list the numerous local and national Civil Rights leaders who dined and strategized here. They include Thurgood Marshall, Dutch Morial, Reverend A.L. Davis, Oretha Castle Haley, and Martin Luther King, Sr. There are conflicting reports on whether MLK, Jr. ever stopped in for meetings, but — if he did — it seems he most certainly missed out on Leah’s world-famous gumbo. Mrs. Chase said, “He was a man that didn’t sit down. Like, I’d feed the freedom riders, we’d sit down, and we’d talk. He wasn’t like that. He was always on the move.”
Seeing it as an opportunity to eat a delicious lunch, I started my adventure in the Dooky Chase dining room. Similar to the abnormal diversity congregating in the second floor meeting room of the 1950s and ‘60s, the downstairs dining room also featured a crowd as diverse as the city in which it exists. Chatter from men and women in business suits, as well as tourists who happened upon a gem, filled the air. As did the smell of the restaurant’s famous lunchtime buffet. I got my money’s worth.
Even if Martin Luther King, Jr. never stopped in, we know, for sure, planning sessions for many of his sit-ins, marches, boycotts and freedom rides took place there. And, in that first meeting of the SCLC at New Zion Baptist Church, King introduced the seed for what might be his most famous protest. In a second letter to President Eisenhower, signed by King, he wrote, “In the absence of some early and effective remedial action, we shall have no moral choice but to lead a Pilgrimage of Prayer to Washington.”
The movement strengthened, and – through failures in Albany, Georgia, to sit-ins in Birmingham, Alabama; from marches in St. Augustine to illegal gatherings in Selma; from trips to India to Freedom Rides toward New Orleans — King’s SCLC had emerged as a leader. And, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on August 28, 1963, when our own Mahalia Jackson implored King to preach his dream to as many as 300,000 in attendance – but also to countless numbers in every generation from then until humanity’s end – it’s impossible to tell the story of race in America in its entirety without first including what happened in New Orleans, whether it be with Homer Plessy in 1892, Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963, or so many others I hope to write about this year.
Before going to Dooky Chase for lunch, I called the New Zion Baptist Church to see if I could find out anything more about that extraordinary Valentine’s Day of 1957.
“Hi, my name’s Matt Haines, and I’m writing about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his time in New Orleans. I’m wondering if you all have any old pictures of that first SCLC meeting that –”
“Oh no. Sir?” the woman from the church on the other end of the line stopped me.
“Sir, we lost all that in the hurricane, sir. I’m sorry.”
“Oh.” When I first came to New Orleans, I was working for a non-profit that rebuilt homes for those who lost theirs in the storm. I saw family after family struggle to put their life back together. I wrote words every day, imploring people or organizations to fund our noble cause. I have friends who tell me their stories. I have read books about it, watched movies about it, and heard the word, “Katrina,” what feels like upwards of an infinite number of times. Maybe it’s the way I preserve myself or the way I process emotions — and this isn’t something I’m proud to say — but that one simple sentence from a woman I’ll never see, was the first time the full weight of all that was lost struck me. Of course, this incredible treasure to the world is gone. So much is gone. And things much more important than pictures – no matter who the subject of them is.
“Of course,” I tried to hide my disappoint for some reason. “I didn’t think that through. Thank you.”
But, where there is loss, there is also, often, rejuvenation. The SCLC recently revived a chapter in New Orleans, and – from what I can tell – they seem extremely active with lecture series, tons of history, monthly meetings, and a plethora of volunteer opportunities. Check out their website here!
Additionally, a block away from the New Zion Baptist Church, an ambitious nonprofit, Felicity Redevelopment, Inc., owns two empty lots and – in collaboration with the SCLC and Tulane University, as well as Central City churches, schools and neighbors – they are designing and building a commemorative pavilion that will provide educational information, a contemplative space, and a public gathering area honoring the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the broader Civil Rights movement. The project also includes the development of a curriculum focused on the civil rights history of the LaSalle Street Corridor for KIPP Booker T. Washington High School — whose band was featured in an earlier Tulane Basketball / Vietnam War adventure (perhaps the first and only Tulane Basketball / Vietnam War adventure in history?) — as well as other KIPP Central City Schools.
Felicity’s Executive Director Ella Camburnbeck’s response to my question about why they decided to take on this project was music to my ears. “In light of local and national debates surrounding Confederate monuments,” she began, “we think he time is right to reveal hidden histories, such as the local founding of the SCLC. As a community, we can decide what stories, people and places we choose to lift up and memorialize.”
After lunch, I really wanted to go home and take a nap. But, even more than that, I wanted to check out the final two locations on my adventure. Earlier this month, The Advocate’s Katy Rekdahl wrote a fun and interesting piece that explains why New Orleans has two statues dedicated to King.
First, I biked up to the corner of Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard, and Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard (named after a local Civil Rights leader who will surely feature in a future adventure). It was a quiet afternoon on a revitalizing O.C. Haley corridor. The occasional car halted at the nearby stop sign while I tried to make sense of the strange statue towering in the middle of a walkway lined with magnolia trees planted in 1933. A sign near me explains upcoming plans to improve the walkway and make it a neighborhood hub. According to Rekdahl’s article, this will also include a play place for kids.
The statue itself is not what you’d expect from a monument to King. Mostly because – it doesn’t look anything like King. Or a human, for that matter.
Standing ten feet tall and created by Frank Hayden of Southern University in Baton Rouge, it kind of looks like what the result could be if an octopus and an egg had a baby, but then if human hands, with long and elegant fingers, were stitched onto the tentacles for convenience.
A States-Item reporter wrote that, in 1976, when Mayor Moon Landrieu pulled a cord to unveil the statue, reactions were mixed. While some said they liked it, “photographers hesitated, children stared wonderingly, and most of the 200 or so residents of the Dryades-Melpomene area…did a double-take.”
Hayden, a protégé of lauded New Orleans sculptor John T. Scott explains his work is meant to symbolize “Dr. King’s lifelong quest to bring people together to achieve understanding.”
His statue is much more popular today. Central City activist Bertrand Butler, 74, and co-chair of the King Holiday Planning Commission explains it’s “an egg shape, but what comes out of that yolk is other chickens.” He says it’s about life and hope, and that the hands symbolize a bringing together.
But at the time, the statue was so unpopular among some prominent black radio personalities and civil rights leaders, there was an effort to raise money for a new, more straight-forward statue. A 1978 newspaper ad read, “King was a Man!” and continued, “Let’s remember Martin Luther King as he was to all people of the world. Please support the Martin Luther King Memorial Statue Fund.”
That statue was erected in 1981, and, as the sun dropped behind the bust of our hero while cars whizzed by on the heavily-trafficked Claiborne Avenue, the difference between the environment in which the two statues existed was as stark as the contrast in the statues themselves.
I looked over every inch and inscription of the statue, literally standing in the shadow of one of the most important men in history, and I noticed a smudge around the “Have” in “I Have A Dream.” I wondered what had happened, until I received a picture from my hero, Jenny, at The Historic New Orleans Collection. Take a close look at the picture, and the caption, below.
King was fatally shot on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennesee. This second New Orleans monument was a replica of one made in Selma, but those responsible for the statue, here, eventually decided they wanted a more explicit acknowledgement that his dream could not meet the same fate as the messenger. His dream would continue. And so the edit was made.
In an article about Confederate monuments, The Gambit’s Clancy DuBos writes that, “New Orleans has a rich history, some of it shameful and some of it remarkable.” Reading that reminded me of the quote I used earlier, from Felicity Development’s Ella Camburnbeck. I think all stories are worth remembering and considering and learning from, but we get to decide which ones to elevate.
So let’s not forget the one with a major chapter that took place inside an unassuming building in Central City, New Orleans at a pivotal moment in our country’s history.