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Looking back and Ahead: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 revisited

9th June 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Allen Johnson Jr.
Contributing Writer

Corrections: In the print edition of The Louisiana Weekly, lawyer Jack Nelson was erroneously listed among those New Orleans attorneys arrested by state police for violating segregation laws in connection with the “first integrated gathering of civil rights lawyers.” His name has been retracted from this article.

A racially mixed audience of 125 people last week entered a federal courtroom in New Orleans and did something that would have been against the law here 50 years ago.

They sat wherever they pleased.

Before the federal passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the freedoms of African Americans were fewer and more limited in New Orleans, said Paul Finkelman, a law professor and prolific author on slavery, at Albany Law School in New York.

“Louisiana was deeply, deeply segregated,” Finkelman said, adding: “Even the state school for the blind was segregated.”

During a three-hour seminar celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the audience heard passionate descriptions of racial hatred, humiliation, litigation and social change. Speakers included: University of New Orleans history professor Dr. Raphael Cassimere, Professor Finkelman, New Orleans civil rights lawyer Mary Howell, and U.S. District Judge Gustavo Gelpi of Puerto Rico.

U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan of New Orleans, appointed to the bench by President Obama in 2012, moderated the event. The seminar was sponsored by the local chapter of the Federal Bar Association.

Citing a U.S. Supreme Court opinion in 1961 by Justice Williams O. Douglas, Finkelman detailed segregation in Louisiana and New Orleans, a city considered more racially tolerant than much of the South.

Blacks were relegated to separate and under-funded schools, hospitals, parks, playgrounds and swimming pools. Employers could legally discriminate by race and advertised jobs seeking “whites only.” There were few African-American police officers. Police could stop blacks at will. Harassment and police brutality were commonplace and sometimes, fatal.

Seating on public transportation was also segregated including streetcars and buses. There were racially separate entrances and seats for circuses, theaters, and sporting events. Medical records were segregated, “Court documents must reveal the race of the parties..,” the professor continued. “This is Louisiana on the eve of the Civil Rights Act.”

Professor Cassimere, as a young civil rights activist in the NAACP in the early 1960s, recalled receiving an award from baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who integrated the Major Leagues

“He said he and his were put off a plane in New Orleans in 1946,” because of Louisiana’s segregation laws, Cassimere said. “It made him late for spring training.”

Acidly, Cassimere added: “His coach said that blacks were always late.”

Cassimere, who was active in local civil rights demonstrations to desegregate downtown stores, Charity Hospital, said activists here played a key role in opening up employment opportunities for blacks. “I’m please to say seven of the first 19 complaints filed with the EEOC came from New Orleans.” He noted that Coca-Cola placed jobs in local newspapers for “whites only” prior to enactment of civil rights legislation, and withdrew the ads under threat of local boycotts.

Charity Hospital had two wings – one for “colored” and one for whites prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he said.

“We got Charity hospital desegregated; Charity was going to lose $30 million in federal funding if they didn’t desegregate.”

In 1966, when New Orleans was awarded an NFL franchise for the Saints football team, he said, “ It was with the understanding that all of the clubs including the French Quarter would be open to blacks.”

Cassimere said 1963 was the “pivotal” year in civil rights. “We just had this sense we would win. We had that sense things were happening.” Recently launched telecommunications satellites extended the daily news time for national networks from 15 minutes to 30 minutes and carried coverage of the civil rights movement around the world, including South Africa.

“At one time I knew every black lawyer in New Orleans and the state. There are probably more black judges in New Orleans today than there were blacks lawyers (then).

Local civil rights lawyer Mary Howell, who has litigated against police misconduct for 40 years, emphasized the work of a handful of lawyers prior to passage of the Civil Rights Act. “We need to pay some homage to them and learn about their lives.”

There weren’t any “civil rights lawyers” then because there were no civil rights laws, Howell said of litigation in Louisiana before 1964.

“They called themselves constitutional lawyers.”

Among them was African-American lawyer A. P. Tureaud, who filed thousands of law suits against segregated accommodations in Louisiana, and civil rights attorney Lolis Elie.

“At the height of the Civil Rights Movement we had 10 black lawyers” in Louisiana, Howell said. The state and local bar associations were racially segregated.

Howell, who became a lawyer after the Civil Rights Act passed, recalls working for New Orleans civil rights lawyer Ben Smith. Two weeks after the Birmingham church bombings, Smith and some of his colleagues, (including Bruce Waltzer and Jim Dombrowski), were arrested by Louisiana state police and charged with “sedition” and violation of state segregation laws – after sponsoring the “first integrated gathering of civil rights lawyers.”

The Movement in New Orleans took an unexpected turn, “Everybody was strategizing on how to keep the lawyers from going to jail,” she said. “A whole group of lawyers took a stand when it counted.” Many faced daily death threats, loss of income and social ostracism for working to end segregation. “We need to know their names,” she said.

Howell said it’s not enough to have civil rights laws on the books.

“They only work if we make them work,” she said. “There are plenty of people who still believe there should be ‘no go’ areas for blacks and minorities.

She says she is encouraged by the new generation of young lawyers coming out of law school today. “They are fearless, they are smart and they don’t know yet what they can’t do.”

In response to a question from the audience about civil rights laws and police brutality, professor Cassimere said:

“The enduring problem of police brutality has not diminished” with the election of Black mayors or the appointment of black police chiefs,” Cassimere said “It’s been a big disappointment for me, personally.”

New Orleans is the only city with federal consent decrees to reform both its police department and its jail, Howell said. “That is embarrassing.”

She said U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk called conditions for inmates at Orleans Parish Prison “‘an indelible stain on our community’ – not the Sheriff’s Office – “on our community.’”

Judge Gelpi said the Justice Department’s consent decree for police in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is scheduled to run 10 years. “The police are going to be taught Fourth Amendment rights,” he said, referring to citizens’ constitutional protections against unlawful searches and seizures.

Judge Morgan, who presides over the federal consent decree for the New Orleans Police Department, offered only general remarks at the conclusion of the panel discussion. “I am completely blown away by the quality of the speakers we’ve heard today,” Morgan said.

Asked why he attended the half-day seminar, newly retired WDSU-TV anchor Norman Robinson, 63, who grew up in racially segregated Mississippi and Alabama, replied: “I’m fascinated by this stuff. This is how I came to be.”

This article originally published in the June 9, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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