Filed Under:  Local

Martinet Society celebrates 60 years of civil rights work

5th September 2017   ·   0 Comments

"Moments in the Movement," a painting by Ayo Scott, features Lolis Elie, Sr. and members of CORE during the Civil Rights Movement. The painting will be auctioned at the Martinet Society Gala fundraiser on Sept. 9.

“Moments in the Movement,” a painting by Ayo Scott, features Lolis Elie, Sr. and members of CORE during the Civil Rights Movement. The painting will be auctioned at the Martinet Society Gala fundraiser on Sept. 9.

By Della Hasselle
Contributing Writer

It was 1957, and Jim Crow dominated every aspect of African-American life in the South.

For nearly three-quarters of a century, the codified system had mandated segregation of schools, parks, libraries, drinking fountains, restrooms, buses, trains and restaurants.

“Whites Only” and “Colored” signs infiltrated public spaces as reminders of the American apartheid. Although in theory African Americans were supposed to receive “separate but equal” treatment under the law, the reality was that many were denied basic rights and forced to contend with far inferior treatment.

The same was true in the law profession, according to Royce Duplessis, the current president of the Greater New Orleans Louis A. Martinet Legal Society. Because of whites-only admissions policies in Louisiana’s law schools, reports indicate that by the 1950s there were fewer than 20 practicing African-American attorneys in Louisiana.

“It was obviously during a time of great tumult of race relations in this country, and this part in the South, when you had very few if any Black attorneys,” Duplessis said of the American South in the late 1950s.

“Very few had overcome the odds to become attorneys. Those who did were not allowed to join organizations like the New Orleans Bar Association.”

And so, three years into the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, a group of activists banded together to change the trajectory for African-American society and provide much-needed support for African-American lawyers.

The resulting effort was the formation of the Martinet Legal Society, which on Saturday, Sept. 9, will celebrate its 60th anniversary.

To mark the event, organizers will hold a jazz brunch and fundraiser in concert with the New Orleans Martinet Legal Foundation Inc. The focus of the event, according to Duplessis, will be “Honoring the Past, Celebrating the Present, and Embracing the Future.”

“The purpose of the gala is absolutely to create more awareness about the organization going forward and to celebrate its historic past,” Duplessis told The Louisiana Weekly. “We will re-emphasize the importance of attorneys who fought for Civil Rights and other forms of justice — not only in the legal community but across all communities.”

While the society holds a fundraising event every year, the special tribute honoring its founding will be unique to this event.

Former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana Kenneth Polite will be the Master of Ceremonies for the anniversary celebration. The Keynote Speaker will be CNN political analyst, lawyer and activist Bakari Sellers.

The tribute will feature a video highlighting the Society’s beginnings.

It was a time when Brown v. Board of Topeka was “still fresh in the American consciousness,” making the promises of an end to racial segregation “more tangible to the Society’s pioneering founders,” according to the Society’s website.

When the society was founded on May 13, 1957, the man elected to be president of the statewide and the local New Orleans Chapter was A.P. Tureaud, the well-known attorney for the New Orleans chapter of the NAACP during the Civil Rights Movement.

Tureaud famously filed Bush v. Orleans Parish School Board, the lawsuit that ended the system of Jim Crow segregation in New Orleans and ultimately led to the integration of the first two elementary schools in the Deep South.

Throughout his career, Tureaud also argued for salary equity for African-American and white teachers and filed Willie Robinson v. LSU Board of Supervisors, which resulted in the desegregation of Louisiana State University.

Other state officers included Earl J. Amedee, an African-American political pioneer who ran in several races in the 1950s, including for school board, state legislature and attorney general.

Vanue B. Lacour, one of Southern University Law Center’s original faculty members, was also a founding member.

The Society was named in honor of an African-American pioneer in the legal profession, Louis André Martinet, the first African-American graduate of Straight University Law School — now Dillard University — in 1876.

Martinet was a politician, lawyer, educator, activist, journalist, medical doctor and notary.

He became an attorney after he passed the Louisiana Bar Examination in 1875.

Throughout the early years of his practice, Martinet was also a key figure in the civil rights activities surrounding the end of Reconstruction. In 1889, Martinet began publishing the Daily Crusader, a paper that chronicled the local struggle for civil rights.

In 1890, he helped organize the Comité des Citoyens (Citizens Committee) to offer legal resistance to the Separate Car Law of Louisiana, a law passed by the Louisiana Legislature that required Blacks and whites ride in separate coaches on all public transportation in the state.

Martinet publicly denounced the Separate Car Law in the Daily Crusader and became a key strategist in orchestrating Homer Adolph Plessy’s arrest for violating that law.

Plessy’s arrest and subsequent court case would result in the landmark 1896 United States Supreme Court decision, Plessy vs. Ferguson, which established separate but equal as the law of the land.

Because Martinet was not admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court, he selected S.F. Phillips and A.W. Tourgee to serve as attorneys of record.

In addition to founding members, and the Society’s namesake, organizers in September will honor the legacy and work of the late Lolis Edward Elie, another notable civil rights attorney and activist.

Elie, who passed away in April, represented a host of African-American groups, politicians and activists throughout his career, including Ernest “Dutch” Morial, whose opponent questioned residency when Morial ran for a state legislative seat in 1967. Morial would later become the city’s first African-American mayor.

Elie’s clients also included the Freedom Riders, who protested segregation at bus stations, members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in New Orleans and the Deacons of Defense, the group who famously clashed with the Ku Klux Klan in Bogalusa.

To honor Elie’s legal contributions during and beyond the civil rights era, the Martinet Society has commissioned New Orleans artist Ayo Scott to create a portrait honoring Elie. The artwork will be available at the event’s silent auction.

The society will also comment on the work its done in the decades since it’s foundation, which includes a litany of key initiatives organizers have started to better the community.

Notably, the organization has facilitated continuing legal education (CLE) courses for New Orleans area attorneys and hosted career development programs with local law students.

The organization has also continued its advocacy work by focusing attention on legislative and federal voting rights matters and fostering voter education through candidate forums and voter guides.

Members do volunteer work, too. Recently, organizers provided post-tornado legal assistance and expungement services to several New Orleans residents.

Moving forward, Duplessis said he hopes the organization will continue to grow to have more impact and to help facilitate important Civil Rights-related litigation when necessary.

He added that the organization’s fervor is “as strong today as it was 60 years ago,” especially in light of tense racial relations that have emerged in Charlottesville and elsewhere following the election of Donald Trump in November.

“We believe in fairness across the board,” Duplessis said. “Witnessing what we are witnessing and experiencing what we are experiencing right now is a stark reminder of why the Martinet Society and such organizations are important, and we should never lose sight of that.”

Individuals or organizations interested in attending the Scholarship Jazz Brunch and 60th Anniversary can purchase tickets or sponsorships at Or, for more information, contact gala chairs Krystle Ferbos Duplessis and Raashand Hamilton at

This article originally published in the September 4, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Readers Comments (0)

You must be logged in to post a comment.