The Changing Face of Political Power in New Orleans

The levees weren't the only thing that broke down in the aftermath of Katrina. Black political leadership took a tumble, too.


The era of black power in New Orleans begins with the rising of a Moon and ends with the setting of a son. Maurice "Moon" Landrieu, who is white, is widely credited as the elected official responsible for not only helping usher in desegregation in Louisiana but also finally opening New Orleans' city hall to African Americans for jobs and political offices. Three decades of black mayoral leadership, including four black mayoral administrations, succeeded him. But that power has fizzled in recent years, culminating in the election this year of Moon's son Mitchell Landrieu.

Asked today what happened, "there's nowhere I can point to to say that black political power is still going strong," says Cleveland Spears III, a young, bright African-American star in New Orleans who runs his own marketing consulting firm and is active in multiple social service and political agencies, such as Urban League and EngageNOLA.

The black political power struggle here has consistently been hard-fought. Moon Landrieu saw the potential for it as a student at Loyola University studying under Father Louis J. Twomey and Father Joseph Fichter, both of whom worked throughout the 1940s and 1950s to end racially segregationist policies. Moon was part of a rising tide of white politicians and black civil rights advocates, like his friend Norman Francis, who continued that work in the chambers of government.

One of Landrieu's first political maneuvers as a state legislator in the 1960s was to open debate on closing the Louisiana Sovereignty Commission, a state board set up, basically, to intimidate African Americans. From there, he battled segregationist legislators who were dead set on defying Brown v. Board of Education. At one point, Landrieu was confronted by Leander Perez -- a White Citizens Council organizer and notoriously racist political boss -- and Willie Rainach, Perez's partner in crime, who thumped a finger in Landrieu's chest, telling him, "We know your kind, and we're gonna get you."

By Landrieu's 1969 campaign for mayor of New Orleans, he had already been identified as a "commie," "nigger lover" and every other term of endearment that Southern bigots had for white integrationists. Despite that, he won, which was a win for black New Orleans, since it meant that no longer would African-American members of the community have only broom-and-mop jobs in city hall. Under Landrieu's leadership, Terry Duvernay became the first African-American chief administrative officer -- the city's second-highest-ranking official -- and the Rev. A.L. Davis became the city's first African-American city councilor.

The Landrieu mayoral era ended in 1978, after which Ernest "Dutch" Morial, a former NAACP local chapter president and the first African American elected to the state legislature, became the city's first black mayor. The number of blacks working for the city under the Morial administration expanded to well over half the force. Black political organizations emerged with colorful acronyms like BOLD (Black Organization for Leadership Development), SOUL (Southern Organization for United Leadership), LIFE (Louisiana Independent Federation of Electors) and the more sinister-sounding COUP (Community Organization for Urban Politics).

In New Orleans politics, "we have avoided real tough discussions about race entitlement and economic equity," says Jacques Morial, the son of "Dutch" Morial and co-director of the Louisiana Justice Institute. "New Orleans is different than almost any other major southern city -- it's 100 years older than Houston and Atlanta -- so this culture of white privilege and entitlement is much more entrenched here."

Whatever political patronage that arose from these black organizations came at no real expense to white citizens, who had their own legacy of behind-the-scenes power brokering. The system of gentlemen's luncheon clubs existed not just to parade as Mardi Gras festival krewes but also as secret societies where business deals were cut, often on taxpayers' dimes. The white-males-only clubs were believed to be obstacles to economic parity among racial groups. They served a white business elite that heavily influenced policymaking decisions, even while African Americans began to control political offices through the 1980s and into the 1990s.

Black city councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor ended the white gentlemen's clubs' reign when, in 1991, she proposed an ordinance to ban racial and gender discrimination among the krewes. In 1992 the ordinance passed, after which three of the four oldest and most powerful clubs decided to disband rather than open their doors to African Americans and women.

In the mid- to late 1990s, some of the most powerful black figures in politics had a firm grip on the city. The oil bust of 1986 accelerated the white flight that began during the Dutch Morial administrations, leaving behind a much lower-income urban core. Meanwhile, by the end of the '90s, African Americans were already more than a decade deep in having majority control of the city council; on their third black mayor, Marc Morial (the son of Dutch); and had effective representation and leadership in the state legislature as well as Congress, notably U.S. Rep. William Jefferson.