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.
Poverty and crime, however, increasingly became a hallmark of black New Orleans life, despite the political representation they enjoyed.
"As the numbers would suggest, the depths of problems experienced by large segments of the black community were not resolved by black control of the highest municipal political offices," writes Mtangulizi Sanyika, project manager of the African American Leadership Project, in the book Race, Place and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina.
To some, the election of former Cox cable-television executive Ray C. Nagin as mayor in 2002 seemed to forecast a return of white political power to whites. "He was created by the sociological and biological descendents of the Confederate gentry," says Jacques Morial. "They ran him as the anti-Negro candidate, and he was dismissive of black institutional power."
Nagin's vow that New Orleans would "be chocolate at the end of the day," coupled with comments about not having the city "overrun with Mexicans," left the taste of racial pandering in the mouths of white and African-American residents alike.
Such overtures were probably calculated gestures. The breached levees that flooded 80 percent of the city led to the displacement of as many as 75 percent of African-American voters. Even if Nagin got the white-voter support that he got in 2002 — which he didn't — he'd still need black votes to win. Moon Landrieu's son Mitchell was out-campaigning and outspending him. Meanwhile, the Rev. Tom Watson, considered the credible African-American alternative and head of the politically influential Greater New Orleans Coalition of Ministers, was a favored candidate among displaced African Americans.
Unlike the leading candidates who spent upwards of 60 percent of their primary-campaign spending on advertising and very little on polling, Nagin spent only 40 percent of his budget on advertising and more than 12 percent on polling — far more than his contenders spent on canvassing. Nagin's off-color antics and comments were advertisement enough, but his polling spending shows he was courting black public opinion more than anything else.
Nagin squeaked by Landrieu in a runoff held May 20, winning by just a 4 percent margin. Though he was elected with a majority of black voters, his approval rating fell quickly in the city, in part because much of the black electorate didn't move back home. (Many voted by absentee ballot and in satellite voting stations.) Schools were closed for the remainder of the 2006 school year, and the following school year began the grand, citywide charter-school experiment that brought in hundreds of out-of-state teachers who were new to the city.
"You essentially destroyed a class of educated opinion leaders — schoolteachers — who had job security and who were mostly middle-class and self-supportive," says Morial. "So you dispersed an entire political class who played a vital role in political empowerment, and many of them still haven't returned."
Many have not returned for a myriad of reasons: the closing of public housing projects, not to mention the loss of affordable rental housing in the city in general, and the decision not to re-open Charity Hospital, which provided health care to low-income and uninsured residents. Without schools, housing and access to health care, many African Americans had no reason to return.
Jefferson is just one of a few in his family to lose political power to scandal, namely former New Orleans property assessor Betty Jefferson and campaign consultant Mose Jefferson for tax evasion and fraud charges. Other NoLa powerbrokers faced charges as well. There was the 2005 arrest of Stan "Pampy" Barre, whose restaurant was once a secret quarters for backroom power dealing among African Americans. Barre was used as a federal informant to arrest other politicians, most shockingly then-City Council President Oliver Thomas, who is serving the remainder of his 37-month sentence in a halfway house after pleading guilty to taking a $20,000 bribe from Barre in 2007. These scandals were just the tip of the iceberg; the metropolitan area saw 171 indictments on public corruption charges from 2003 to 2007 alone — and not all of those indicted were black.
The displacement of much of the black electorate and the scandals have, no doubt, left a sour taste in the mouths of remaining black New Orleanians. The black population is currently just above 60 percent, many of whom threw their support behind Mitch Landrieu in the last election, though general voter turnout was extremely low.
"That population who left as a result of the storm and ended up in Houston, Atlanta and Memphis — those were our accountants, doctors, lawyers and MBAs," says retired judge Calvin Johnson, the first African American elected to a Louisiana state court, and chief judge of the criminal courts during Katrina. "They left and never came back. So what has happened to the political power in New Orleans is both the result of voter apathy and a lack of leadership."
Whatever black political power can be identified, says Johnson, is best seen in small neighborhood groups and grass-roots organizations that have emerged since the storm. The new civic engagement in New Orleans, especially as seen in groups organized for more transparency in government, is one of the best untold stories of New Orleans' recovery. But Jacques Morial cautions that while the new engagement is "substantially more robust than it was before Katrina," transforming it into policy change has been most challenging. It was during this period of intense grass-roots activity that most of the nonblack elected officials today were voted into office.
But the loss of black faces in political representation doesn't necessarily translate into a reduced quality of life for black New Orleanians. As Morial says, "The race of a mayor should certainly be less important than the values and policies by which a mayor governs by."
Says Cleveland Spears III, the marketing consultant, "I think the future of political power will come from those who are transcending race. I don't think that there will be another black political organization established along racial lines, but more along those with similar ideology, agendas and political views. Right now it's about engaging and informing, voter registration and having more people be a part of the political process."
Brentin Mock, a frequent contributor to The Root, is based in New Orleans.
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