Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana
By Adam Fairclough
Vol. 17, No. 1, 1995 pp. 12-18
When I began this study, in 1987, my perceptions of the civil rights movement had been formed during ten years of research into the history of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the career of Martin Luther King, Jr. That work both derived from and rein-forced the commonly held perception that the black activism of 1955 to 1965 displayed a unity and momentum that set it apart from what came before and what came after. Here, finally, were a powerful mass movement and a leader worthy of the cause; here, at last, was the decisive breakthrough. Embarking upon a study of Louisiana, I imagined not only that an examination of the civil rights movement at the state and local levels would broaden our understanding of black insurgency, but also that it would confirm rather than challenge the Montgomery-to-Selma framework that seemed self-evidently correct. Like most historians of the movement, I realized that black militancy had quickened in the late 1930s and during the Second World War, but I intended passing lightly over this period, confining it to a chapter, perhaps two, on the “origins” of the civil rights movement. The focus of the book, as with my history of SCLC, was to be on the late 1950s and 1960s.
As I plunged into research, however, it soon became apparent that the contours of the struggle in Louisiana bore little resemblance to the Montgomery-to-Selma story. For one thing, black activism between the late 1930s and the Brown decision was so multifaceted, broadly based, and militant that it seemed to merit the same kind of scholarly attention as the period 1955-65.
The black activism of the Roosevelt-Truman era has not been neglected by historians. There are books and articles weighing the impact of the Depression, assessing the influence of the New Deal, studying blacks and the labor movement, and examining how the Second World War changed race relations. In addition, several community studies, notably Robert J. Norrell’s book on Tuskegee, Alabama, have argued that the civil rights movement, at the local level, actually got under way in the late 1930s and had already gathered considerable momentum by the 1950s. But although such works have cast doubt on the prevailing interpretation of the civil rights movement, they have often done so implicitly rather than explicitly, and no larger synthesis has appeared to challenge the Montgomery-to-Selma perspective. It is a central thesis of Race and Democracy that black protest between the late 1930s and the mid-1950s constituted more than a mere prelude to the drama proper: it was the first act of a two-act play. It therefore made no sense to begin my analysis in the mid-1950s: the Montgomery bus boycott had an important impact, as did the Greensboro sit-ins, but black activism did not so much escalate to a higher level as change in shape. What Bayard Rustin called the “classical period” of the civil rights movement needs to be placed within the context of a struggle that stretched over three full decades.
Measured in the lifetimes of dedicated individuals, some elements of continuity appear even longer. Alexander Pierre Tureaud, for example, joined the NAACP in 1922 and fought against racial discrimination for fifty years. The dean of civil rights lawyers in Louisiana–and for a time the only black lawyer in the state–his name appeared on virtually every suit filed by the NAACP: working with Thurgood Marshall, he integrated schools, universities, buses, parks, and public buildings; he won voting rights suits; he equalized the salaries of black teachers. In 1960 he represented students arrested in the sit-in movement, arguing the first such case to reach the Supreme Court.
Tureaud’s life spanned, almost precisely, the rise and fall of white supremacy in post-Reconstruction Louisiana. He was born in 1899, three years after the Supreme Court upheld Louisiana’s railroad segregation law in the Plessy case, one year after a new state constitution disfranchised black voters en masse. He died in 1972, the same year that the state legislature expunged all its Jim Crow laws, the year that black voters helped elect Edwin Edwards governor, and one year before a new state constitution,
borrowing the language of the once-despised Fourteenth Amendment, outlawed racial discrimination. But his life was more than a mere chronological link between the two periods: Creoles like Tureaud had a consciousness of history and of their place within it. Tureaud’s uncle served in the Reconstruction Legislature; his protege and law partner, Ernest N. Morial, became the first black mayor of New Orleans.
Historians can become obsessed with the question of continuity and change. The search for the origins of a social transformation invariably goes further and further back in time, until often one does not know when to stop. Hence the perspective of time, while a useful antidote to present-mindedness, can also distort. Too much stress upon continuity smooths out history’s peaks and valleys, producing a bland, featureless landscape. Awareness of continuities, therefore, should not blind us to the shifts, the twists and turns, the periods of retrogression and stagnation.
History may be a seamless web, but we must not mistake fragile threads for sturdy cords. Some historians of the Old Left, for example, contend that the radicalism of the Roosevelt-Truman era paved the way for the later civil rights movement. Of course, it is always possible, by a kind of “honor by association,” to discover links between 1930s radicals and 1960s activists. But such links were tenuous: McCarthyism smashed the Old Left and marginalized its ideas. One of the most striking aspects of Robin Kelley’s fascinating study of Alabama Communists (Hammer and Hoe) is how quickly and completely the Communist Party’s influence faded during the 1950s.
Indeed, the impact of McCarthyism was so profound that one could argue that a fundamental discontinuity separated the period 1940-54 from the following decade. The Cold War and the deradicalization of organized labor exhausted the possibilities of New Deal liberalism, and the movement that arose after 1955 drew its strength from new sources: the Southern black church, the ideas of Gandhi, the leadership of Martin Luther King and the elan of a younger generation of black college students. Many therefore resist the idea that the black protest of that period should be lumped together with pre-Montgomery activism. As Richard King reminds us, “The freshness of the movement should not be underplayed for the sake of an historical pedigree.” Or as Hugh Murray put it more tartly, “The people who were involved in the movement in the 1950s and 1960s called it the civil rights movement. Historians in pipe-smoke
filled rooms ought not to try to rename it.” The very term “movement” implies something new and special: it con-notes not only organization but also mass participation, not only activism but also direct action. It evokes marches, sit-ins, demonstrations–new methods of organization, mobilization, and protest.
The relationship between the pre-1955 and post-1955 phases of the black struggle is a complex one, bur an awareness of discontinuities, and an appreciation of the distinctive characteristics of the Montgomery-to-Selma years does not negate the argument for treating the two periods as equally important and inextricably linked. The laserlike focus with which historians have concentrated on the period 1955-65 has served as an historical blinder. By exaggerating the extent of the mass mobilization that took place during the 1960s, it slights the scope of popular involvement during the 1940s and early 1950s. By high-lighting the role of nonviolent direct action after 1955, it has neglected the importance of litigation and drawn too sharp a distinction between litigation and direct action. By placing Martin Luther King, Jr. at the center of the narrative, it has exaggerated the importance of the black church, placed too much emphasis upon “leadership,”and obscured the crucial importance of local activists. And by highlighting the three organizations most oriented towards direct action–SNCC, CORE, and SCLC–it has neglected the role of the NAACP.
The NAACP is, paradoxically, the most important but also the least studied of the civil rights organizations. Most histories of the movement give it short shrift, barely mentioning it after the Brown decision save for an occasional comment disparaging its effectiveness. The reasons for this scant treatment are not hard to fathom. The NAACP lacked a charismatic leader; Roy Wilkins, its executive secretary, was an uninspiring figure. The association also lacked a cadre of action-oriented young field-workers of the kind that gave SNCC its hard-hitting edge and appeal to youth. The NAACP was slow-moving and bureaucratic; local initiatives were too often stifled by committees, hierarchies, and procedural complexities.
The habit of ignoring the NAACP and highlighting the 1960s has been reinforced by the generation gap. Most SNCC workers, for example, were in their teens or early twenties; James Forman, executive secretary of SNCC at the age of thirty-three, was considered an old man. The generation of 1960 tended to be curtly dismissive of older NAACP activists. The words “Uncle Tom” came easily, and too often unthinkingly, to their lips. The CORE workers who fanned out across Louisiana between 1962 and 1965 knew little, and cared less, about the history of the civil rights struggle in the communities to which they were assigned. What had happened in 1956, let alone 1946, was ancient history.
To a great extent our own image of the civil rights movement continues to be shaped by the generation of 1960. The veterans of SNCC and CORE are still relatively young; they are often educated and articulate; many are now quite influential. It is noteworthy that while SNCC alumni, in particular, regularly speak at historical conventions, one rarely if ever encounters a veteran of the NAACP.
The result has been a kind of historical amnesia. In Louisiana (and I suspect that the same was true in South Carolina and several other states) the NAACP provided the backbone of the civil rights struggle. It furnished crucial continuity from the 1940s through the 1970s. By the time of Brown, the NAACP’s victories had already started to transform the South. In Louisiana, for example, black policemen had been hired, the salaries of black teachers equalized, state colleges integrated, and some 150,000 black people registered as voters. Lynching, at least in its most barbarous form, had been eliminated.
These were monumental achievements. And, as Mark Tushnet and Genna Rae McNeil have shown, they testified to the effectiveness of the NAACP Legal Defense
Fund, which, first under Charles Houston and then under Thurgood Marshall, used the federal courts as a lever for social change at a time when blacks had virtually no political influence. But the advances that black southerners made before Brown did not flow ineluctably from court decisions engineered by NAACP lawyers: they also took agitation, organization, and sheer guts on the part of ordinary people. Indeed, the bedrock strength of the NAACP lay in its local branches; as Ray Gavins has written of North Carolina, studies of the organization at the local level “present a less bureaucratic and more people-oriented NAACP.” This observation is equally applicable to Louisiana. In fact, as both Houston and Marshall recognized, legal strategy and grassroots activism were mutually dependent. An accurate history of the civil rights struggle must therefore recognize the differences between the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the NAACP (after 1939 they were distinct entities, and by 1957 the Legal Defense Fund had complete organizational independence) as well as analyze the complex relationship between the two.
To focus on the glamorous, direct-action phase of the black struggle, then, is to risk overlooking a rich and often continuous history of NAACP activity, not only in local communities but also, from about 1940 on, at the state level. Historians have long recognized the existence of local NAACP activists but have often accorded them significance only insofar as they linked up with CORE, SNCC, or SCLC, enabling those organizations to enter and organize communities. Thus we know about Rosa Parks and E. D. Nixon because of Martin Luther King; we know of Amzie Moore because of Bob Moses. As Julian Bond once put it, these older activists constituted the “prehistory” of the civil rights movement. But they were actually much more than that. Such people could be found throughout the South: men and women of great courage and integrity, whose struggles lasted a lifetime and provided the strong base, the bedrock, of the civil rights movement. They deserve more than footnotes; their stories rightly belong in the mainstream history of the movement.
A reassessment of the NAACP also illuminates the complexity of the social networks that sustained black activism. The NAACP derived its strength not only from the dedication of individuals but also from the fact that such people were part of the fabric of the community; black organizations and institutions provided the social context within which they could accumulate influence. Labor unions, Masonic organizations, insurance companies, newspapers, Catholic societies, and teachers’ associations provided the NAACP with important building blocks. The church was only one such unit. The history of the NAACP, in fact, brings into question the belief that the black church furnished the driving force behind the civil rights movement. The church emerged as a distinct force only when the NAACP came under state persecution in the late 1950s, and only in Alabama, where the organization was suppressed altogether, did ministerial leadership entirely supplant that of the NAACP. There were, to be sure, black ministers who became strong leaders, but such men were few and far between. In Louisiana, and perhaps in other states, the civil rights struggle seems to have been a largely secular affair. Ministers were often conspicuously absent from local movements; not only did they fail to provide leadership, often they refused to participate at all.
The fact that men usually monopolized the positions of formal leadership in the NAACP (and later in CORE) has obscured the importance of women. Andrew Young once noted that black women–respected matriarchs, businesswomen, teachers–often wielded more authority than allegedly influential male leaders. As Vicki Crawford has argued, through their churches, sororities, and other community organizations, women provided networks of support and information that nurtured and sustained civil rights efforts. Courageous individual women, moreover, often became “powerful catalysts” in the formation of local movements. When CORE workers first entered West Feliciana Parish, for example, two elderly women housed them when everyone else in the community feared associating with them. And although women rarely headed local NAACP branches, they often occupied the less prominent but equally important office of secretary. In Shreveport women, not ministers, formed the backbone of the branch’s voter registration drives. And generally women were often far more willing to attempt to register to vote than men were. Women also provided support for the NAACP through their activities in the teaching unions and the education associations. Indeed, women dominated the teaching profession, ac-counting for two-thirds of all black teachers. Black women also figure prominently in the biracial work of organizations like the Council on Interracial Cooperation and the Southern Regional Council.
Any interpretation that focuses on activists can be accused of exaggerating the extent and durability of black protest. The NAACP never had more than twelve thousand members in the entire state. Even at the height of 1960s militancy, the number of people who took part in demonstrations was tiny, the number who went to jail smaller still. Civil rights lawyer Lolis Elie thought the common image of the civil rights struggle as a “mass movement” a myth. Only a few hundred activists, he believed, underpinned black protest in Louisiana.
It would be facile to suggest that blacks in the South were continually resisting racial discrimination in overt ways. Before the 1940s, when lynching was a fact of everyday life and the edifice of white supremacy impregnable, to protest meant risking life and limb. Outside New Orleans, where city life afforded some degree of protection, only the very brave and the very foolhardy raised their voices or put their heads above the parapet. Accommodation — getting along with the white man — was an essential survival skill that parents drummed into their children at an early age. And as long as blacks accepted their place in the racial order, whites could be remarkably friendly.
One might justify an emphasis on black protest as a necessary corrective to the reluctance of whites in Louisiana to acknowledge its existence. Between the disfranchisement of blacks in 1898 and the New Orleans schools crisis of 1960, whites who wrote about the state and its history virtually ignored the black community. To read the files of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, for example, one would never realize that blacks constituted a third of the state’s population; they were hardly mentioned at all. A recent memoir by a prominent white politician failed to name a single black person, contained no reference to the black population, and neglected even to discuss race as an issue.
There is a more cogent reason for stressing protest rather than accommodation, however. Given leadership that inspired confidence and a perception that things could change, blacks repeatedly showed themselves ready to take assertive action against inequality and white supremacy. In the late 1930s they advanced their economic interests through collective action in the labor movement. During the Second World War they expressed their dissatisfaction with the racial order in a thousand different ways. During the 1950s and 1960s they sup-ported boycotts that often proved 99 percent effective. After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 they flocked to the registration offices and lined up outside the polling stations. To admit that black protest was sometimes fitful and that overt defiance was not always well supported is not to concede that the activists, either in the 1930s or the
1960s, were atypical.
Moreover, as Robin Kelley has argued, historians have often defined resistance and protest far too narrowly. Instead of confining their purview to membership in organizations and to formal political activity, they should recognize that blacks resisted white supremacy in a variety of informal, indirect, and individual ways. A black passenger might dispute a streetcar conductor but never dream of joining the NAACP. A black worker might subtly resist his or her white employer without ever belonging to a union. In the context of the rural South, even the most innocuous act–leading the Pittsburgh Courier, driving a flashy car, failing to yield the sidewalk–represented a subversion of white authority and an assertion of equality.
Organization, nevertheless, proved critical to black progress; if resistance is defined too broadly the concept loses its explanatory power. Organization, formal and informal, provided the vital transmission shaft transmuting individual feelings into the only kind of resistance–purposive and collective–that could force change. This study, then, focuses on the organizations, especially the NAACP and CORE, that advanced the struggle for equality most effectively.
I also analyze organizations that fell by the wayside without bequeathing a tradition of protest or a legacy of tangible change. To state that an organization failed is not to commit the pragmatic fallacy of dismissing its historical significance. It is vital, for example, to grasp the importance of the constellation of forces loosely known as the Old Left. The Communist Party and its satellite organizations, the Louisiana Farmers Union, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the Civil Rights Congress, the Young Progressives, helped to fertilize the growth of black militancy during the 1930s and 1940s and had a great indirect effect upon the struggle for equality. More-over, even if they failed in their goals, and failed even to survive, those failures had profound repercussions. It is impossible to understand the evolution of the civil rights struggle without examining how anticommunism, in all its various manifestations, affected black protest. An evaluation of anticommunism, moreover, might soften the sometimes harsh judgments that have been rendered on the anticommunism of the NAACP. During the McCarthy years survival became the name of the game; the NAACP survived.
Black resistance, therefore, cannot be properly understood divorced from its political context. Emulating the best of the existing community studies, I have at-tempted to overcome a major weakness of much civil rights historiography: the tendency to segregate history by race. Most histories have examined either white actions ora black actions; only rarely have the twain met. We need to marry the two perspectives. Racial change en-tailed a dialectic between black and white, and in studying this dialectic within particular communities we can discard the crude stereotypes that often reduce the history of the period to a simpleminded morality play. It is absurd to generalize about “whites” without differentiating–to name the most obvious categories–between political factions, business lobbies, trade unions, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Catholic Church.
I am well aware of the pitfalls and difficulties of local history. Although no longer the refuge of antiquarians that it once was, it still often suffers from narrowness of vision. It conveniently limits large subjects, but often dodges large questions. Historians face a constant tension between the need to generalize in order to make a welter of facts comprehensible and the need to convey a sense of history’s complexity. Local history tends to stress complexity at the expense of comprehension. In his humorous handbook One-Upmanship, Stephen Potter recommended a conversational ploy that he called “Yes, but not in the South.” It works in the following way: a listener interrupts a learned discourse on a particular country by interjecting, in a knowledgeable but slightly irritated tone, “Yes, but not in the South” (of Italy, France, India, England, the United States, and so on). Framed narrowly, a study of the civil rights movement in Louisiana might yield little more than a more refined version of this ploy: “Yes, but not in Louisiana,” or even, “Yes, but not in south Louisiana.”
Local history must be much more than a vehicle for “local color” or a handy geographical limitation: it should be a constructive analytical tool. Studying the civil rights movement within a particular state offers a fresh approach to the subject, one that avoids the tendency of community studies to fragment our knowledge but retains a sense of the movement’s diversity and local roots. One can explore how a state’s distinctive political culture affected the responses of local communities to black protest. The state also provides a canvas that is broad enough to contain materials for comparison. By contrasting black activism in rural areas, small towns, and large cities the historian can move from individual case studies to a broader synthesis, achieving breadth as well as depth.
I chose Louisiana because it is the most diverse and unique Southern state, with historic differences that provide an illuminating counterpoint to the rest of the South. Louisiana’s singular characteristics include its French-Spanish origins, its Creole and Cajun cultures, the influence of the Roman Catholic church, the special character of New Orleans, the peculiar ethnic mix of places like
Plaquemines Parish, and the political influence of Huey and Earl Long. This diversity invites fascinating comparisons between the Protestant north and the Catholic south, between the rural and urban areas, and between New Orleans and the more typically “Southern” cities of Baton Rouge and Shreveport.
A state study is also, of course, an exercise in comparative history. The history of the civil rights movement in each state departed from the Montgomery-to-Selma narrative. The picture that emerges from Louisiana is of a moderate, legalistic, incrementalist movement. There seems to have been less class tension than in Mississippi and less Black Power militancy than in, for example, North Carolina. The federal judiciary was, taking the state as a whole, more liberal than that of other Deep South states. Moreover, the tradition of bifactional politics bequeathed by Huey Long discouraged the rabid racism of those other states. The Catholic church and Latin tradition of race relations also gave the racial struggle in Louisiana its own flavor. As NAACP field secretary Harvey Britton put it, “There was always an underlying feeling in Louisiana of some kind of comradeship between black and whites…. We had worked out our own pace, and things were going to generally get better, but it was not on a national time schedule, it was on Louisiana’s time schedule.”
Yet the history of Louisiana, for all its peculiarities, also illustrates the force and centrality of race. On balance, Louisiana was more like other Southern states than unlike them; the white population resisted the civil rights movement with as much determination there as it did elsewhere. While throwing light on the nuances and peculiarities of one state, the Louisiana story is also, in important respects, typical of how the civil rights struggle unfolded in the South.
This essay is excerpted from the Preface of Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972 published this spring by the University of Georgia Press. Adam Fairclough holds the chair of modern American history at the University of Leeds. He is author of two other books published by the University of Georgia Press: Martin Luther King, Jr (1995) and To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1987).